A Bridge Across the Vardar

Two old colleagues bridge Macedonia's ethnic divide to engage in a frank dialogue, and find that peace is possible - just.

A Bridge Across the Vardar

Two old colleagues bridge Macedonia's ethnic divide to engage in a frank dialogue, and find that peace is possible - just.

Friday, 21 September, 2001

Kim Mehmeti is my Balkan brother from Grcec, a village near Skopje.

A rough hewn but deeply attractive character, he is a noted Albanian novelist distinguished for writing also in the Macedonian language.

Long-time head of the Skopje-based Centre for Multi-cultural Understanding, he is irrepressibly proud of his own ethnic background, and is a founder of Lobi, the leading independent Albanian-language weekly in Macedonia. In countless public fora over many years, I have seen him silence nationalist squabbling with heartfelt expositions on the importance of peaceful coexistence.

Branko Geroski is a friend and respected colleague from Skopje, who has a weekend house - only five kilometres from Kim's. Bespectacled and bearded, of medium height and speaking with a slight lisp, he carries none of the bombast and machismo so common in the region.

But for half a decade he has dominated public debate here through the pages of Dnevnik, the leading independent Macedonian-language daily he edits. He first came to the fore internationally when he was badly beaten by police for covering an Albanian demonstration over education rights, in Tetovo in the mid-1990s.

Before launching his paper, he spent several months with IWPR in London on an exchange programme, and subsequently he served on the board of Kim's dialogue organisation. Over the years, I met them together often at various functions.

This year the dialogue, and essentially the friendship, stopped. As conflict in the hills of Tetovo erupted between Albanian rebels and the Macedonian security forces, tensions spiraled. The separation between the communities - with vastly different languages, cultures, histories and allegiances - has always seemed near complete anyway, as if they live not in the same country but in entirely different worlds. If common civil society even among the open-minded intelligentsia collapsed, the country itself was seriously at risk.

And so it happened. Increasing conflict in the field was matched by heightened nationalist rhetoric in both the Macedonian- and Albanian-language media. The streets became edgy, and for the first time in many years visiting, I heard people speak of the Vardar river, cutting through the capital, as a dividing line between the predominantly ethnic Albanian old town and the ethnic Macedonian central district.

Anyone with experience in the Balkans knows that such talk is the precursor to ethnic cleansing. Ethnic Albanian men referred openly to their support for the rebels, while ethnic Macedonians looked eastward, to Russia and Ukraine, for arms.

One late night, mistaking a document pouch for a holster, an ethnic Macedonian policeman pulled a gun on Kim as he and I exited a night-club. "Better I kill you than you kill me," said the officer, encapsulating perfectly the suicidal path on which the country seemed headed. Soon after, Kim stopped crossing the Vardar bridge, sticking to the Albanian side if he came into town at all.

Feeling taunted by ethnic Macedonians calling on him repeatedly to renounce "Albanian terrorists", Kim - the multi-lingual novelist - snapped and published an open letter demanding that all his ethnic Macedonian colleagues from now on address him through a translator. If they refused to learn his language (members of majority populations rarely learn the languages of minorities), he would refuse to speak theirs. Not long after, he resigned from his job, and spent most of his time in his village. "There is no multi-cultural understanding," he said.

Branko, meantime, headed in the opposite direction, arguing forcefully that ethnic Albanian grievances were vastly overstated and that the country could never negotiate with the rebels. To the consternation of many international donor agencies and others who had supported his efforts to establish an independent liberal daily, his newspaper veered ever more closely towards the official positions of the ethnic Macedonian parties.

In the closing moments of the Ohrid negotiations, just when peace appeared possible, the man beaten for reporting on Albanian rights called openly for a military solution. "There is nothing more to talk about or to negotiate," his paper editorialised. "We urge Commander-in-Chief [President] Boris Trajkovski to put on a camouflage uniform and show himself to his soldiers in Tetovo."

In the closing phase of NATO's Operation Essential Harvest to disarm the rebels, underlying fears remain. Branko organised a demonstration with several other media organisations in which a farm combine engaged in a mock "harvest" of toy guns in front of the parliament, parodying what they believe is a sham disarmament process.

