Fighting Breaks Out In Macedonia

Waiters are taking on drunken NATO troops, and Macedonian and Albanian youth are having it out on the streets. The question is whether anyone will try to exploit these incidents for political advantage.

Fighting Breaks Out In Macedonia

Waiters are taking on drunken NATO troops, and Macedonian and Albanian youth are having it out on the streets. The question is whether anyone will try to exploit these incidents for political advantage.

Thursday, 18 March, 1999

An ordinary cafe fight a week ago illustrates the out-of-the-ordinary political developments under way these days in Macedonia. But other scrapes between Macedonian and Albanian youths seems even more worrying.

In early March, in the elite Dva Elena ("Two Deer") restaurant in Skopje, a group of 19 British soldiers in the NATO advance teams arriving for Kosovo had a fun evening and a lot of drinks, and were then soundly beaten by five waiters. Two of the Brits even ended up in hospital.

With such a large and highly-trained group of Western soldiers being thrashed by a few local waiters, the incident provoked some good laughs, but also political comment too. Most notably, Vojislav Seselj, vice-president of the Serbian government and leader of the Serbian Radical Party, sent a congratulatory letter to the owner of the restaurant, famous local pop star Saso Kainovski-Panki of the duo Kuku Lele ("Ouch! Woe is me!"). The altercation, Seselj declared, was a "real guarantee for Macedonian-Serbian friendship" because the "British occupier" had been taught a lesson by the Macedonian waiters.

Of course, it would take more than a bar brawl to stir a fresh South Slavic alliance. Only recently, Seselj himself threatened Macedonia for accepting NATO troops. Via the port at Salonica and the airport in Skopje, NATO troops and their weapons awaiting potential deployment in Kosovo are being assembled in Macedonia. Including both the "extraction force" for the staff of the Kosovo Verification Mission now and the so-called "enabling force" in preparation of a potential Kosovo Stabilisation Force (KFOR), there are more than 10,000 NATO troops in Macedonia now, with more arriving every daily. British, French and Germans are leading the way.

Not everyone in Macedonia is happy with the new arrivals. Two weeks ago in Kumanovo, a town close to the border with Serbia, members of the Communist Party and the Democratic Party of Serbs demonstrated against NATO and its impending mission in Kosovo. The roughly one thousand demonstrators threatened to throw out the members of NATO with their bare hands. A second demonstration was held in Skopje. At a recent press conference, Dragisa Miletic, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbs, announced new demonstrations, saying that the NATO mission "is proof that fascism is not dead. . . . Today it is led by Adolph Clinton."

If a scrap in a cafe, and the subsequent reaction, seemed linked with broader political developments, so are other fights which have been taking place in Macedonia. In the past three weeks, 11 fights have taken place between young Macedonians and Albanians--mostly high school students. In most cases, one side has been much larger than other, but out of all the incidents, both sides have taken pretty good beatings. The battles started on February 22 when a group of young Macedonians, after a small incident at the nearby bus stop, attacked Albanian students at the Skopje high school Zef Lush Marku. Then a large group of Albanians practically kidnapped a city bus, bit up and even stabbed with a knife several Macedonian high school students. Then similar encounters took place in Skopje, Tetovo, Kumanovo . . .

The opposition and some of the media have seized on these mass fights of youths to as proof of the incompetence of the new government. The new administration is a coalition including the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), the Democratic Alternative (DA) and the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA). As an administration including two parties previously understood to be opposing nationalists, the government insists it has taken important early steps to improve interethnic relations. It may be that opponents of the government wish to disrupt this new stability.

The fights between the young Macedonians and Albanians are unusual in many ways--most important, because they are clearly along ethnic lines. This is the first instance of such open hostility and violence between the two largest populations in the country. Despite many years of tensions, and growing nationalism and populism, there has been no real ethnic-based violence throughout the past decade. When many areas in former Yugoslavia were enduring ethnic separation, there were no Macedonian-Albanian fights in Macedonia. Nor were fights provoked after a long series of violent incidents between police and Albanians, from Bit Pazar in November 1992 to Gostivar and following events in July 1997.

The recent fights are especially notable because of the general feeling that, after the constitution of the VMRO-DPA coalition government, ethnic tensions dramatically decreased. Some observers believed that the coming together in government of two previously sworn enemies meant that radical ethnic politics had definitively disappeared, and the new government won many points from international diplomats for the relaxation of interethnic tensions.

According to the Macedonian Helsinki Committee of Human Rights, recent events suggest that the widespread perception of interethnic harmony may have been little more than good PR for international consumption.

In an interview on Macedonian TV, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski of VMRO insisted that the fights themselves are in fact an effort by unspecified opponents of the government to spoil the improved interethnic relations and disrupt the coalition. He argued that the conflicts among the youths is a provocation to create a Kosovo-style conflict in Macedonia--and the impression that wherever there are Albanians, there are problems.

The Ministry of the Interior, which has brought criminal charges against about 20 participants in the fights, said it had evidence that some participants had been incited by political forces wishing to take advantage of the Kosovo crisis to destabilise the country. Other sources spread rumours that the opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia had been directly involved, and that the Yugoslav secret police may also have had a hand. Another theory holds that the provocateurs are actually VRMO members unhappy with the alliance with Albanians.

Whatever the case, it seems that, according to some, the worse interethnic tensions are, the better politically their position becomes. In another example, the government expressed its readiness to accept 20,000 refugees from Kosovo, half the number it received at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Kosovo refugees have been registered with the status of "persons taken care of for humanitarian reasons," and not refugees, which requires imposes a greater responsibility on the state. Officially there are 9,000 Kosovo refugees in Macedonia; humanitarian agencies put the number as high as 13,000. They are mainly being put up with families, most of them Albanian, in the western part of the country.

The opposition and the Macedonian-language media have responded by accusing the government of changing the country's ethnic composition. There has been fresh discussion of President Kiro Gligorov's idea from last autumn of creating a corridor through which to transfer the refugees to Albania. Meantime, the proposal of the international High Commissioner for National Minorities, Max Van der Stoel, to open a private university to address the problem of Albanian-language higher education has been criticised. Where before the elections, the idea attracted little controversy, now the opposition is calling for a wider public consent on the issue, such as a referendum.

The police are now guarding schools, search for the inciters of the fights, and trying to establish their motives. The fights are an exception to everyday events throughout the decade, and a rational explanation for them cannot be found. But the suspicion hangs in the air that somebody needs them. For now, there is no answer as to who is responsible. But any efforts score political points by raising interethnic tensions would be very damaging for Macedonia. Better to leave the fighting to late night bar brawls.

Iso Rusi is a journalist in Skopje with Focus.

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