Albanians at crossroads in new republic: Watch Tetovo, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for any widening Balkan conflict, writes Hugh Pope

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a bloodless coup in the mist-shrouded town of Tetovo, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom), that captured the headquarters and seals of office of the country's main ethnic Albanian party. Hardly a major threat, it seemed, to the security of the Balkans.

But if violence in former Yugoslavia does shift from Bosnia to the tense ethnically Albanian Serbian province of Kosovo, the actions of Albanians in the Fyrom will be a key to whether the fighting spreads. The radical faction that seized control in Tetovo last month will clearly not take any threat to their kinsmen, just over the border in Kosovo, lying down. Even moderates believe the risks are great.

'War in Kosovo probably means war in Macedonia, even a Balkan war,' said Servet Arviu, a minister of state from the Albanian minority. Any such conflict would test the Fyrom's ethnic balances and the fragile Slav-Albanian coalition government.

Strains have already risen since Mr Arviu's moderate faction was ousted by more nationalist radicals during a February congress of the ethnic Albanians' Party for Democratic Prosperity.

The results of the congress are still contested, but Albanian Muslims are now at a crossroads critical for the future stability of this country, where they have a very different language, script, religion and culture from the Orthodox Christian Slav majority.

Shazim Mehmeti, a hard-faced ideologue from the radical faction, tried to calm any worries. 'There won't be a big change. But we will insist that our parliamentary group does not serve as mere decoration,' he said. He added his gratitude for the goodwill of Albania proper, emerging from decades of isolation just over the mountains to the west and beginning to make its psychological weight felt.

The people of the Fyrom are also trying to stay calm. 'Albania is trying to strengthen the idea of one Albania and has links to the radical elements. It could be dangerous, but it's unlikely.

Albania will be the big issue in 10 to 15 years' time, if current demographic trends continue. Right now they can do nothing. They have no foreign support,' said a commentator, Saso Ordanovski.

If left alone, the Fyrom still seems far from the brink of any ethnic bloodbath. The government has tried hard to keep the nationalist genie in the bottle. The Turkish ambassador, for instance, said that ethnic Turks in the Fyrom were the best-treated in the Balkans.

Enlightened policies by the 65 per cent majority Fyrom Slavs and President Kiro Gligorov have helped. Albanians have five of 22 ministries in the coalition government and 23 seats in the 120-seat parliament, most of them intellectuals from the moderate Albanian party faction. The Albanians are being promised a bigger share in government and investment in Tetovo and other Albanian-populated areas of the western Fyrom.

The Defence Minister, Vladi Popovski, said the ethnic Albanian percentage of new conscripts had gone up from 14 to 26 per cent in the past year, and that their share of the officer corps had doubled to 3.9 per cent. He did not believe that there were any more large armed Albanian networks like one uncovered last November.

Nobody is sure of the exact proportion of ethnic Albanians among the Fyrom's 2.2 million people. Officially they make up 21 per cent of the population, but Albanians claim up to 40 per cent.

'We managed to maintain peace in Macedonia. The people in power know what peace means and the price of peace, and the international community has also shown far more prior concern for Macedonia (than Bosnia),' Mr Arviu said, although his face was drawn with worry about the long-festering political split among the once united ethnic Albanians.

Another problem is the troubled economy. The Fyrom has just embarked on an IMF stabilisation programme and is subject to a total blockade of its main trade route by Greece.

Ethnic Albanians wanting schools and other benefits are being told to be patient and that any favouritism could provoke Fyrom Slav nationalists, who have been a declining force since 1991. That could change. 'Albanians are the biggest real problem of Macedonia. They smuggle, they are unemployed, they want work, schools, autonomous areas. They have large families. Illegal immigrants come from Albania and Albanian bandits attack our villages,' said the young manager of a clothes shop in the capital, Skopje. 'They want a state within a state. It started out like that in Bosnia. Everyone is very pessimistic.'