Macedonians worry that NATO will never leave and, in serving as an effective protectorate, will legitimise rebel gains, thus forging a de facto partition of the country. They are concerned by reports of radical Albanian splinter guerrilla groups which might re-start fighting whatever the terms of the peace accord.

For their part, ethnic Albanians are convinced that should NATO leave, ethnic Macedonians will immediately launch a fresh military offensive against weakened guerrilla units. They are concerned by reports of ethnic Macedonian paramilitary groups, and suspect the Ohrid reforms will never be implemented.

Thus in the first crisp days of a Balkan autumn, the abyss still beckons. But there are glimmers of hope, too. Rebels continue to hand over weapons as required by the terms of the peace agreement. And ethnic Macedonian parties appear ready to accept the proposal by the Western powers to extend the presence of some kind of NATO-led stabilisation force. Trajkovski has sent the NATO secretary general, George Robertson, a letter officially requesting the alliance's military presence in Macedonia.

Young people of all ethnic groups say they have no interest in the conflict. Talk increasingly focuses on who will win the elections, rather than the war. Crucially, whether fighting ends or breaks out again, a breathing space appears to have opened for Macedonian citizens of all communities to take stock.

So I asked my two friends, Branko and Kim, to sit together, and discuss their differences. This was the first time since the conflict that they engaged in dialogue, the first time in many months that old colleagues with such a shared background actually sat down and talked.

It was all too stiff for a meeting of friends, with no pleasantries, preliminaries - or even a drink. We set basic ground rules, started the tape and began immediately. Sitting in his spartan office decorated only with framed anniversary front pages of Dnevnik, Branko spoke in a restrained and formal manner, though insisting always on his right of rebuttal. Kim, more expressive, smoked and gesticulated, his eyes glinting alternately with humour and real anger.

In a sometimes heated conversation, they clung firmly to their basic positions. Branko referred to the rebel's launching the war as a "great sin". Kim called the failure of ethnic Macedonian officials and state institutions to represent all citizens "barbarous". The gap remains wide.

But the talk was more than "parallel monologues", as predicted by one senior Skopje editor well acquainted with both. There were moments where detailed exchange offered the possibility for fresh understanding.

Branko argued that ethnic Albanians started the war against the country, and that this could not be tolerated. He insisted that in a few more years, substantial additional Albanian rights would have been granted. He insisted that he called for a military solution only in response to attacks by ethnic Albanians after the Ohrid accord had been signed. The editorial was published August 9, the accords were initialled the same day, and signed August 13.

Kim acknowledged that ethnic Albanians launched the violence, but argued that they were attacking not the country but the institutions of state - which would never have otherwise reformed. In an emotional exchange, he said that ethnic Macedonian government officials even now speak only about the number of their community's casualties, not those of ethnic Albanians - proof, he said, that they would never represent the population as a whole.

And on crucial fundamentals, there was surprising agreement. Throughout, Kim - speaking in Macedonian - echoed Branko in referring to the country as tatkovina, the fatherland. Both insisted that the core of their respective communities had no interest in war, and that economic development benefiting all citizens was the best guarantor of peace and stability. Both fully accepted the details of the Ohrid accords.

What emerged most forcefully was the need for something difficult but also, perhaps, within grasp - mutual respect, or what Branko called "general human sincerity". Both see the terms of the peace agreement itself as offering a crucial measure of confidence - for the first time, ethnic Macedonians agreeing substantial reforms, and ethnic Albanians confirming their support for the state constitution.

If the will is in question, at least the mechanism is there for each community to satisfy the other's fundamental demand. The stakes, they both feel, could not be higher: fresh war and the collapse of the state remain very possible, if not likely. But peace, also, is possible.

The discussion ended in a bit of a rush with a handshake - both said they have things to do.

No second conversation, alas, was agreed, but Branko said he would look forward to it. And Kim emphasised that he was optimistic the two communities would never turn on each other - before disappearing quickly, back over the bridge.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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