- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

SEMSEVO, Macedonia Spring in the Balkans doesn't just mean blooming poppies and outdoor cafes. It's also fighting season.
Throughout the winter, the government of Macedonia had been warning that once the weather got warm, ethnic Albanian rebels would resume last year's uprising, which claimed 300 lives and raised the specter of another Balkan bloodbath.
Thousands are afraid to go back to their homes in formerly ethnically mixed areas. Mistrust among ordinary people has hardened.
Police still haven't returned to this Albanian village in the mountains of western Macedonia, where thousands gathered last week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the war.
As two French NATO soldiers watched from a distance, the largely young crowd sang along to martial songs like Ilir Shaqiri's "March Returns," which commemorates the role of this month in Albanian war history.
One former rebel commander, known as Leka, told the crowd: "We didn't start the war because we wanted to. We did it because we had to correct the injustices of the last 10 years."
The question is, will they do it again? The Albanians say they have no reason to fight anymore. "The Albanians in Macedonia achieved their goal," Ali Ahmeti, the head of the former National Liberation Army, said in an interview in his mountain base in Sipkovica.
"I know the Ohrid agreement is not perfect, but what is realistic has been achieved. Now the remaining problems can be solved in parliament."
The Macedonian parliament, under heavy international pressure, recently passed a law giving amnesty to last year's fighters. The amnesty law was the final outstanding provision of the Ohrid agreement. Also under the agreement, more Albanians are being trained as police, and existing police officers are being trained to be more multiculturally sensitive. The country has a new constitution giving more rights to Albanians.
But there are reports of another, more radical army forming, called the Albanian National Army. At this point, the army is possibly nothing more than a few scattered cells and a fax machine. Mr. Ahmeti, who plans to become a politician, said he doesn't know anything about the ANA. "We've only heard about them on the Internet," he said. "If they're not satisfied with the war, then what specifically are they unsatisfied with?"
But, as one moderate senior government official said, "we can't ignore them because that's how the NLA started."
There is also the worry that, given the Albanian success on battlefields in Kosovo and Macedonia, some may be tempted to keep up the fight.
"We have to accept that a part of Albanian people saw the war as a salvation, that people who were nothing came to be something," said one Albanian politician who asked not to be identified. "There may not be a real war, with a front line, but there will be incidents and provocations, and it could become a real problem."
One former rebel at the Semsevo gathering who didn't want to identify himself despite the amnesty law, said, "We don't trust the Macedonians."
He gave up his Kalashnikov gun last year during a NATO-led disarmament and went back to law school. He waffles when asked whether he's ready to take up arms again. "Everyone [of the former fighters] has their own opinion. Some say they will, some won't."
"I'm a bit disappointed with the war. NATO said that if we handed over our weapons there wouldn't be any problems." But police harassment of Albanians has continued, he said, and "we'll definitely fight if we have American support."
That's not likely. The United States donated about a fifth of the $515 million pledged at a recent donors conference meant to help the struggling country implement the costly reforms required by last year's peace agreement.
The U.S. representative at the conference, William Taylor, said the pledge represented "continued faith in Macedonia's future as a stable, prosperous, multiethnic, market-oriented democracy."
But it's not only the Albanians who may think it worthwhile to take up the fight. Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski are hard-line nationalists, and the latter is the subject of an investigation by U.N. war-crimes prosecutors for a massacre of six civilians last year in the village of Ljuboten.
Their political lives depend on the existence of a threat from Albanians, which may explain the bizarre deaths this month of seven unidentified men at the hands of Macedonian police.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry says that the men were Pakistanis who were affiliated with both al Qaeda and the National Liberation Army, and that they were planning to blow up Western embassies in Skopje.
But the story is widely seen as implausible, and independent observers have not been able to see any of the evidence, so the speculation is that the government may have rigged the whole incident to try to pump up the sense of danger.
It can also distract from persistent claims about corruption in the Macedonian government. There have been consistent media reports about shady privatization deals, and both Albanians and Macedonians are frustrated with politicians who are widely believed to share the spoils of power.
"There was a corrupt coalition in power last year, and it's the same this year," said Ed Joseph, a Skopje-based analyst with the think tank International Crisis Group. "The people who fought the war were cut out, and their agenda was ignored. It's a recipe for extremism."


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