Macedonia In The Middle

While the West prepares for air strikes, people in Macedonia fear that Yugoslavia will attack it in revenge for serving as a NATO base.

Macedonia In The Middle

While the West prepares for air strikes, people in Macedonia fear that Yugoslavia will attack it in revenge for serving as a NATO base.

Wednesday, 24 March, 1999

Following the signing of the Kosovo agreement by the Albanian delegation in Paris, Macedonia has never seemed more of a partner with the international community, yet its position has also never seemed more delicate or dangerous.

As the major staging point for troops, it is supporting the international community in the efforts to pressure Slobodan Milosevic to make a deal. But it is also aware that Serbia could decide to take revenge on Macedonia for its cooperation with NATO.

Among the population, the prospect that the Yugoslav Army might launch missiles against Macedonia has already caused panic. For several days, people rushed to stock up on petrol, food and other supplies. The impression of an impending crisis has only been intensified as the white vehicles of the UN have been increasingly joined by olive green NATO vehicles roaming the territory and then, suddenly, the orange jeeps of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, when its monitors withdrew from Kosovo in a huge convoy. Macedonia feels as if it is part of the crisis zone.

Much attention has focused on the Serbian forces deployed heavily along the southern route leading from Pristina to Skopje, including air-defence systems and 10,000 soldiers. It seems that the Serbs are, at a minimum, seeking to convey to NATO that entry into Kosovo along this route will not be easy. At a maximum, some analysts have suggested that Serbia is seeking to bluff, if not directly to threaten, Macedonia itself, thereby bringing an entirely new set of complications into the military and political equation. In either event, people in Macedonia feel that they are directly at risk of a Yugoslav attack.

Incidents at the Yugoslav border have also been increasing. Yugoslav Army troops have entered Macedonian territory at the Goshnica watchtower and stayed there for several hours. After strong protest by the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Yugoslav ambassador to Macedonia, Zoran Janackovic, denied the incursion and simply rejected the Macedonian protest.

Anxiety is also increasing about the possible flows of refugees from Kosovo. Dnevnik, the independent daily, has claimed that Macedonia and NATO are preparing for the country to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees, from 300,000 up to a half million people. This would seem exaggerated, as it would represent up to a third or more of the Kosovo Albanian population, and Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov has dismissed the report.

According to official Macedonian government statements, the number of refugees it is prepared to receive is 20,000. Figures from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as of March 22, stand at 8,960 Kosovo refugees in Macedonia, with approximately 300-400 arriving per day.

Ivan Narashanov, general secretary of the Macedonian Red Cross, reports a slightly higher total figure of 10,040, while Behizudin Shahapi, general secretary of the El Hilal humanitarian organization reports an updated total of 12,980. So far these arrivals, mostly women, children and the elderly from the border zones, have been settled in private houses, but Shahapi says, given the pace of arrivals, it is likely that refugee camps will have to be opened soon. But whatever the actual numbers and projections, the Dnevnik report certainly reflects the extreme concern about refugees in Macedonia, and the fear of the possible destabilising impact they could have on the country, especially in shifting the ethnic composition.

Resolving one question for the moment, the UN Security Council has found a formulation by which the mandate of the UN Preventive Deployment will be prolonged for a further six months. The problem is the veto of the extension by China, because of Skopje's recent recognition of Taiwan. Under this alternative solution, Macedonian Foreign Minister Dimitrov explained, "the forces [will remain in Macedonia] under NATO leadership but in close correlation with the Security Council." But the issue of the continued deployment of blue helmets in Macedonia, which seemed so vital for so long, has now been overtaken but larger worries about bigger military forces.

Iso Rusi is a journalist in Skopje with Focus.

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