Skopje's United Front Holds

The influx of Kosovo refugees has caused ethnic tensions to rise. But for now, Macedonia's ethnically mixed government is maintaining a united front.

Skopje's United Front Holds

The influx of Kosovo refugees has caused ethnic tensions to rise. But for now, Macedonia's ethnically mixed government is maintaining a united front.

Ask an ethnic Macedonian what he thinks of the refugees from Kosovo and the answer is likely to be that he sympathises with the plight of these people, but that they shouldn't stay because in a few years time, ethnic Macedonians will become a minority in their own country.

Ask an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia the same question and he will probably say that his ethnic kin from Kosovo should be allowed to stay in Macedonia and that they should be helped in every possible way.

These attitudes are mirrored in Macedonia's coalition government where power is shared between one ethnic Albanian party, Arben Xaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and two ethnic Macedonian parties, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE)and Vasil Tupurkovski's Democratic Alternative (DA). Ljubco Georgievski, the leader of the dominant VMRO-DPMNE, holds the post of prime minister.

All politicians, irrespective of their ethnic origins, are torn between the necessity to declare publicly their support for NATO and the European Union and the political desire to satisfy the wishes of the ethnic community they represent.

The slow response of the Macedonian authorities to the influx of refugees is said to be a consequence of disagreement within the government about how to deal with the situation. The ethnic Macedonian part of the coalition government wanted to dispatch the refugees to western Europe, while the ethnic Albanian part maintained that the refugees should stay in Macedonia.

Xaferi's position was supported by Tirana, which supports the idea that Albanians should stay in areas which are predominantly ethnic Albanian. Unofficially, the DPA threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition if this demand had been refused.

Initially, the Macedonian authorities had hoped to limit the number of Albanian refugees entering Macedonia to 20,000 and to have them all put up privately by their ethnic kin. But as numbers swelled above 100,000 in the wake of the NATO bombing campaign, this was no longer realistic.

In the absence of preparations for so great an influx, conditions for refugees deteriorated alarmingly. At the Blace border crossing, some 80,000 Kosovo refugees were obliged to wait 10 days crammed in a muddy field, without drinking water and food. The threat of disease was real.

Stung by international criticism of Macedonia's treatment of the Kosovo refugees, Georgievski turned the tables and accused EU member states of failing to respond adequately to the crisis. His stance has been supported by the ethnic Albanian ministers in the government, refuting speculation that they are ready to leave the ruling coalition.

But if neither the DPA nor VMRO-DPMNE wish to leave the government--feeling that they can continue to balance their positions vis-a-vis their respective electorates--there is speculation that they are both reconsidering the alliance with Tupurkovski's party.

Though both the DPA and VMRO-DPMNE are viewed as nationalistic, they seem willing for now to make compromises in the interest of maintaining stability in Macedonia. The speculation is that there has been a compromise agreed over the refugees, namely that some stay in Macedonia, while others go abroad.

Officially, therefore, the Macedonian government has maintained a united front. Nevertheless, the refugee question is likely to remain a potential point of conflict, likely to be exploited when battling over other issues in the government.

Gordana Icevska is a journalist with the Skopje daily Dnevnik.

Macedonia, Kosovo
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