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Macedonia: Gangsters Exploit Ethnic Tensions

Albanian criminals take advantage of simmering unrest to evade justice.
By Ana Petruseva

Violent protests by ethnic Albanians in Macedonia following the police shooting of a wanted criminal last week highlighted the extent to which inter-communal distrust is impeding law and order, especially in former conflict areas.


On June 12, police surrounded wanted criminal Nexhbedin Demiri as he was about to get into his car in Cento, a predominantly Albanian neighbourhood of the capital Skopje. Demiri, 25, who is of Albanian origin, had an outstanding sentence of two and a half years to serve for robbery and violence. He is also wanted for armed assaults on a policeman and a detective.


Police shot him dead when he pulled out a gun and pointed it at one of them.


The interior ministry later said that the police had acted legally because their lives were in danger. International organisations in Skopje were generally supportive of this view. “At the moment it looks like it was self-defence, but we should await the results of the official investigation,” said a representative of one international body, who asked not to be identified.


The killing triggered a fierce reaction in Demiri’s home village of Aracinovo, a mainly Albanian village only 13 kilometres from Skopje, which was the scene of heavy fighting during the five-month conflict between insurgents and Macedonian security forces in 2001.


The same day that Demiri was shot, the village’s police station was taken over by a crowd of civilians armed with automatic weapons, who took a dozen policemen hostage for a few hours, protesting about the killing and demanding that the dead man’s body be turned over to them.


Local media reported that at least six Macedonian police officers were beaten up. Police and OSCE representatives who were on the scene during the incident were reluctant to confirm this had happened.


“It is true the policemen were held for few hours. However, we can not confirm they were beaten,” police spokesman Voislav Zafirovski told IWPR.


“For the OSCE, the incident in Aracinovo is a purely criminal act. We encourage the Macedonian police to arrest the attackers and troublemakers, and bring them to justice," said OSCE spokesman Wolfgang Graven.


At least four reporters on the scene, including a crew from state-run television, were attacked and injured in the rampage, and two were later hospitalised with shock and injuries.


“They put a gun to my head but they didn’t beat me. My cameraman was not so lucky, they beat and kicked him. They also broke the camera,” said Ivona Talevska, a journalist with Sitel TV.


Journalist Vanja Stevkovska from state TV went to Aracinovo after mayor Resat Ferati told her by phone that it was safe to report from the village. When her team arrived there, villagers grabbed her by the hair and pulled her out of the car. Her cameramen and driver were badly beaten.


Soldiers from the European rapid-reaction force in Macedonia, EUFOR, witnessed the attacks. But journalists said they did not intervene. A EUFOR statement said soldiers had stopped to rescue a reporter in one incident.


Macedonia’s Association of Journalists, political parties and international organisations unanimously condemned the attacks on journalists.


Because the situation was so tense, no extra police were sent to the scene. Instead, Albanian officials are said to have negotiated with the armed group in order to defuse the situation. Deputy interior minister Fatmir Dehari, who represents the Albanian party in the coalition government, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, was also involved.


According to the police, the situation calmed down after they were able to explain to locals that Demiri died in a legitimate, properly conducted police action.


It is not the first time that police arrests have been followed by protests by Albanians. The recent detention of a man suspected of planting a mine that killed two NATO soldiers and two Macedonians resulted in threats by former rebels that they would go to war unless he was released.


Some analysts say the latest incident highlights the problem of law enforcement and the Albanian community’s lingering mistrust of the authorities. Criminals exploit ethnic tensions to evade justice, and portray their problems with the police as political. Police find it hard to patrol the Albanian areas, which saw the worst of the fighting in 2001, because they are treated as unwelcome outsiders even when they send in teams of mixed ethnicity.


“We should not forget that the Albanian community is pretty closed, and that within the community there is a false sense of solidarity,” said Gjuner Ismail, director of the Forum magazine.


“But no one should believe that Albanian criminals are any better than the Macedonian ones and therefore deserve to be protected.”


He added that was up to Albanian politicians to tackle the issue.


Law enforcement - or the lack of it - in predominantly Albanian districts is a key issue for the DUI, many of whose members were on the rebel side in the 2001 conflict. As the Albanian component in a governing coalition elected in September last year, the party bears a special responsibility both for ensuring stability in former conflict areas and for fulfilling Albanians’ expectations of improvement in their status. For the moment, DUI officials are downplaying the extent of the problem, saying criminals are not in a position to create significant trouble.


“We view this as only minor attempts to destabilise the situation, but we will not allow tensions to escalate. We are not in a dilemma about fighting crime and dealing with these criminals,” DUI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti told IWPR.


“Macedonia will be safe only when we put an end to the criminal gangs,” said Igor Ivanovski, spokesman for DUI’s social democrat coalition partners. “Fighting these gangs is in the interest not only of the local population but also of everyone in Macedonia.”


Diplomats, too, remain confident that criminals cannot count on wide-scale popular support. Nicolaas Biegman, NATO’s ambassador in Skopje, insisted that these incidents were purely criminal in nature and had nothing to do with ethnic problems.


“None of these criminals enjoys support from the local population,” Biegman told A1 television on June 14.


“Sometimes the population might be upset with the way police conducts arrests, but they do not sympathise with the criminals, even if they wear black clothes so as to look like freedom fighters.


“These are criminals, and nobody likes them.”


Ana Petruseva is IWPR's coordinating editor in Skopje.