Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Part of the Balkans That Hasn't Exploded ; as National Politicians Negotiate a Peace on Paper, Town Mayors Are Working among the Neighbors

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Part of the Balkans That Hasn't Exploded ; as National Politicians Negotiate a Peace on Paper, Town Mayors Are Working among the Neighbors

Article excerpt

This bustling town in northern Macedonia could be a perfect petri dish for fermenting a culture of "ethnic cleansing."

The government has given arms to men of fighting age from the ethnic-Macedonian majority. Macedonians fear that ethnic Albanians - who make up a quarter of Kumanovo's population - harbor sympathies for the guerrillas battling government forces. For five months, tensions have mounted with every thump of artillery from the nearby hills.

Yet while politicians in Skopje negotiate a new political system to resolve the crisis, local leaders in Kumanovo and elsewhere are working hard to keep a lid on a potentially catastrophic situation.

The nervous residents of this town have not so much as broken one another's windows, and for this they credit ethnic-Macedonian Mayor Slobodan Kovacevski, who is working closely with Feriz Dervishi, an ethnic-Albanian friend and fellow city councilor.

On the street, on the phone, and on television, the two men carry a joint message to their respective communities, says Mr. Kovacevski. "Macedonians have to understand that they must not attack their neighbors, and Albanians must not think of every soldier and every policeman as their enemy."

It is not easy to make that message heard in a country teetering on the brink of civil war. Ethnic-Albanian guerrillas in the National Liberation Army (NLA) have been pushing back Army troops from Macedonia's northern border with Kosovo, fighting for greater rights for their minority community.

The ethnic-Albanian mayor of Tetovo - 50 miles west of here - has had similar success in his town, with its dominant Albanian population. "Everywhere I go, I appeal for calm and tolerance, so that we can look each other in the eye tomorrow," says Mayor Murtezan Ismaili. "Neither community has anywhere else to go."

Dispelling rumors

Mr. Kovacevski, once an executive in a leather factory, and Mr. Ismaili, a former chemistry professor, are vigorously doing the daily work of calming angry spirits. A large part of their job is squashing provocative rumors before they fan the flames of fear among mistrustful people who are often too ready to believe the worst of their neighbors.

Recently, Kovacevski says, he sent an assistant to investigate reports that armed ethnic Albanians were digging defensive positions on the outskirts of Kumanovo. The scout discovered a single unarmed man with a shovel, digging a well in his back yard. Kovacevski went on local television to explain the truth.

Likewise, he recalls, he recently summoned local ethnic Albanian shopkeepers who had shuttered their businesses after a mob in a southern Macedonian town had attacked Albanian stores.

He explained that ethnic Macedonians in Kumanovo believed they had closed up because they had advance word of a guerrilla attack, and convinced them to open their doors again. …

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