Friday, June 06, 2008

Albanian rivalries now main worry for Macedonia

The bullet-scarred walls of this village outside the Macedonian capital are a reminder of how close the former Yugoslav republic came to full-scale ethnic war in 2001.

Twin white minarets rise from its unfinished mosque and a large illuminated cross stands on the mountain overlooking nearby Skopje, where Christian Macedonians and Muslim Albanians co-exist.

Aracinovo, however, is an all-Albanian community and a shootout in which one man was killed over voting irregularities during a parliamentary election on Sunday had nothing to do with ethnic hostility.

Seven years after NATO and the European Union engineered the withdrawal of separatist guerrillas from Aracinovo, witnesses say the shooting was more to do with the internecine violence that permeates Albanian politics.

For while the 2001 conflict pitted ethnic Macedonians against ethnic Albanians, this latest violence involves Macedonia's two rival Albanian parties, which are separated by a gulf of enmity and distrust.

On Sunday, a man with a Kalashnikov told voters at one Aracinovo polling station to go home, because it was already closed. That was just after the station opened, and his men were inside stuffing the ballot box, say Albanian party sources.

Police named him as Agim Krasniqi, a guerrilla turned crime lord with his own fiefdom in the hills to the north.

Such violence and divisions among Albanians are a problem for Macedonian conservative leader Nikola Gruevksi, who won a convincing majority in the election and needs to restore his country's image to keep it on a path to the EU and NATO.


This year has been difficult for Macedonia. The Albanians of neighbouring Kosovo declared an independent state, and Macedonia was denied the stabilising effect of an invitation to join NATO due to a dispute with Greece over its name.

Western powers are anxious. They managed to persuade Macedonians and Albanians in 2001 to pursue prosperity as citizens of a stable, multi-ethnic state anchored to the West, in the chronically turbulent Balkans.

In that year, Macedonia's Social Democrats and the party of former guerrilla leader Ali Ahmeti signed the Ohrid Agreement extending greater rights to the country's 25 percent Albanian minority. They made a coalition pact. Peace was restored.

Five years later, Ahmeti's party again garnered the lion's share of Albanian votes in a parliamentary election but Macedonia's victorious conservatives surprisingly turned to his smaller rival, led by Mendhuh Thaci, to form the new coalition.

Sunday's violence, involving a figure reputedly close to Thaci, showed Thaci was not fit for government, said an Ahmeti spokesman. Thaci says Ahmeti's 2001 'war' was only about grabbing power, not Albanian rights.

"Thaci almost produced the bloodbath he had promised, with the help of the Interior Ministry and Alpha Units," the Ahmeti spokesman said, referring to an elite police unit involved in the shooting.

But Ahmeti's party had once again beaten Thaci's, he said, and it would renew its claim to a place in the next government as the strongest representative of the national minority.

Prime Minister Gruevski's efforts to keep Macedonia on the path to EU and NATO membership could depend on securing the support of an Albanian partner who can guarantee peace.

But either Thaci or Ahmeti seem destined to end up in opposition and, with weapons in plentiful supply, the loser may see instability as offering greater political potential than loyalty.

As the upsurge of fighting in 2001 showed, the fastest way to provoke it is to attack the Macedonian police.

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