The Vietnam War was fought partly on the basis of "the domino theory"--the idea that if South Vietnam fell, so would the rest of Southeast Asia. Just because the theory proved wrong in Asia doesn't mean it's wrong in the Balkans. "Imagine," Macedonian Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov said last week, "that 35 to 40 million Mexicans entered the United States, increasing your population by close to 15 percent." The United States could handle that; Macedonia, barely coping with a flood tide of Kosovar Albanians, may not.
The domino is wobbling. Since it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has been the only successful multi-ethnic state in the region. But its fragile seven-month-old governing coalition could tumble under the weight of war. That's bad for the region and for NATO: about 14,000 Alliance peacekeepers are based in Macedonia, and more are on the way.
As usual in the Balkans, all sides obsess over ethnic head counts. Macedonians make up about two thirds of the population of nearly 2 million; Albanians, about one quarter. But with 75,000 Kosovar refugees living in camps inside Macedonia, an additional 150,000 crammed into the homes of Albanian-Macedonians and refugee flows increasing again--last Saturday 7,000 arrived--the demographics are fluid--and dangerous. Cold weather in Macedonia comes in about 100 days, but the government is balking at "winterizing" the refugee camps. "If barracks are constructed, we insist they be built in Albania," says Trajanov. There is, the government makes clear, no room at the inn.
The Macedonian majority is strongly pro-Serb. In the early days of the war, the government did little while refugees fainted and died in the mud and sewage at Blace, a field on the Kosovar-Macedonian border. Anti-American rioters smashed windows at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, and a rocket was launched at French troops near the border. A bomb explosion in the Albanian market last week showed ethnic tensions have hardly cooled. Even the taxi drivers are showing their support for the Serbs. A group of Macedonian cabbies is organizing caravans to Serbia to donate blood to Slobodan Milosevic's forces; they already often let Serb fares ride free.
The Albanian minority is bitter over the way Macedonian guards manhandle refugees. Only recently have the guards stopped wearing masks and rubber gloves, as if the refugees were lepers. While condemning the treatment, the Macedonian-Albanian leader, Arben Xhaferi, says he's optimistic the country will hold together. But Xhaferi is ailing, and any replacement would likely be a hard-line Albanian nationalist. Macedonian authorities are spooked by that prospect--and by the Kosovars. They keep close count on the number of babies born to refugees; 418 so far. The camps, which now include everything from hospitals to basketball courts to graffiti, look distressingly permanent to Macedonian eyes.
Meanwhile, the war has sent the already precarious Macedonian economy into free fall. Last week Western governments met in Paris to promise $252 million in grants and loans. Earlier, the U.S. pledged $44 million, a pittance for a state crucial to regional stability, but the Macedonian government says even that check is still in the mail. "We received $2 million from Taiwan, but nothing as of yet from the U.S.," Trajanov says.
The Albanian tradition of konak--or hospitality--means that Macedonian-Albanian homes frequently now sleep five to 10 Kosovars to a room. Abdullah Ramadani, a coffee broker, has 80 guests in his family compound, ranging from a 4-month-old baby to his 96-year-old father. "It makes no difference if they are family or not," he says. "They feel equal." Not everywhere. Last week a group of 50 Kosovar-refugee guests got so fed up they actually went to Serbia. Hundreds more have moved from homes back into the camps, where they have a chance to be resettled abroad.
A slim chance. Fewer than 1 percent of the camp refugees are being sent abroad each day. At the beginning of the crisis, most refugees said they preferred to stay in Macedonia, hoping to return home soon. But now, according to aid workers, most prefer being sent abroad; they fear Kosovo may never be safe again. The nine camps in Macedonia are now better equipped than in the early days of the war. But improved conditions have also meant rising expectations and frustrations. At the Cegrane camp, which grew from an empty mountain pass to a 40,000-person tent city in three weeks, the long wait for toilets has eased; other hygienic challenges have not. "Even in the jungle, you can take a shower," says Ajet Lekici, a refugee who says he hadn't bathed in 20 days. Those who managed to leave with a little money hidden from Serbian border thugs can pay for a shower in private homes in a nearby town. The biggest dangers are snakebites and boredom. It's common to see 10 relatives crammed into a 10-by-10 tent.
Near the mountainous Radusha camp sits a relic of an earlier Balkan war. Nearly 200 Bosnian Muslims have lived in barracks for seven long years, waiting for homes in the Muslim section of Bosnia. Zelka Pric, who lost a leg to a Serb gunman near Sarajevo, has four Kosovar Albanians living with her family--refugees housing refugees. She has some advice for her guests. "I told them, 'If I survived this with one leg, you can survive, too'." Maybe so, but if 225,000 Kosovar refugees stay anywhere near as long as she has, the Republic of Macedonia almost certainly cannot.