of the Blue Café
Skopje, Macedonia – On a dark, snowy night in Skopje, inside the smoky Blue Café, I met with one of the most knowledgeable individuals in Macedonia's Albanian media community – and what he had to say was surprising.
He is the deputy editor-in-chief of Macedonia's largest Albanian paper, Fakti (Facts). Eminently qualified to speak on Macedonia's problems, Lirim Dullovi brings the kind of astute judgment, media experience, and insight that separates him from his less eloquent countrymen in the NLA, whose only dialogue comes through the barrel of a gun. Talking with the 28-year-old in Skopje, I was both relieved and concerned to find that things are better/worse in the Albanian community than I had expected. On a number of topics, ranging from the makeup of the NLA to the role of the Albanian-American lobby, Dullovi's comments were particularly interesting, and a bit controversial.
The current situation
"Everybody's confused," said Dullovi. "Nobody can tell you what's going to happen… I was right in 2000 when I predicted that we would have war in 2001… I also have some information for 2002."
This provocative start to our conversation led me to ask what this "information" was. Dullovi was coy. Merely referring to "sources," he claimed, "I can see that there could be some incidents in Spring, but I cannot say the intensity." Indirectly, he blamed the tension on a bellicose Macedonian government. "When I link my info from abroad and from here with what is happening here, I can see this. You have the paramilitary groups, the Lions and Tigers, now under the control of state institutions, and an interview with the Prime Minister where he predicted a war." Taking a standard NLA line, Dullovi maintained, "they (the Macedonians) had a chance to solve this problem, by letting the Albanians open the university (in Tetovo)."
For Dullovi, it was offensive to not hear a strong denunciation from the Prime Minister back in June, to the proposal by the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences to partition the country. A partition and population exchange, it was suggested, would finally appease the restless Albanians. This was the wrong idea, according to Dullovi. But what about the high birthrate, I asked?
"Come on, this is only the village ones, who don't have something better to do. If you take the Albanian women who work, they have two children each, just like the Macedonian women… so the answer is in more education, instead. But they are afraid of what will happen if the Albanians get smart."
A partnership for peace?
The most significant current development for Lirim Dullovi was last week's announcement of a united Albanian coalition. This represents the worst nightmare for the fractious Macedonian parties, who despite being held hostage by the NLA, would rather denounce each other than unite. To most, it would seem that Albanian unity is the first step to secession; but Dullovi had another viewpoint.
According to him, the legitimate Albanian political parties were taken by surprise last year by the formation of the NLA. It is incontestable that Albanian politics were gradually merged with those of the NLA, however, and I pressed Dullovi on this topic. Surprisingly, he maintained that "…the main interest of this (unity coalition) is to minimize the chance for a new military organization." In other words, Albanian politicians are trying to insure themselves against having another mandate forced upon them by extremists. Dullovi maintained, "now they (the Albanians) have got some rights, and they want to give some space for the Treaty of Ochrid to be implemented… they want to break any illusions, and avoid any suspicions in the international community."
There is some justification for this viewpoint, though it is rather compromised by the fact that Ali Ahmeti himself was the one who called for the unity of parties – to which the NLA will send three representatives. Yet in Macedonia, where anything is possible, it is not hard to imagine how last year's warlord can become this year's social democrat. Dullovi's contention that the Albanian politicians just want peace within the existing framework has to be taken with a grain of salt.
True, there are some Albanians, like economics minister Vesnik Fatai, who suffered just as much from the NLA as the Macedonians did. Mr. Fatai was forced to escape with his family from his home in Bogovina, according to one inside source, "…because the NLA wanted to kill him, and burned his farm."
Yet there are others, and chief of all Arben Xhaferi, for whom the same spirit of cooperation cannot be maintained. Xhaferi is especially well attuned to the rhetoric of the West; in the past he has called for "collective rights" of minorities, a la Lani Guinier, and other ideas that warmed the hearts of Clinton-era liberals. His latest comment in support of the NLA was rather strange: that wars in a variety of theaters – Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and apparently Macedonia – are all legitimate attempts at ending "Slav colonization." Some sources even maintain that Xhaferi has a mentor-disciple relationship with his young Jedi, Ali Ahmeti. But this is simply another of the tantalizing contentions that pass, phantom-like, through the Winter fogs of Skopje.
Did Fakti support the NLA?
One question continued to bother me. Dullovi had claimed that Fakti was "independent" of the NLA's influence. Yet had it supported the NLA? The answer had similarities with the story of Albanian political parties, who were reluctantly driven onto the bandwagon as the year progressed. Dullovi was somewhat evasive:
"Did we support the NLA? This is a very difficult question. You cannot answer with 'yes' or 'no.' Now it is very difficult… this group is nonexistent anymore."
I asked about the early part of the crisis, and whether Fakti's editorial direction had had any influence on the war's direction. Dullovi stated:
"Each media finds itself in war. In the beginning, we were against the NLA… we wrote one very famous editorial, 'Why the NLA should just go away.' We said why the Albanians should lay down their weapons, and (the foreign fighters) should leave from Macedonia. This was in February 2001."
