Macedonia: From War to Talks ; after More Than 48 Hours of Calm, Ethnic Albanians and Macedonian Slavs Began Talks Yesterday

Article excerpt

For the people of this ethnically mixed village in western Macedonia, the crisis has passed, at least for now.

Artillery no longer booms from Army positions down the valley. The "crisis committee" formed by Slav and ethnic-Albanian villagers has ended its 24-hour vigil. Farmers are back in their fields.

The new Balkan war some feared might engulf Macedonia has not come. But as the threat of war recedes, the hopes and fears of people here now fasten on this week's talks between ethnic- Albanian and Macedonian-Slav leaders, who face greater pressure than ever to come to a political accommodation that has eluded them for the past 10 years.

"This situation is not good for anyone," says Vladimir Serafimovski, a Macedonian Slav in Tearce. "They're afraid, we're afraid. We don't know what is going to happen next."

At stake in Macedonia is not only peace in the south Balkans, but the survival of the most multiethnic state in the region. Ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia a decade ago, Macedonia was held up as a rare example of ethnic tolerance. More than half of Macedonia's 2 million people are Slavs; a third are Albanian.

But the threat of violence has by no means passed. After its successful offensive around Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, the Army shelled the hills north of the capital, Skopje, last week, driving the rebels back into Kosovo. Macedonian officials say the rebels used Kosovo as a staging ground, and that they are most likely regrouping there now.

"It's entirely possible that from time to time we'll have to go through with this all over again," says one Western diplomat about the recent fighting.

But for the moment, attention has shifted to the political front. Macedonia's government yesterday launched urgent talks with leaders of the country's ethnic-Albanian minority. European Union security chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson were expected to travel to Skopje for the talks, and to push for a negotiated settlement between the parties. "It's going to be very hard," says a senior Western diplomat. "But the political leadership is committed to do this peacefully. As long as you have that, you have to have hope."

The rebels won the sympathy of ordinary ethnic Albanians, but not enough real support to continue. Yet ethnic-Albanian leaders are warning that Albanian patience is limited.

"One of the good things that came out of this conflict was that we didn't have a lot of victims," says Teuta Arifi, a professor of Albanian literature at the University of Cyril and Methodius in Skopje. "That's a sign that people don't like violence here. But if the tension remains, we can expect difficult times in the future."

On the agenda for the talks will likely be a change in Macedonia's Constitution to make ethnic Albanians and other minorities equal to Macedonian Slavs. Other grievances will take longer to address. These include: demands for greater authority for local governments, more ethnic Albanians in the police force and other government positions, and state-sponsored university education in the Albanian language. …