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Foreign Correspondence: Jeffrey Smith

June 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And tonight our correspondent is Jeffrey Smith, southern Europe bureau chief for The Washington Post. Recently he’s been covering the latest flare-up in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

RAY SUAREZ: Macedonia is a place that was celebrated for being on the edge of all these terrible mini-civil wars going on in the region. Now it seems to be falling prey to them. How is this happening?

JEFFREY SMITH: You do get a sense that… that it’s a series of dominoes falling, and that this was just Macedonia’s time. In a way, there is a little bit of truth to that, because of the fighting that’s taken place in Macedonia now was sparked by a rebellion, which was in turn stoked by the same people who stoked the rebellion in Kosovo; the people who organized the rebels who began to attack police in Macedonia are the same people who helped form the Ucika, the Kosovo Liberation Army in Kosovo. So there’s a… There is a link between these two — even if the people who are doing the actual fighting are Macedonians, primarily.

RAY SUAREZ: Can we call what’s going on there a civil war yet? I mean, they’ve escalated all the way from pistols to helicopter gunships.

JEFFREY SMITH: Yeah. It’s still… The fighting is in isolated pockets and the citizenry have not taken up arms, which is what happened in Kosovo to a large extent. You could call what happened there a civil conflict in a way. But in Macedonia, the fighting is still limited to certain regions of the country. And if you talk to Macedonian… Both Albanians and Slavs, you get the feeling that most people would wish the violence would die down and that some kind of political compromise could be reached and that it could all be settled peacefully.

There isn’t kind of a hunger for war like the hunger for war that existed, for example, in, Croatia at the outset of the conflict with Bosnia. There isn’t a sense that war is imminent. There’s still a lot of people who would like things to be resolved without violence.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that civilians haven’t taken up arms, but are civilians starting to carry more of the burden of this fighting?

JEFFREY SMITH: Absolutely. It’s… Albanians don’t visit Macedonian shops that they visited before, and Macedonians Slavs don’t visit Albanian shops in the same way. They talk to each other less. There is more of a complication about being seen… socializing together. I wrote a story a couple of weeks ago about a Macedonian Slav mayor and an ethnic Albanian advisor, and I asked them to have their picture taken together for the newspaper to accompany the story, and there was a bit of a pause before they agreed to do it — just because it’s a sensitive time for Slavs and Albanians to be sitting down together.

The tensions in each community are rising steadily. And you see these little signs around Macedonia of a society basically breaking into opposing camps. You see sandbags outside of the mayor’s office, the police station, in a lot of the towns that you go to. You see army soldiers at key intersections, armored vehicles on the street. You see people walking on the street with their heads down, their eyes averted, just anxious to get out of trouble in case…and worried about whatever might arise and anxious to hide in effect.

RAY SUAREZ: So you have a front seat to a society that’s kind of unraveling.

JEFFREY SMITH: Exactly, yeah.

RAY SUAREZ: And yet as someone who covered the Kosovo war, you know where this could lead.

JEFFREY SMITH: It’s a complete tragedy that this is headed in this direction, because… In that war and this war, if it breaks into a full- fledged war, it will be the civilians who get caught in between the extremists. The average Macedonian citizens who will be caught in a vice, in effect, between people who want to take up arms and settle it with violence. The people whose… these will be the people whose villages will be destroyed, as they’re now being destroyed in certain parts of Macedonia.

There could be much… If the war widens, I expect the same thing to happen that happened in Kosovo, which is massive destruction of housing, huge repair bill at the end of the conflict. The West would be called on to invest millions or hundreds of millions of dollars to repair housing, to bring people back to their homes, to recreate a society that’s now being destroyed. It’s a huge tragedy that this is happening.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the West in the form of NATO and the European Union are very worried about Macedonia; the traveling back and forth, to any effect?

JEFFREY SMITH: As seen from the region, it’s clear that the diplomatic water carrying is being done by the European Union and particularly by Javier Solano, the Spanish diplomat who used to be the NATO secretary general. He’s coming, on average, about once a week, maybe once every week and a half to try and calm things down. And the pattern of the conflict has been that as soon as he turns around and gets on a plane and goes back to Brussels to the European Union headquarters, the conflict flares up again.

And then he comes, and things quiet down for a few days and he’s sort of able to tamp things down. It’s… I’m not sure that they’ve figured out, maybe because of inexperience, I’m not sure they’ve figured out the right tone, the right balance to strike, because on the one hand they’re very tough on the rebels, and they say, “these are terrorists and nothing… There should no negotiations with them.” And on the other hand, they tell the Macedonians privately that “you’ve got to sit down and make some reforms–” such as the reforms that the rebels and the other ethnic Albanian parties are calling for, because this cannot be solved through violence.

So in public, the rhetoric has been very strongly supportive of the government and the government’s policy of pounding the rebels. In private, it’s been more moderated, and it’s been encouraging of some kind of diplomatic solution. And much… You know, since mostly what’s happened so far is not negotiation but violence, I’m not sure that they’ve got… They’ve got the balance right.

RAY SUAREZ: All in all, you don’t sound very optimistic.

JEFFREY SMITH: The… You have to understand that in Macedonia, even though these… There are Albanians and Slavs who are friends and have been friendly for a long time, it’s been a… There has been, in the broad context, some social distance for a long time also. And there are lots of resentments on the part of the predominant minority, the ethnic Albanians.

They really resent what they feel is mistreatment by the Macedonian Slavs, and the Macedonian Slavs look at the ethnic Albanians and they say, “these people are in some cases wealthier than Macedonian Slavs.” They were forced out of the economy– the Communistic economy– ten years ago, and so, they’re more entrepreneurial by and large, the ethnic Albanian population, which means that they’ve weathered the transition away from Communism faster and better.

And so they look at the ethnic Albanians and say, “look at how wealthy these people are. Look what good lives they have. How could they possibly want more?” And the ethnic Albanians look at the Macedonian Slavs and they get comments like this. A Macedonian Slav will come up to an ethnic Albanian and say, “you know, you don’t seem like an Albanian.” And they think… They have no clue that that’s anything but a compliment. I mean, it’s just sort of… There are economic resentments. There are ethnic resentments. There are some religious resentments.

The ethnic Albanians in Macedonia tend to be more religious, meaning Muslim Islamic faith, than the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. So there’s a lit bit more of a divide on the religious side. And the Macedonian Slavs suspect that the Albanians really would like to carve away a piece of their territory. And they resent that, and it makes them respond with anger and defiance, when they might otherwise be sitting down to talk about compromise.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Smith, thanks for coming by.