This seemed interesting; I asked what the reaction had been.
"There was a very bad reaction in the Albanian community. But the main problem was, we did not have the support from the Macedonian media and the Macedonian police. We were taken by the police many times – me, my chief editor, my journalists – and they said to us, 'we want to ask you some questions.' Basically, about whether we had some contacts with commanders from the NLA. They were very interested to find out who was making contacts… but we didn't know any of those people. We didn't have the chance to go up into the mountains."
This statement – that the legitimate Albanian press had little to do with the NLA – was made repeatedly by Dullovi. Yet since he admitted that the "reaction of the Macedonian army" caused his newspaper to support the NLA, I asked whether he felt that Fakti could be objective now.
"Can we be objective? We are trying. Many times we cannot consult the other side for making the case. But you know what happened, seven days ago? One of our journalists was writing an article, and he got two statements from the Macedonian politicians. This makes me very happy, because this was the first time since the end of the war that some Macedonian politicians made a statement for Albanian media. But in general, the main problem here is that you can't convince the other side."
Albanians abroad: the diaspora question
The Albanian Diaspora has been one of the keys to the success of the NLA, fueling it with money, ideology, and political influence abroad. I was curious about one apparent contradiction I had encountered. While the Western media portrays the Albanians in Macedonia as poor, slum-dwelling villagers, the palatial homes in the Tetovo area attest to a different reality. I asked Dullovi how this could be. His response was interesting.
"If you want to see the other side of this, I can take you to the other side of Skopje, where I live. It will be very difficult for you to find even one good house. But everybody in the West (of Macedonia) has family in Europe who earn a lot of money. This is because in Tetovo and Gostivar, the Albanians are more connected (to Kosovo and the Diaspora) than we are here."
This answer led me to another thought; why, if the NLA was fighting so hard for some territory in Macedonia, did so many Albanians leave the country for good? Dullovi had a compelling reply:
"I have more than seven members of my family who live in Florida. One of them is a dentist; he graduated in Pristina. But he cannot work in Macedonia, because they do not recognize diplomas from Pristina. Another (relative) was for four years the wrestling champion of all Macedonia, but he didn't even have Macedonian citizenship! They are forced to leave their country because they don't see any opportunity here."
And of course, the Greater Albania
One of the burning questions everyone would like to have answered is that of the "Greater Albania." Do the Albanians in Macedonia support the same idealistic dream of a pan-Albanian state that is so popular with émigré Albanians, such as the Albanian-American Civic League? Dullovi's answer was somewhat unexpected:
"Yeah, you can find some of them who want that, but the main Albanian factor doesn't want that, because we don't have any relations with the Albanians in Albania. It's another story with Kosovo. Albania is something else – they are completely different."
I pressed Dullovi on this issue. Certainly during 2001, we had seen enough talk of "Greater Albania" aspirations not to just dismiss the idea's popularity. But Dullovi was adamant:
"For some radicals, maybe (the idea is appealing), but I don't know who they are. They are ignored by the Albanians here. As one editor of the Albanian daily news, I can tell you I don't know who these people are – sometimes you get some communiqué or fax, but nobody know who it's from."
This means of communicating with the NLA, whether accurate or not, underscores the distance that educated, literate Albanians like Dullovi feel from the thugs of the NLA. But what of the similarly educated, well-heeled Albanians abroad? I mentioned the case of the AACL, which lobbies heavily for Albanian issues, and proudly posts a map of "Greater Albania" on its website. I asked Dullovi about the AACL, and other expatriate groups like it, and their influence in Macedonia.
"The organs who want to make that (a Greater Albania), are not popular here or in Kosovo. Do they have influence? No. Nobody agrees with them; it is only a dream… I met Jamie Shea in Brussels, and I tried to explain to him the same question, why the Albanians who are the main factor here or in Kosovo don't want it. They know it is impossible – do you know how I want to make that idea of Greater Albania real? Through integration with Europe."
The end of history in the Balkans?
It was hard to argue with a sentiment like that, but I still had to ask about just how this integration would commence. Dullovi responded with the most contentious, and the most mysterious, claim of the night:
"According to my diplomatic sources, everything is being prepared for the redefinition of the borders in the Balkans… from Britain to Athens, they are very interested to solve this problem (once and for all). I think that the Macedonians have a real problem with their identity, and that the international factor saw this, and they can find some method for solving this."
We can only guess at what this "method" will be. The unsettling idea of forced intervention to change Balkans borders was more interesting, in that it had come from a well-connected Albanian in Macedonia. Even by the end of the interview, through the haze of smoke in the café, I was not sure just what Lirim Dullovi knew, or how. On the one hand, the catlike editor denied knowing the NLA fighters or their plans; on the other, he had mysterious "sources" and "diplomats" at the ready to provide him with breaking news on the latest developments and future trends. He seemed to enjoy cultivating this air of contradiction and suspense. Of all the whispered intrigues and insinuations which I had experienced all week, none was more Balkan than my evening with Lirim Dullovi.
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire – the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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