Macedonia's Tightrope

With violence on the streets and across the border, Skopje sees twin dangers in huge numbers of refugees and a strong anti-NATO backlash.

Macedonia's Tightrope

With violence on the streets and across the border, Skopje sees twin dangers in huge numbers of refugees and a strong anti-NATO backlash.

After three days of rioting by local Serbs on the streets of Skopje, the Macedonian parliament met in emergency session over the weekend amid rumours that a contingent of Zeljko ("Arkan") Razmatovic's Tigers, the notorious Serb para-militaries, were coming to destabilise the country.

Though the riots may have given the impression that Macedonia sympathised with the Serbian position in Kosovo and was hostile to the on-going air offensive, the Macedonian government has been quick to reassure the West that NATO troops are welcome in the country. Fearful that the conflict in Kosovo may spill over into Macedonia, Skopje continues to walk a political tight-rope carefully juggling seemingly irreconcilable interests.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski warned that the two greatest dangers for Macedonia at the moment are the possible arrival of thousands of refugees and the creation of anti-NATO atmosphere in the country.

Although the Democratic Party of Serbs, the political party of Macedonia's ethnic Serbs, claimed that the riots were spontaneous, the organised manner in which demonstrators arrived from Kumanovo, Tetovo and Gostivar suggest that they were staged. As a result, Skopje has criticised Yugoslavia's meddling in its affairs saying that it "was unacceptable that a foreign country was encouraging demonstrations and violence in another".

While support for Serbia among ethnic Macedonians may have been exaggerated, the demonstrations in Skopje and Kumanovo have not been isolated incidents. Truck drivers from the town of Negotino, angry that they were unable to work because of the bombing, handed in a petition of protest to NATO. And over the weekend professional footballers held up placards at the beginning of matches with the words "Stop the bombing so that we can play in peace".

In an emergency session, the Macedonian parliament concluded that the crisis represents a serious danger for Macedonia as well as the entire region and reaffirmed that Macedonian territory would not be used as a staging post to attack any of its neighbours. The parliament also welcomed a written guarantee from NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana in which he promised to protect Macedonia in the event that fighting should spill over from Kosovo. That said, the Commander of the NATO forces in Macedonia, British Gen. Mike Jackson, has been more equivocal, saying that the defence of Macedonia is a matter for Macedonia's Ministry of Defence, and not the NATO troops stationed on its territory. The Macedonian media have, nevertheless, chosen to portray NATO troops as the second line of defence on Macedonia's northern border.

To date some 22,000 Kosovo Albanians have sought refuge in Macedonia, most of whom have been taken in by their ethnic kin. This is already 2,000 more than the Macedonian government said it was prepared to admit before the influx began. By comparison, Macedonia took in some 50,000 refugees during the Bosnian war, most of whom were accommodated in public buildings.

Macedonia temporarily closed three border crossings with Yugoslavia on Wednesday 24 March, the day on which the NATO offensive began, turning back several hundred Kosovo refugees. The border crossings were reopened at about 5 PM., around the time NATO launched its first attacks against Serbia. This followed concerted pressure by foreign diplomats as well as the Democratic Party of Albanians, the ethnic Albanian political party which forms part of the coalition government.

In the panic at the beginning of NATO's offensive, many Macedonians rushed to stock up on essentials, thus creating queues at petrol stations and emptying the shops of basic necessities. Private bureaux de change stopped selling foreign currency. However, the panic only lasted a few days and things are now more or less back to normal.

With war being waged just 10 miles away from Skopje, the situation is tense. Many Macedonians have relatives and friends over the border whom they cannot contact because the telephone lines have been cut. They hear reports of villages being burned down, of massacres, arrests and the executions of prominent Albanians. But they lack reliable information about what is really taking place.

Iso Rusi is a journalist with Fokus in Skopje.

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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