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Macedonia Braces for Trouble

June 19, 1998

ON THE MACEDONIA-YUGOSLAV BORDER (AP) _ For now, the attacks on ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province haven’t spilled over the border into the nation of Macedonia.

But the Kosovo fighting is kindling fear and bravado among Macedonia’s 550,000 ethnic Albanians, a quarter of the total population.

``We are afraid,″ says Vahid Azizi, a 28-year-old ethnic Albanian. ``If the situation comes to arming villagers, we’ll do it. We have nowhere to run.″

Locals say the rising death toll in Kosovo could turn mistrust between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians into bloodshed as well. Macedonians have the same ethnic roots as Serbs.

More than 300 people have died in Kosovo since late February in the campaign by Yugoslavia’s Serb-led security forces against ethnic Albanian militants. Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991.

In Macedonia’s west, which is 75 percent Albanian, lookout towers for a 750-member U.N. force dot the border and the Macedonian military watches for tension. American soldiers make up nearly half the U.N. force.

Western diplomats describe a worst-case scenario as a flood of refugees from Kosovo swelling Macedonia’s Albanian population and moving residents to violence. So far, only a few Kosovars, mostly visiting relatives, have arrived.

Although more than 30 percent of Albanians are unemployed, many Macedonians say they have scores of relatives in the West who finance the expensive mosques and parks that distinguish Albanian towns. Border police accuse the ethnic Albanians of using these international contacts for smuggling.

Albanians settled Macedonia’s west in waves of immigration that started a century ago and peaked in the 1980s.

They are prohibited from legal university studies in the Albanian language and complain of police harassment. Many don’t have citizenship due to complex Macedonian law that requires at least 15 years of waiting and bureaucracy.

Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, with five of the 19 state ministers and ten of the 120 members of parliament, are likely the best represented in the Balkans.

But Alajdin Demiri, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Tetovo, whose 200,000 inhabitants form the unofficial capital of Albanian Macedonia, say the fight for rights is uphill.

``The Macedonians have the majority, and they can vote whatever they want,″ he said.

Albanian rights are expected to take the fore in October parliamentary elections. Parties that oppose greater Albanian rights could increase their hold on parliament.

``If the political option for greater rights is not accepted, we will have to eliminate it,″ said Demiri. ``The groups who come after us would be really radical.″

Demiri will leave local politics Wednesday when he begins a two-year prison sentence. Amid loud local protest, courts recently convicted him of refusing to display the Macedonian flag beside the Albanian flag outside his office.

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