- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Split by bloodshed and distrust, Macedonia’s two ethnic groups share little except their country’s miseries: the struggle for survival on Europe’s periphery and the knowledge that things won’t get better anytime soon.

Strategic ports and forward locations are making some Balkan nations attractive to the West in its war on terrorism. That means investment and commitment from Brussels and Washington to pull them into the orbit of the United States and the European Union. Even Albania, southern Europe’s traditional black hole, is riding high on U.S. good will as Washington searches for post-Iraq allies in Europe.

But there is less focus on landlocked Macedonia 12 years after it split from Yugoslavia, and no fast fix for the 50 percent unemployment, ethnic tensions, turf wars and terrorist bombs that kill innocents regardless of ethnicity in this country the size of Vermont.

Even its name, with its proud associations to Alexander the Great, is contested. Greece says the real Macedonia lies within its borders. So Macedonia has to live with the cumbersome official name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The tough neighborhood doesn’t help. Next door is Kosovo, nominally part of Serbia but predominantly ethnic Albanian and pushing for independence after a 1999 rebellion that fed insurrection in Macedonia, too.

Macedonia’s 2 million people sorely need strong government, but the art of governing the Macedonian majority and a 23 percent ethnic Albanian minority is still being learned.

In a country that continues to be defined by centuries of Ottoman then Yugoslav rule, there’s a tendency to blame all problems — poverty, corruption, inefficiency — on someone else in a faraway capital. Now the target is the European Union in Brussels.

The European Union has tried to help with money and peacekeepers. Yet a senior diplomat in Skopje, the capital, speaks of a top official’s pop-eyed disbelief when told that the European Union sank nearly $160 million into reforms for Macedonia last year to fight crime and border instability.

Three years ago, ethnic Albanian rebels took up arms to fight for greater rights for their minority. Now a former rebel leader is in the ruling coalition, but distrust still splits the country.

If they have anything in common, it’s their yearning to “become a part of Europe.” But they know that’s a long way off.

Interior Minister Hari Kostov chuckled as he recalled a visit by Alexis Bruns, an EU representative, to a Macedonian school. Mr. Bruns assured him that the students would be citizens of an EU country by adulthood.

“I told him: ‘Gee, I’ll be long dead by then. Can’t you offer me a more encouraging perspective?’” Mr. Kostov said.

As he spoke, Mr. Kostov kept one eye on the scribbled Post-it notes piling up on his desk — details of a still-developing gangland shooting. “Better notes piling up than bodies,” he said.

Only later did he find out that five persons had been killed, among them a former rebel leader turned criminal.

Ismail Ibrahimi adds to Mr. Kostov’s headaches.

Parking his red Lada across the dirt road leading to the village of Tanusevci, northeast of Skopje, the gap-toothed 46-year-old warns that no one will pass until Tanusevci’s grievances are heard.

His complaint is the new checkpoint at the nearby border with Kosovo. He says there should be no border at all between his village and his ethnic kinsmen.

“The people say, ‘Better freedom then slavery,’” Mr. Ibrahimi muttered, and others around him nodded.

The government contends that its real concern is that a properly policed border will cut into smuggling and gun-running.

A Macedonian armored personnel carrier appears, kicking up dust. Then a jeep full of Swedish EU peacekeepers arrives.

The armored carrier speeds off. So do the Swedes, leaving Mr. Ibrahimi king of the road and still a thorn in the side of the government.

Back in Skopje, Biljana Nikolovska also has an ax to grind. She volunteered for the Lions, an elite antiterrorist unit formed to fight the ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2000 but is jobless because of cuts in the military — part of EU-mandated reforms.

“Three times I faced death,” said Miss Nikolovska, 31. “Now I’m fighting for a piece of bread.”

Still, there are those who hope for a better future.

Driven out of his home by ethnic Albanians in 2000, Ljubos Stojanovski has gone back to the village of Sipkovica west of Skopje to work his fields and patch the bullet-pocked family home.

“We’ve been here for 500 years, and we don’t plan to leave,” said the gaunt 55-year-old.

“There are no problems,” he said. “When I first came back, my Albanian neighbor said, ‘You lost your house, we lost ours — we will share together.’”

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