A Balkan Beirut

When gunfire broke out around his small house in the village of Neprosteno, Borovoj Georgievski, 58, grabbed his wife and dove for the floor. He assumed it was Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, fighting the Macedonian police. Two mortar shells landed in his barnyard; one damaged his car but the five cows, his livelihood, were unhurt. Then, oddly, the phone rang. A neighbor, an NLA guerrilla in the predominantly Albanian village, warned him to run for it. He protested that his wife was too ill, and the shooting too heavy. But the guerrilla insisted. The couple got as far as their front gate, then turned back, hiding in a cellar until the shooting died down. "I don't know what their intention was, to save us or push us out of our homes," Georgievski says. Most of his fellow Slavic neighbors didn't wait to find out but fled for the safety of government-held territory. He stayed. A few days later the guerrillas produced Georgievski as proof of how the Albanians had "protected" Macedonians who remained on their side in the village, one of many held by the NLA in the disputed area of Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. "Tell them," they badgered, pressing around him outside his house, pockmarked with bullets. His wife hid in a back room. "I don't know what I am supposed to say, what I am to do," he pleaded to a reporter. With that the poor man burst into tears.

Such is ethnic tolerance in Macedonia. When a spokesman for Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski (no relation to Borovoj) issued an inflammatory denunciation of Western countries last Tuesday, it sparked a wave of anti-Western and anti-Albanian rioting. All week NATO, EU and American mediators had tried to restore a ceasefire that collapsed during the previous weekend, leading to a wave of ethnic flight. "We are the witnesses of a bloody crisis directly controlled by some of the Western so-called democratic countries," said Antonio Milososki, the prime minister's spokesman, rejecting the deal negotiators were pushing as "pro-terrorist." "Their goal is war in Macedonia, breaking up its unity and its territorial integrity." That was a thinly veiled green light to refugees from villages like Neprosteno who had just fled to Skopje. Backed by local toughs, they rampaged through the Slavic half of the capital, looting and wrecking every Albanian shop they could find, stoning the American, British and German embassies, destroying Western businesses like airline shops and McDonald's. Macedonian police did little or nothing to stop the rioters.

Late in the week Western mediators brokered yet another ceasefire--no doubt as temporary as the last. Guerrillas pulled back from some areas wrested from government control around Tetovo and dismantled checkpoints, some only a few hundred paces from Macedonian police. But many of the fighters simply doffed their red and black uniforms and donned civilian clothes--and loitered nearby. No Albanian dared reopen his shop in a Macedonian neighborhood.

For all the Western effort, Macedonia has become, de facto, a divided country, split between a predominantly Albanian area in the west and north, effectively under NLA control, and a predominantly Slavic area in the east and south under the government. So it's likely to remain. Only a few months ago most Albanians shunned the guerrillas. Now they overwhelmingly support them. Macedonian Slavs have become just as convinced that the only way to hold their country together is by all-out civil war.

Now comes the dread catchphrase of previous Balkan conflicts, ethnic cleansing. About 60,000 Albanians displaced by fighting have fled to Kosovo. Macedonians from Tetovo have been swapping their homes with Albanians from the Slavic town of Bitola, where there have been two waves of anti-Albanian rioting and looting. With each new round of fighting, invisible lines are drawn, "theirs" and "ours," much like the infamous "green lines" that divided Beirut, or Sarajevo, or any number of societies riven by ethnic conflict. Lately it appears that even the capital, Skopje, might soon be so, with the city's sizable Albanian population occupying the north side of the River Vardar and the Macedonian Slavs the south.

Macedonia has yet to blow up into full-scale interethnic strife--in itself a cause for optimism. So far civilian casualties have been rare. The NLA has targeted only police and soldiers. And Macedonian authorities, while roughing up Albanians, haven't killed anyone deliberately. The danger is that, as people on each side align behind their gunmen, such restraint may give way. A civil war in Macedonia, as everyone knows, would have no victors.