Tension rises over 'plot' by Albanians in Macedonia: The conflicts that have engulfed Croatia and Bosnia could spread to the unstable southern Balkans

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The Independent Online
THE arrest of eight ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia on suspicion of fomenting rebellion has underscored the danger that armed conflict will spread to the southern Balkans.

For the last two and a half years, the region has preserved a precarious peace while wars have ravaged Croatia and Bosnia to the north. However, it is a notoriously unstable area that retains the potential for violence among Albanians, Slav Macedonians, Serbs and possibly Bulgarians, Greeks and Turks.

Details of the alleged Albanian plot are disputed by the principal parties concerned. Macedonia's authorities say police arrested the Albanians earlier this month in the mainly Albanian-populated towns of Tetovo and Gostivar in western Macedonia. They allege that the group was armed and was planning a revolt aimed at turning western Macedonia into a self-proclaimed 'Republic of Ilirida' that would later merge with Albania.

Among those arrested was Hisen Haskaj, an ethnic Albanian who served in the Macedonian government as a deputy defence minister. Early reports suggested that another ethnic Albanian, Imer Imeri, a deputy health minister, was also arrested. However, his name did not appear on the official list of those detained.

Albania's authorities rejected the Macedonian charge that the alleged plotters had received support from Albania and activists from the ethnic Albanian majority in the Serbian-ruled province of Kosovo. Indeed, they said that the entire incident had been cooked up by Serbia's secret services with the intention of destabilising Macedonia and paving the way for the republic's annexation by Serbia.

For their part, the official Serbian media portrayed the affair as evidence that the greatest threat to Macedonia's stability came not from outsiders such as Serbs or Greeks but from 'aggressive Albanian separatists' within the republic. Belgrade television alleged that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Albania were supplying weapons to Albanians determined to fashion a Greater Albanian state out of Albania, Kosovo and western Macedonia.

Whether or not there was a plot, it is clear that relations between Macedonia and Albania have entered a tense period. In June, two months after Albania recognised Macedonia's independence, Macedonian troops shot dead an Albanian border guard in an incident whose origins are obscure.

In August, Macedonia tightened controls on its frontier with Serbia in order to comply with United Nations sanctions against the Serbian- led rump Yugoslavia. One side-effect, much resented by Albania, was that commercial and family contacts between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia were severely curtailed.

Macedonia also began to require passports from all citizens of rump Yugoslavia crossing its border. Kosovo's Albanians, who prefer to avoid all dealings with their Serbian masters, protested that this would force them to apply to Serbian officials for documents.

However, the chief problem remains the status of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. Their exact numbers are unknown because they boycotted the 1991 census, but they make up somewhere between 20 and 50 per cent of Macedonia's 2 million people.

Albanians still remember the discrimination they suffered under Macedonia's Communist rulers in the 1980s. Albanian-language education was restricted, teachers' training colleges were closed down and the authorities destroyed the traditional walls around Albanian houses used for curing tobacco.

The Albanians want changes to Macedonia's constitution, which treats them as an ethnic minority rather than a nation. They resent the citizenship law of October 1992, which requires 15 years of residence and therefore excludes Albanians who have arrived in recent years from Albania and Kosovo.

The Albanians also want legal equality for their language, which is written in Roman script as opposed to the Cyrillic of Macedonian. They believe that the depiction of Orthodox church buildings on Macedonian banknotes symbolises their relegation to second-class status behind the republic's Slav elite.

There are five ethnic Albanians in Macedonia's cabinet, but the community is under-represented in the armed forces, police, bureaucracy and state economic sector.

These points of friction show no sign of going away.

(Photograph omitted)