Macedonia's Open and Shut Border

Skopje is growing increasingly frustrated over international policing of its border with Kosovo

Macedonia's Open and Shut Border

Skopje is growing increasingly frustrated over international policing of its border with Kosovo

Thursday, 9 August, 2001

These are long, hot and quiet days for the UN policemen and Polish NATO soldiers checking passports and vehicles at Blace on the frontier between Kosovo and Macedonia.

Most of their time is spent dealing with people from Macedonia wanting to cross into Kosovo. There is little traffic going the other way.

On July 24, the day US President George Bush visited American soldiers in Kosovo, Macedonian authorities closed all border crossings with UN-administered Kosovo.

No explanation was given, but the order came against a backdrop of Skopje's growing frustration with the peace proposals offered by international mediators, aimed at ending the six-month old conflict between government security forces and National Liberation Army, NLA, guerrillas.

The Macedonian authorities have continuously criticised the Kosovo-based NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, for failing to effectively police the border from the Kosovo side.

Since the first clashes in February this year, the Macedonian authorities have claimed that most of the guerrillas fighting in Macedonia are in fact Kosovo Albanians and not Macedonian Albanians, and that they receive support and weapons from Kosovo.

Initially, the border was also closed to all international agencies active in Kosovo, including UN staff. This was a repeat of events in March, when the frontier was shut after clashes around the border village of Tanusevci, the scene of the opening shots of the current conflict.

The border closure is as much an attempt to pressure the international community as to curb NLA infiltration. The former is seen as trying to impose an unfair solution on the Macedonians and aiding the NLA. "NATO is not an enemy of Macedonia, but it's a big friend of our enemies," said government spokesman Antonio Milososki.

Macedonian anger at Western diplomats has risen significantly recently, with rioters targeting embassies and businesses in Skopje.

But some in Skopje feared closing the border to KFOR troops would seriously antagonise European and American officials. "Western sources say that this act of the Macedonian authorities will further contribute to the worsening of relations between Skopje and the international community," wrote Dnevnik, an independent Macedonian language daily.

As a result, KFOR officials were free to cross the frontier, but officials from UNMIK - the United Nations Mission in Kosovo - were not. "We have denounced it every time its happened," said Sunil Narula, an UNMIK press officer, who was refused permission to return to Kosovo from Macedonia.

UN staff and other international workers frequently travel to and from Macedonia. They take shopping trips to Skopje, visit the resorts of Ohrid and Mavrovo and fly out of the region from Skopje airport.

Although the border has been opened for internationals since August 2, Kosovo inhabitants, most of them ethnic Albanians, still cannot cross into Macedonia.

The border closure has hit Kosovo traders hard. Since the end of the war in Kosovo two years ago Macedonia has been a lifeline. Poor relations with Serbia, Albania's decrepit infrastructure and Montenegro's meandering mountainous roads make the transport of goods arduous.

For Kosovo taxi drivers such as Ismajl Curri, from the border town of Hani i Elezit, it is a long and almost hopeless wait for customers heading into Kosovo from Macedonia. "Now I have to wait here all day for someone to come to hire me," he said.

Lundrim Aliu is a journalist with the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore.

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