Letter from Skopje

George Koutsoumis, the Greek press attache in Skopje, has the best view in town. His office, on the first floor of one of the few art-nouveau buildings that survived the big earthquake some decades ago, reigns over the main square in the middle of the city. The hospitable place was full of foreign diplomats and journalists. It was exactly here, in formerly Tito Trg, now Democracy Square, that the parties held their big electoral rallies last week – all parties except one: The Democratic Union for Integration, led by the gray-haired former-guerilla-leader-turned-politician, Ali Ahmeti, who was advised by «the West» to cancel his major rally in the predominantly Slav-Macedonian capital, Skopje. Observers feared that such a rally could spark renewed violence in this volatile country. I tried, in vain, for three whole days to interview Mr Ali Ahmeti, one of the former National Liberation Army guerrillas – described at the time as «terrorists» by Lord Robertson himself, NATO Secretary-General. His party spokesman, Agron Buxhaku, seemed to be doing his best. But somehow the meeting could never take place although I followed him to his headquarters outside Tetovo. Those yesterday were key elections for the 120-seat Parliament in Skopje as all the participating parties strived to maintain an irrefutable reputation for being «the» party of law and order. The desire to control not only an event, but the image of an event, may seem vaguely Orwellian. The elections were held as part of a Western-arranged peace pact, the Framework Agreement in Ohrid, which a year ago helped end a six-month insurgency launched by ethnic Albanians – who, by the way, claim descent from the ancient Illyrians. «The Slavs, originating in east-central Europe, had begun to cross the Danube into the Balkans around the sixth century AD,» an Albanian proudly taught me in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, one of the places one can buy the International Herald Tribune (the one printed in Italy) for 150 dinars, or 2.50 euros. Three days ago, EU security chief Javier Solana pointedly reminded FYROM voters that «the holding of free and fair elections without intimidation or violence will confirm the country’s orientation toward peaceful development and closer ties to the European Union.» «We look to Greece for our closer ties with the EU. We should propose a special agreement with Greece,» Vasil Tupurkovski told me last Thursday. An openly pro-Western politician whose Democratic Alternative party has declared itself in favor of the amendment to the constitution, he said «I don’t think we can have politically correct elections. Technically correct, perhaps, yes.» He also told me that he is convinced that «we are heading for an independent Kosovo, and for this reason our two countries should be on the alert.» I also met the leader of the second major Albanian party, the Democratic Albanian Party (DPA), Mr Arben Xhaferi, who, when asked about the name issue clarified: «As long as you Greeks do not agree to call it Slav-Macedonia, to which we (Albanians) strongly object, we are rather indifferent as to what the name could be.» Last Thursday (September 12), the Greek government announced that it would allow an agreement with FYROM on setting up diplomatic ties between the two countries to be renewed automatically for one more year. Athens and Skopje normalized relations in 1995 after US-mediated negotiations. The agreement, which was to expire on Friday, came after a bitter dispute over the name and national symbols of Macedonia. The controversy over this announcement came when the next day three PASOK MPs, S. Papathemelis, K. Spiriounis, and P. Kritikos, declared themselves against silently extending the intermediate agreement between Greece and FYROM. The MPs reckoned that this agreement had been a lopsided one from the outset for Greece, since for seven years, the only party that had continually and constantly gained something was FYROM, which had taken advantage of Greece’s kindness and laxness. Instead of turning toward initiatives that would bring it closer to Greece, it had grown «even more audacious than before,» to use the Macedonian Press Agency translation. In addition, the above-mentioned Greek politicians emphasized they were against the commonly accepted solution to the name with the argument that «such a goal sounds peculiar, since the Albanian-Slavic state of Skopje in its Slavic version asserts direct historical descent from Alexander the Great, and they want us to accept this scientifically ridiculous naivete, which is politically dangerous to us,» always according to MPA. Can a case still be made for pressing on or is it already too late? With a dash of irony, Arben Xhaferi, commenting from the headquarters of his party in the predominantly Albanian city of Tetovo, told me: «The way other local parties speak of ethnogenesis and about how they descend from very ancient times is absurd. We should not see the present through the filter of the past. We must see the future.» Competitive? This is definitely a country changing demographically and racially at an unprecedented speed. Also, the Balkan peninsula has always been one of the most ethnically, linguistically and religiously complex areas of our world. That is why the taking of accurate censuses will steadily become increasingly crucial, both politically and socially. Some say that the problem of the peoples of FYROM will be solved automatically when, say, in two decades’ time, the minority/majority situation will be reversed. As passions heat up in a Balkan fashion, the danger of an outbreak of violence when the Albanians will outnumber the Slavs is a distinct possibility. And not only today when the election results will be announced later in the day.

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