Nearly 5,000 Macedonian Slavs — the majority ethnic group — rioted yesterday in the capital Skopje after NATO troops evacuated Albanian rebels. Buses and U.S.-supplied vehicles moved rebels and weapons beyond Macedonian government lines. Angry residents fired guns in the air and briefly occupied the parliament building.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski appealed for calm. “I am offering peace and I am asking for your support,” he said in a national radio address..
Macedonian Slavs, who describe the rebels as terrorists, want harsher action and oppose outside intervention.
The rebel evacuation was intended as a step towards a cease-fire and offer from the European Union and NATO to broker a truce. Fearing a full-blown civil war between the minority ethnic Albanians and majority Slavs, NATO and the West have offered to help if the sides move towards a cease-fire.
The EU says it fully supports President Trajkovski, a Slav, who defended yesterday’s evacuation and has argued for peace talks over a military solution. The EU also said it will continue to pursue a deal, focusing on rebel disarmament in exchange for more rights for the minority Albanians, one of the chief rebel demands.
A history of relative peace
The ethnic Albanian revolt began in February and the rebels control several villages between Skopje and the Kosovar and Serbian borders. The United Nation’s refugee agency estimates the conflict has displaced 100,000 people in the last four months. Many have fled to the ethnic Albanian-majority Serb province of Kosovo.
The fighting has disrupted what had been a relatively calm area of the Balkans. Despite the strife in nearby Bosnia and Kosovo, Macedonia was considered the Balkans’ best example of a multi-ethnic society since its peaceful separation from Yugoslavia in 1991.
About one-third of Macedonian residents are descendants of immigrants from Albania, largely concentrated in the west, near the Albanian border. Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city near the border with Kosovo, is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees fled from Kosovo to Macedonia during the 1999 war. Other Albanian families have lived in Macedonia for generations, but share neither religion nor language with the majority Slavs.
Ethnic Albanians are represented in the coalition government, but the rebels say ethnic Albanians are treated as second-class citizens under Macedonia’s constitution. They seek constitutional reforms and greater political rights.
Ethnic Albanians have also argued for greater use of the Albanian language in official documents and education. The government says the rebels are actually seeking to break away from the rest of Macedonia.