Kosovo's agony pulls Macedonia to pieces

Albanian activists are looking to `brothers' in Kosovo for inspiration, says Steve Crawshaw in Gostivar
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The Independent Online
"THEY sent us a Christmas card in ten languages - English, German, French, everything, but not in Albanian. Can you expect me to be 100 per cent loyal to a state like that?" Shpendi Kaprolli, Albanian deputy mayor of the little western Macedonian town of Gostivar, is angry. As far as Mr Kaprolli is concerned, the Macedonian government in Skopje can go hang.

The wording on a municipal Christmas card is not usually a reason for refusing loyalty to a state. In the Balkans, however, language is an explosive issue. From Christmas cards to killing fields can be a small step.

Albanians want more language and national rights; Macedonians fear their own identity may be diluted beyond survival. Despite the best efforts of Greece to throttle the young country at birth, the state has achieved international recognition. President Kiro Gligorov, a respected 81-year- old conciliator, has been eager to ensure the peaceful co-existence should continue. With a 30 per cent Albanian minority, he can scarcely afford an uprising.

But the clock of violence is ticking. The mayor of Gostivar, Rufi Osmani, was last year given a 14-year jail sentence (reduced to seven years on appeal) for crimes including refusal to lower the Albanian flag over the town hall. Albanian demonstrations in support of Mr Osmani ended with three dead.

Now there is Kosovo, just 30 miles from Gostivar. The Albanian-majority province is simmering with violence, as the next war gets under way. Even if the war were confined to Kosovo it would be grim. But the chances of conflict remaining confined within Kosovo's borders seem slim. Mr Gligorov has offered Kosovo Albanians a "corridor" through Macedonia if they wish to flee from war with the Serbs. But in Gostivar, where Albanians are a huge majority, many seem determined to supply weapons to their brothers in Kosovo. The mountain road between Macedonia and Kosovo is the smugglers' favourite route.

Customs officials at the eerily quiet border crossing at Globocica say less than 10 vehicles a day pass through their checkpoint. The number of illegal crossings is reckoned to be much higher. Arben Xhaferi, leader of Macedonia's main Albanian party, is unapologetic about the prospect of supplying arms to Albanians in Kosovo. In his office in Tetovo, the main town in western Macedonia, he declares: "There are many ways of giving military help and the weapons exist." Mr Kaprolli agrees: "People have relatives in Kosovo. Naturally, they are ready to send weapons." In Tetovo and Gostivar, people seem ready to unleash whatever the furies may bring. "We're afraid, but war is war," says one man in the Gostivar market square. "Of course we'd help with weapons, we'd all go," says another.

If Kosovo breaks away from Yugoslavia, a plausible outcome when the killing is over, Macedonia's integrity will be called into question. Why should Albanians stay loyal to Skopje, when brother Albanians are breaking away from Belgrade?

The collapse of Macedonia now seems to be on the cards - and that would cause yet more Balkan firecrackers to explode. Albanians claim Skopje as an ancient Albanian city; Bulgarians say the Macedonian language and culture is the same as their own; Greeks believe that anything Macedonian is rightfully Greek.

There is currently a United Nations presence in Macedonia, and some Macedonians are reassured by the distinctive white jeeps. But there is an acknowledgement that the UN presence will be little more than window-dressing. In the words of one Macedonian woman in Gostivar: "Maybe it would be worse if the UN wasn't here. But what does it really mean? It's all just camouflage."