New 'Tigers' menace Macedonia

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The Independent Online

A new slogan has appeared in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. It is simply a name, "Naroden Front za Makedonia", or People's Front of Macedonia. At first sight, this is just another piece of nostalgia for the days of Communist certainty, but in reality it stands for something far more sinister.

A new slogan has appeared in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. It is simply a name, "Naroden Front za Makedonia", or People's Front of Macedonia. At first sight, this is just another piece of nostalgia for the days of Communist certainty, but in reality it stands for something far more sinister.

The People's Front is barely two weeks old and consists of no more than half-a-dozen Macedonian gangsters, said a senior government source. But they are well connected, both within the Macedonian government - he named a deputy minister who was helping to organise them - and to extremists in Serbia. "This is incredibly dangerous," said the source. "It is like the start of Arkan's Tigers. Indeed, most of these people used to work with him."

Anyone who remembers the career of Arkan - real name Zeljko Raznatovic - would agree there is cause to fear for Macedonia's future. The racketeer and terrorist who was murdered in Belgrade last year, probably by agents of his erstwhile ally Slobodan Milosevic, made a speciality in the early Nineties of fanning the embers of communal hatred into all-consuming flame. His Tigers would arrive in Croatian and Bosnian villages and start the killing, emboldening local Serb extremists to follow suit, and terrorising everyone else into compliance. All-out war became the only option.

The formation of the People's Front adds another ingredient to a volatile brew in Macedonia. Since Albanian rebels seized mountain villages overlooking Macedonia's unofficial Albanian capital, Tetovo, more than a month ago, the danger of war has gone in and out of focus. When the army was pouring fire into the hills and the insurgents were dropping mortar bombs into Tetovo a week or so ago, disaster appeared imminent.

The government, however, has held back from a threatened offensive which could have cost many civilian lives, even though yesterday the bursts of firing between Tetovo and the heights above were the heaviest for several days. Policemen have been killed or wounded in sneak attacks but fighting has not shifted down into the lowlands where most of Macedonia's two million people live.

Yet every day there are signs of the kind of hardening of attitudes and rising ethnic fear, which a handful of people on either side - the NLA or the People's Front - could ignite into armed conflict. On Friday, at the funeral of two Albanians shot at a checkpoint the previous day, mourners refused to accept the evidence of television footage that they had tried to hurl grenades. It was a mobile telephone, some said. If they had grenades, said others, it was necessary self-protection against a national police and army which attacked Albanians indiscriminately.

"This war is a kind of revenge for what Macedonians have been doing to Albanians for years," said Shaban Dzelandini, 71, a veteran activist in Tetovo who had twice been jailed for "Albanian nationalism". But despite years of discrimination and occasional mistreatment, Albanians in Macedonia have never suffered the kind of oppression meted out by the Serbs in Kosovo. Since 1997, there have been Albanian politicians in the governing coalition, pressing (unsuccessfully) for Albanian to be made an official language, and for an Albanian university.

Surely such demands are not worth starting a war over? No Albanian of whom I asked this question would give a clear yes or no, but all insisted their community had to be given its rights, leaving unspoken the implication that the alternative was war. Pero Bojcevski, 35, among the few Macedonians living in Tetovo, said: "I think they already have too many rights. Whatever they asked for, they got. It's not right that they now take up arms." Later, he added: "Albanians have a tendency to take up arms and be aggressive." And in Skopje a young Slavic internet café manager said: "If they want a fight, we'll give them one."

Both sides appear to be talking themselves into a conflict which to everyone else looks pointless. There is a sinkingly familiar feeling to many of the assertions and complaints. Macedonians always claim that Albanians are only a quarter of the population; Albanians say they are at least a third, possibly almost half. Each side is convinced that the other is getting more than its fair share of jobs, tarred roads, school and university places.

One Macedonian said of the Albanians: "They can drive Mercedes, while we have nothing but a Fica," - the local equivalent of a Reliant Robin. It would be comical, if it had not been demonstrated elsewhere that such myths can lead to murder and ethnic cleansing. The rest of the Balkans also show that if enough people accept that war is inevitable, it becomes so.

President Boris Trajkovski was in Stockholm on Friday, promising European Union leaders that he would use no more than appropriate force against the insurgents and would take action on Albanian grievances. But the senior source in his own government says it is "completely incapable" of solving the crisis. "The government doesn't know how to solve this," said the source. "It doesn't have the authority to deal with the problems, and it doesn't know what to do next."

Clearly, the Albanian politicians in the coalition have lost credibility in the eyes of their own people, and probably could not mediate with the rebels even if the government was willing to let them try.

Although most Albanians were not openly on the side of the rebels, said the source, the government had no strategy to halt the drift towards them.

"The time is past for a political solution," he said. "So it's war. But the military offensive has been delayed because we are not capable of it - and the Albanians know it. We have about 12,000 uniformed police and army, and they cannot deal with 300 or 400 rebels. Potentially, the NLA could recruit and arm 4,000 to 5,000 fighters in Macedonia. That's a lot."

Despite all the lessons of the past decade in the Balkans, the people of Macedonia could be sleep-walking towards disaster. The international community, which thought the region had at last reached equilibrium with the fall of Mr Milosevic, does not seem to have got beyond the feeling that this wasn't supposed to happen.

But it is happening, and the graffiti on the walls of Skopje may be signalling the start of something very ugly.