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Reporter's Notebook: Macedonia Still Faces Many Challenges - 2002-09-17

The southern Balkan nation of Macedonia, which has only two million people, held parliamentary elections Sunday that have been hailed as astonishingly successful, given that the country was on the brink of civil war barely more than a year ago. VOA's Barry Wood has just completed his third visit to Macedonia in 12 months. In this Reporter's Notebook he tells us that while Macedonia may appear stable and hopeful, immense challenges remain.

What is new in Skopje is the 63-meter-high millennium cross perched on the mountain above the city. At night the orthodox cross is brightly illuminated and can't be missed from the city below. Built at taxpayer expense for many Slavic Macedonians, the cross is a source of pride, tangible evidence that orthodox Christianity, discouraged under communism, is again flourishing.

When Macedonia escaped from the collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991, the leaders of the new nation had no doubt that theirs was to be a Slavic and orthodox Christian nation. The minority Albanians, most of whom converted to Islam during the centuries of Turkish rule, were to have the privileges of citizenship but in a Macedonian state in which Macedonian was the sole official language.

This small country has a history of misfortune. In 1963 Skopje was all but destroyed by an earthquake. In its first few years of independence, Macedonia was nearly strangled by a Greek economic blockade. Athens wanted the former Yugoslav republic to abandon the name Macedonia, which it regards as solely Greek. Macedonia is the name of the northern part of Greece, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

In 1999, northern Macedonia was overrun by tens of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo, destitute refugees forced from their homeland by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Macedonia reluctantly offered refuge to the Kosovars, not all of whom returned home. In 2001, ethnic Albanians took up arms demanding that the government in Skopje grant them genuine equal rights including the elevation of the Albanian language to the status enjoyed by Macedonian.

NATO, which had peacekeepers in the country, brokered a cease-fire, with the help of United States and the European Union. The rebels agreed to disarm in return for amnesty. The Macedonians agreed to constitutional changes and greater rights for the Albanians, who make up up to one third of the population.

An outsider can't easily tell Albanians from Macedonians. But it doesn't take long to recognize there is little interaction between the two groups. In Skopje, Albanians live mostly on the north side of the Vardar river. Most Slavs are too frightened to venture into Albanian neighborhoods after dark.

In Tetovo, the second largest and mainly Albanian city, I met a young man named Samir. His mother is Slav, his father Albanian. He doesn't speak Albanian but his surname is Albanian. Samir told me he doesn't fit in. The Macedonians assume he is Albanian. The Albanians are suspicious of him because he doesn't speak the language. Samir wants to move to Skopje.

At the moment Macedonians and ethnic Albanians are feeling hopeful. Citizens on both sides of the ethnic divide feel genuine pride that the elections took place, were judged free and fair, and that the outgoing government has accepted its defeat with grace.

But in a troubled land, reconciliation is hard to achieve. Albanians are not convinced that Macedonians will accept them as true partners. Macedonians tend to believe that ethnic Albanians are more loyal to a mythical future state of all Albanians than they ever will be to Macedonia. This is a complicated place.

Just down the street from the old train station ruined by the great earthquake there is a statue of Mother Teresa, the ethnic Albanian and Skopje native who devoted her life to helping the poor. Mother Teresa, of course, was neither orthodox nor Muslim but Catholic.