Macedonia: Church Enrages Albanians

Church tributes for controversial interior ministry unit prompts Albanian militants to threaten renewed violence.

Macedonia: Church Enrages Albanians

Church tributes for controversial interior ministry unit prompts Albanian militants to threaten renewed violence.

Fears are growing of renewed ethnic conflict in Macedonia after the prime minister stoked tensions by appearing at a controversial ceremony, where the church bestowed medals on suspected paramilitaries.

Ljupco Georgievski took part in a ceremony on January 9 at a police base north of Skopje, where the Macedonian Orthodox Church leader presented medallions of Christ to the special police forces.

"Macedonia is a holy country but also a country of heroes. Prepare to protect Macedonia," said Archbishop Stefan, who shares Georgievski's nationalist convictions.

Among those receiving medallions were members of the interior ministry's rapid reaction unit, known as the Lions, whom many international observers and some Macedonians see as paramilitaries.

The Lions' commander, Goran Trajkov, was promoted at the ceremony to the rank of major general, in spite of the fact that he was sacked as personal bodyguard of President Boris Trajkovski for misconduct in last year's pre-election campaign.

The Albanian National Army, ANA, a secretive successor organisation to the now disbanded National Liberation Army, NLA, responded to the church ceremony by threatening a renewal of hostilities.

"The blessing of paramilitary units by the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church and the buying of new arms from Ukraine, Russia and Croatia forced us to respond," the ANA communiqué said.

The group warned of a "possible offensive" against the "the repressive Slav Macedonian apparatus against the Albanians". Little is known about the leadership or strength of the organisation.

The ceremony undermined attempts by moderate groups to ease ethnic tension. At Aracinovo, a village 10 km east of Skopje, which saw heavy fighting between the security forces and Albanian rebels last year, activists from the NGO Centre for Inter-ethnic Tolerance have been encouraging reconciliation among young Macedonians and Albanians.

"We assemble young people from Aracinovo and urge them to tell each other directly, face to face, what they think and feel," said Dusko Minovski, a coordinator of the centre, describing their programme in the village, which most Macedonians abandoned last year

Mayor Reshat Ferati, an Albanian, backs the move. "Cohabitation between the two ethnic groups will exist even though some claim it is impossible," he said.

Albanian political leaders and some Macedonian opposition parties condemned the presentation of medals to police.

"This is another step towards the division of state organs on a religious and national basis," said Naser Ziberi, of the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, one of two largest Albanian parties in parliament.

Fatmir Etemi, of the Democratic Party of Albanians, said if priests could bless Christian policemen, Islamic clergy had an equal right to bless Muslim policemen.

The opposition Social Democrats were also critical. Georgi Spasov, the party secretary-general, accused Georgievski and the interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, another hardliner, of subverting international obligations to build a multi-ethnic society.

Meto Jovanovski, of the human rights watchdog the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, said it was unclear whether the Lions were even a legal body. "It is obviously in opposition to the spirit of the Ohrid Agreement," he said, referring to last August's internationally-brokered peace deal, aimed at ending the ethnic conflict.

Jovanovski claimed Boskovski's pledge to supply the group with heavy weaponry revealed its paramilitary character.

Georgievski may have taken part in the presentation ceremony out of a conviction that a fresh wave of fighting is inevitable. Speaking on state television just before New Year, he said, "The renewal of the conflict is possible after the snow melts."

Such statements do nothing to help the country's moderate president in his efforts to consolidate the peace plan. The terms involve a reformed, ethnically-mixed police force gaining control over rebel-held areas, the disarmament of militants and changes in the constitution to satisfy the Albanian minority.

None of these changes are yet complete, which is why the prime minister's actions risk undermining the whole business of re-establishing trust in Macedonia's ethnically-mixed communities.

Vladimir Jovanovski is a journalist at the Skopje magazine Forum.

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