«You ask whether we really want to join NATO? We sure do.» «Why?» «Because otherwise we are vulnerable to darker forces.» «What darker forces?» «Forces who will slither in and exploit the opportunity…» «Can you express yourself more clearly?» «You know how it is! Whenever a vacuum begins to appear in one’s sense of identity, there are dark forces that take advantage of the situation. Take you for example, the Greeks, and the name issue. You have given in and seem to be accepting a composite name with a geographical qualifier, while…» «While what? Do you disagree for example with something such as ‘Gorna (Upper) Macedonia’ that Greece half-proposed?» «We sure do. ‘Macedonia’ shouldn’t figure in the name at all.» That was last Friday. We sat at a coffee shop outside the Democratic Albanian Party’s headquarters in the central square of Tetovo discussing local politics in Schwyzer Deutsch, that vulgar paraphrased German used by some Swiss. The middle-aged Albanians («Note we are Albanians! – repeat Albanians! Not Macedonians!!») I spoke to were holders of a «Macedonian» passport and have been working in Winterthur, Switzerland for two decades. «No, we are against a composite name. Why not ‘Illirida’?» Illirida, or Illyrida, is the unofficial name for the western part of FYROM with a sizeable Albanian population. The Albanians in FYROM are variously estimated to make up between 23-28 percent of the population. «You know, here more than any place else in the Balkans people need a sense of shared identity. Where can they get it from? Only soccer could provide some solution, and I am not joking.» Another person interrupted: «It is clear that the Macedonian-Slavs are never going to agree to any Albanian-sounding name.» «Exactly !» said the other. «So let’s find some third name without ‘Macedonian’ or ‘Illiridian’ in it. That would be best.» I was wondering whether our politicians and diplomats – arguably not the best in the world – ever considered any options with their Albanian allies in the neighborhood. At the beginning of last week, the key Albanian partner in the ruling center-right coalition, led by VMRO-DPMNE, confirmed its decision to resign from the government in Skopje. The DPA wanted guarantees from Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski for the quick completion of six key issues, including the immediate closure of cases against former ethnic Albanian guerrillas that fought FYROM security forces during a brief conflict in 2001. The party also insisted on state pensions for former ethnic Albanian guerrillas (who others see as terrorists), on making Albanian an official language across the country and on the wider integration of ethnic Albanians into public office. The Albanians also demanded further concessions on the use of the Albanian flag in municipalities where they form a large proportion of the population, and urged swift recognition of neighboring Kosovo’s independence. However, everything started much earlier. On August 13, 2001, to be exact, when the leaders of the biggest FYROM parties signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement which ended the clashes between the regular FYROM forces and the Albanian rebels who are now demanding pensions. With the Ohrid Framework Agreement some seven years ago, the government of FYROM pledged to improve the rights of the Albanians that make up 25.3 percent of the population. «However,» said my Albanian interlocutor, «the Slav-dominated government in Skopje did not put into practice all the promised improvements, such as the active participation of ethnic Albanians in government institutions, and failed to apply the new model of decentralization. Even though at the time we had agreed to give up any separatist demands, as well as to fully recognize all local institutions and to disarm and hand over our weapons to a NATO force.» «You just mentioned the issue of separatist demands,» I ventured. «So my next question here can only be about a notorious ‘Greater Albania.’ The term, as you well know, refers to land outside the borders of modern-day Albania. There are always nationalists claiming such territories as their own.» After the recent proclamation of independence by Kosovo there have been several states which have come out against the new state, fearing that it would serve as a precedent that would stimulate separatism in many countries of our region. «You know that there are always some sort of whispered Albanian claims about a non-existent issue – at least for Greece,» I continued. «And this is about a so-called ‘Camuria’ – after the Albanian word for Epirus, Cameria in southern Epirus. In the first post-war census (1951), only 123 Muslim Cams were left in the area. Descendants of the exiled Muslim Cams (up to 200,000 living in Albania) claim that up to 35,000 Muslim Cams were living in southern Epirus before World War II. And they are reclaiming it.» Paraphrasing Blanche DuBois’s famous lines in Tenesse Williams’s «A Streetcar Named Desire» – presently on stage in Thessaloniki and Athens too – I myself trust spontaneous opinions of unrehearsed persons in a chance encounter in public places – vox populi they call it. Therefore I consider seriously what my interlocuter had to say on that: «The only plausible way to counter nationalism in the Balkans is for us to join NATO and to come closer to the dream of EU membership. Albania, together with FYROM and Croatia, is expected to receive a membership invitation at the upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) April summit in Bucharest. In our areas, popular support for NATO and EU membership hovers at around 90-95 percent.» And the other faux-Swiss joined in: «Albania has played a decisive and moderating role during these years in Macedonia – or FYROM as you prefer – and Kosovo, and this has been appreciated. Both countries enjoy the open support of the US in its membership bid in recognition of their readiness to cooperate with US military operations. I believe NATO is close. The only problem could be the dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the latter’s name. Yet in the end the American wish will prevail…» Today negotiators from Greece and FYROM are due to meet in Vienna under the guidance of United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz as pressure builds ahead of the NATO summit due to start on April 2.