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Despite Peace, Ethnic Hatred Still Splits Macedonia

Balkans: Western diplomacy ended war, but the division within the country is more entrenched than ever.

April 04, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TETOVO, Macedonia — At first glance, this small Balkan city seems completely recovered from last summer's combat that emptied its broad boulevards and brought police checkpoints to placid neighborhoods.

Just a little more than a year after the first shots were fired here, shoppers throng the streets, the fruit stands brim with produce and the cafes are full again.

But a pall remains beneath the busyness, reinforcing for the West the lesson that seems to have recurred with each recent Balkan war: Diplomacy and intervention can stop the fighting but cannot heal the ethnic hatreds that fissure this region.

These divisions are even more entrenched now than they were a year ago. A recent visit to this northwestern city where ethnic Macedonians and Albanians lived side by side before the conflict suggests the depth of the schism afflicting the country.

Albanian flags, symbols of the ethnic Albanian guerrillas, still hang from houses in the city's Albanian-dominated areas, a reminder of the residents' sense of a separate identity. Ethnic Macedonian high school students who used to sit in classes next to Albanians now take their lessons a mile away at a primary school.

"How can we live anymore with Albanians here? We hate each other," said Irina Nestoroska, 18, an ethnic Macedonian. "They did everything to us; we didn't want this."

Not surprisingly, ethnic Albanians blame the Macedonians, especially citing abuse by the police. "We have no trust in the Macedonians, and we won't trust them for a very long time," said Veli Pajaziti, 40, president of an Albanian neighborhood.

Macedonia, the southernmost republic of the former Yugoslav federation, has about 2 million people. At least 25% are ethnic Albanians, concentrated here in the northwestern part of the country. Unlike other Balkan nations that broke away from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Macedonia split peacefully and, until last year, had avoided almost altogether the ethnic violence that racked the region.

After a vicious and bloody war, nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina split into an area controlled jointly by ethnic Croats and Muslims and another controlled by Bosnian Serbs. Even in towns where Croats and Muslims nominally live together, they tend to divide into different neighborhoods. In Kosovo, a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, ethnic animosities led in 1999 to warfare, U.N. control and the virtual segregation of Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

Observers see the same pattern here.

"Macedonia will be split into cantons--it's really happened already, just like Kosovo and Bosnia," said Slavko Mangovski, an ethnic Macedonian and editor of the weekly magazine Macedonian Sun. "People are resigned to it."

Kim Mehmeti, an influential ethnic Albanian writer, agreed.

"The process of division has already started in Macedonia," he said. "This year, Macedonia writes a double history, and the people to blame are the political elite."

Mehmeti and others say that undercutting any rapprochement is a growing distrust of government. That is fueled by a steady stream of information suggesting that political parties--both ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian--are corrupt and interested only in their own gain.

Government 'Like a Protection Racket'

"We're not talking about ordinary corruption--that the money that is supposed to be used to build houses is going to finance a villa. We're talking about a government that functions like a racket," said Edward P. Joseph, director of the International Crisis Group's Macedonia office. "Every opportunity is used to shake down citizens for whatever they need--a license, a permit. It's like a protection racket."

ICG, a Brussels-based nonprofit organization, lobbied hard but with few results to get Western countries to put strings on nearly $270 million dollars recently pledged to help Macedonia recover from the damage of last year's fighting. An additional $237 million was pledged in general economic aid.

Most worrisome for the West: The Balkans is a major transit point for smuggling guns and illegal immigrants, many of whom come from the Arab world. Although the vast majority of refugees are almost certainly escaping bad economic conditions, it is impossible to determine whether their ranks also include some who have terrorist connections.

It is not a small matter to stop fighting in the Balkans, and Western diplomats are proud that seven months of skirmishes, which ended in September, did not explode into a cycle of war in Macedonia. There remains the larger question, however, of whether such efforts can do more than delay the fracturing of the region into ever tinier countries, each with a single ethnic identity. Most policymakers agree that such an outcome is neither economically viable nor diplomatically desirable.

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