Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia Fears

Macedonians are racked with fears over terrorism, organised crime and a new conflict in Serbia.
By Zeljko Bajic

A recent report that a CNN crew had arrived in Skopje and other foreign media were reserving rooms in the city's hotel was enough to spread panic amongst Macedonians.

The fact that the story in a mass circulation paper later proved to be completely untrue did little to reassure the public.

Macedonia is awash with anxieties. People are worried about a new wave of Albanian refugees from southern Serbia, an upsurge in terrorist attacks against police stations and the growth of organised crime.

Memories of the NATO bombing campaign last March, when Macedonia was flooded by 300,000 Albanian refugees, are still fresh in people's minds.

They fear the simmering conflict in the predominately Albanian municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja in the south of Serbia, is following a similar pattern to the opening shots of the Kosovo war.

The media last week reported the arrival of the first convoy of 200 refugees from the new trouble-spot - an apparently affluent group of Albanians who crossed the border legally to escort their women and children to safety.

The Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski, is clearly expecting that they are the first of many. He is said to be considering the creation of a refugee corridor enabling displaced Albanians to pass through southern Serbia across to Macedonia then back into camps in Kosovo.

The authorities in Skopje and other international agencies have however sought to play down fears of a new flood of refugees. But people suspect they are not being told the truth and panic has begun to set in, with reports that Skopje residents are stocking up on food.

"We have been through this already last spring", said a taxi driver in the capital. "They are trying to persuade us that nothing is happening, but the people feel that something is up."

The media is rife with speculation that Macedonia may be drawn into the new Serbian conflict. European army units have already passed through the republic to reinforce KFOR units in Kosovo, fueling Macedonian fears that their country will be used as a staging post for NATO intervention in southern Serbia.

The Defence Ministry has meanwhile raised the combat readiness of the army and announced plans for joint border patrols with KFOR in order to cope with increasing arms and drugs smuggling and infiltration of organised crime gangs from Kosovo.

The clamp down along the border coincides with an upsurge in terrorist attacks against the security forces. Last Wednesday, March 8, a police station in Tetovo was shelled - the third such bomb attack against the security forces this year.

There is widespread belief that the terror is closely linked to the activities of the Albanian mafia. The recent arrest of criminals involved in the smuggling of drugs and weapons and money laundering tends to support the view.

But curiously none of those arrested ever seem to be brought to trial, prompting some to suggest that corrupt politicians are protecting criminals. "Both the current and former government promised to fight crime, but they've achieved nothing, " said one Skopje pensioner, reflecting the feelings of the majority of the population.

Some believe that at least some of the trouble in western Macedonia is the work of Kosovo Liberation Army, UCK, sympathisers, with the weekly newspaper, Start, claiming that their ultimate goal is the separation of western Macedonia and its annexation to an independent Kosovo.

Last spring, the then interior minister, Pavle Trajanov, said the UCK were active in the region. In 1997 and 1998 the rebel group claimed responsibility for a bombing campaign against police stations, courts and railways in a number of cities.

The possibility that groups similar to the UCK may emerge in western Macedonia, where 90 per cent of population is ethnic Albanian, cannot be ruled out. Police believe large quantities of weapons recently seized there were destined for Albanian militants in southern Serbia.

The troubles in western Macedonia come amid sensitive talks on changes to the country's constitution. Albanians, who claim to make up almost 40 per cent of the population, are demanding that they be recognised as a constituent nation.

Ethnic Macedonian political parties are concerned such a reform would lead to the federalisation of the country - the first step, they argue, towards its dismemberment.

Zeljko Bajic is a corespondent from Skopje for the Slovenian daily Vecer.