Macedonia: Dealing With Bad Guys

If the NATO mission in Macedonia goes down in flames, it might well be due to two men on opposing sides of the ethnic divide. The Albanian, Xhavit Hasani, 50, is a woodcutter from the hills with an elementary-school education, a rude way of speaking and a chip on his shoulder as big as a log. "The Macedonians are even afraid to dream of me," he boasts. Ljube Boskovski, 40, the Macedonian, is a lawyer by education, whose overblown manner sometimes causes even sympathetic listeners to laugh. He no longer sleeps, he likes to say, because he's up all night defending his country.

Both are hard-core ethnic nationalists--and evangelists for their cause. For the past two years Hasani has been recruiting young men for the Albanian rebels, walking the highland villages along the border of Kosovo where he's considered a war hero, though he never apparently fired a shot at the Serbs. A convicted peacetime cop-shooter and reputed smuggler, Hasani is a founding father of the National Liberation Army (NLA). Now he's accused of joining a radical breakaway faction, the Albanian National Army, which has denounced the peace deal that brought NATO into the country.

As for Boskovski, he's Macedonia's Interior minister, an intimate of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and an ultranationalist of the so-called World Macedonian Congress, a rabidly right-wing group that refers to NATO as the "New Albanian Terrorist Organization" and is blockading a highway the alliance uses to supply its troops in Kosovo. He brings a multimedia approach to civil war. An MTV-style video with a rap track plays twice a night on local TV, as well as on giant video monitors in downtown Skopje, urging young Macedonians to join the Tigers, an elite militarized police force. Dressed in black balaclavas, the Tigers strut their stuff, racing along with tree branches stuck to their heads, while Boskovski slouches against his spanking new Merc and gives them the thumbs up, in time to the beat.

NATO would do well to pay attention to this improbable pair, and others like them. They pay lip service to Western peace efforts. But evidence suggests their true intentions are quite different. And they have the power to cause great trouble--as NATO officials are well aware. Alliance envoy Daniel Speckhard met with Boskovski twice in the 24 hours before the deployment. The Interior minister promised to cool his rhetoric and remove the roadblocks, then flew to the Adriatic coast for a week's vacation as NATO troops poured in. Up in the hills north of Skopje, British paratroopers from the 16th Air Assault Brigade made their way to the village of Nikustak, where the NLA's 114th Brigade holds fort--and Xhavit Hasani acts as official in charge of morale and information. He was on the team, he said. "I'm satisfied with NATO coming in here," Hasani later told NEWSWEEK by mobile phone. "I trust that NATO, and especially the Americans, will do what they promised."

That's a dubious assurance, considering the widely different perceptions of NATO's role. The alliance has in fact promised only to collect weapons surrendered voluntarily by the rebels, then go home in 30 days. The NLA rebels expect them to stay a lot longer--and to guarantee their security. The Macedonians, by contrast, don't want NATO there at all. And if anybody starts shooting, the alliance has warned it will leave. Good will is in short supply. The government claims the guerrillas must pony up 85,000 weapons--more than 10 per fighter; the rebels say they possess only about 3,000. All told, it's a shaky scenario for peacekeeping. Says a Western diplomat in Skopje: "All you need is five or 10 guys with weapons and a cause, and they can wreak all kinds of havoc."

Which pretty much describes Hasani and Boskovski. It's no accident that the war in Macedonia erupted this March around Tanusevci, Hasani's home village. And when Western mediators forced a peace agreement earlier this month, Hasani instantly denounced it, declaring he would leave the NLA to carry on a private fight. Partly he was angry because the authorities had, for the second time in two years, destroyed his home--allegedly for lack of building permits. Within a week 18 police and soldiers had been killed in ambushes. Hasani claims he had nothing to do with the killings, though sounding like he wished he had. "I still haven't taken revenge on the Macedonians, but when I do, I'll go with them to The Hague," he said in the telephone interview. "The government made a criminal out of me, but I'm not."

Boskovski, too, denounced the peace pact before the ink was dry. And he has been quick to act. After an Aug. 12 ambush in which eight police died, Boskovski was on the scene when Macedonian special police allegedly killed 10 Albanian civilians in the village of Ljuboten. At least six of them were shot while trying to flee, and a seventh died in custody. A Human Rights Watch report, expected this week, will accuse Boskovski of responsibility. "We find it deeply disturbing that the minister of Interior was personally present at the worst human-rights abuse in this war so far," said Peter Bouckaert, the report's author. Boskovski is contemptuous of the prospect of facing a war-crimes tribunal. "I fear only my people's tribunal, not the political one that was set up by America in The Hague."

In Macedonia, as in the rest of the Balkans, such patriotic sentiment often masks a warlord venality. Hasani owns half a dozen homes and a bar in the Kosovo town of Vitina, the endpoint in a smuggler's route over the mountains to and from Macedonia. He denies he traffics in drugs, women or weapons. "I'm importing arms," he says indignantly, "not smuggling them." When he was extradited on murder charges from Kosovo to Skopje by the United Nations mission last year, he quickly ransomed his way out of trouble--by having four Macedonian policemen kidnapped and posting a cool 200,000 Deutsche marks in bail to the government.

Boskovski is almost a mirror image. He is reported to have made a fortune during the 1990s smuggling arms to Croatia--a clearly lucrative business, since he owns a restaurant and hotel in the Istrian resort of Rovinj. After being named Interior minister three months ago, he promptly passed out arms to civilians--Macedonians, that is--and stood by while they looted and burned Albanian and Western-owned businesses in several towns, including Skopje. Most recently Boskovski ordered his police to don military fatigues. Even traffic cops now look like a mobilizing army, bristling with high-caliber firepower.

Peacekeeping missions aren't easy even with the best of intentions on all sides. When it comes to people like Ljube Boskovski and Xhavit Hasani, NATO may find it's dealing with the worst.