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THU, 21 JUN 2001 01:01:34 GMT

An Academic Lunch Turned into a Political Case

AIM Tirana, June 10, 2001

When he attended a lunch Djordji Efremovski organised in his honour during the Conference of the Academies of the Balkans, held in Skoplje in late May, President of the Academy of Sciences of Albania Ylli Popa could not have suspected that it would turn into a political lunch, as well as an important date for bilateral relations between these two countries.

During that lunch President of the Macedonian Academy proposed to his Albanian counterpart a solution to the current Macedonian crisis by means of the exchange of territories and population between Macedonia and Albania. Professor Popa passed over this proposal in silence thinking that it was just a free (leisurely) academic discussion over a lunch, but it turned that it was not quite so. Four days later, President of the Macedonian Academy publicly presented a plan for the exchange of territories and population between the two countries as a proposal for the resolution of the crisis, while the Macedonian media informed the public that the proposal had been also submitted to the President of the Albanian Academy of Sciences. Thus, an academic lunch turned into a political case regarding the newly created situation in relations between the two countries.

Actually, proposal of the President of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences came like a bolt out of the blue in mutual relations of these two states, because this was the first time that an offer on the change of state borders and exchange of territories and population came from such a high level in Macedonia.

But, it seems that precisely because of that Albania found it hard to react. Actually, although it sounds like science fiction, the proposal of the first Macedonian academician was very courageous in view of the offer on changing the existing state borders. This is even more so if we keep in mind the fact that the Macedonian Government used to accuse of such intentions (redrawing of borders) the so called National Liberation Army, which is fighting against the Government's forces.

Although this proposal came as a bomb from Skoplje and concerned the bilateral relations of these two countries and although the Macedonians proposed a map on the division of territories, it was clearly unacceptable for the Albanians and the Government in Tirana was cautious enough not to issue any official statement in that connection. Although very busy with the election campaign for parliamentary elections on June 24, in his reply to a journalist's question at a rally, Prime Minister Ilir Meta rejected the proposal of the Macedonian Academy. Rexhep Mejdani, President of Albania, who did not join the election campaign, was even more critical. In an interview for an Italian daily he said that the Macedonian proposal was wrong and underlined that while the Albanians and their political representatives were working hard for the preservation of the territorial integrity of Macedonia, representatives of the Macedonian cultural and political elite were forwarding an idea which was threatening to damage not only the stability of Macedonia, but also of the entire Balkan region.

What catches the eye is that the Macedonian proposal, which envisages that the town of Pogradec and the Albanian part of the Lakes Ohrid and Prespa should go to Macedonia, was submitted at the height of the electoral campaign in Albania. Although it could have served as an excuse for heightening the nationalistic tensions and raising temperature among political parties running in the elections, that did not happen.

The Macedonian question still received little or no attention in the election campaign of various political parties. In a special release of June 2, the Democratic Party condemned Macedonian proposals as wrong and inspired by strong Slav-Macedonian streams, which were planning the disintegration of Macedonia and which are unacceptable to a modern world mentality. Gjana, the Democratic Party Vice-President called this plan "political madness", while the Socialist Party, which is heading the Government coalition, pointed out that it was time to abolish the borders and not change them. Until now, other political parties did not deal with this subject. There were also many reactions in the town of Pogradec, which according to the Macedonian plan, should be given to Macedonia. Lady Major of Pogradec called the proposal absurd.

In contrast to political parties, the Albanian media dedicated greater attention and gave more space to the Macedonian proposal, criticising it harshly. The Albanian media even warned that various Macedonian circles wanted to provoke the destabilisation of Macedonia and pointed to similarities between this proposal and the infamous Memorandum on Kosovo of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, which became a platform of the nationalistic policy of the former President Milosevic. Actually, the Government and political parties of Albania were of the same opinion as the Albanian political parties in Macedonia, which insisted on the preservation of Macedonia as a joint state of Macedonians and Albanians alike. Several days ago a study of the State Department concluded that 87 percent of interviewed Albanians in Macedonia were for the preservation of Macedonia. Speaking about the plan of the Macedonian Academy, the Albanian Deputy Foreign Minister, Pellumb Xhufi, stated that they were not in favour of any divisions, but of a democratic society and that the above-mentioned idea represented a return to the 19th century now, on the threshold of 21st century in the idea of cohabitation is predominant.

Although the proposal of Macedonian academicians on the exchange of territories and population between Albania and Macedonia came at the height of the electoral campaign in Albania and of the internal crisis in Macedonia, it did not produce the desired effects. That can be explained.

Since the Macedonian Government and the international factor harshly criticised the armed Albanian groups in Macedonia, rallied under the sign NOV (UCK in the Albanian), of wishing to destroy the state, the official and political circles in Tirana thought that it would not be smart to start any discussions with certain Macedonian circles which demand the same, because they hoped that the international community might oppose that plan. It seems that Tirana was right in this respect, because both the European Union through Solana, as well as NATO through its officials and the USA through James Sweygert, Assistant State Secretary, assessed the proposal of the Macedonian academicians dangerous. Tirana thought that it would be better for it not to join in the criticism of this plan. On the other hand, the fact that strong international reactions were followed by criticism of the major political representatives from Skoplje, made it easier for the Albanian Government to remain reserved.

Under such conditions, Tirana thought that ignoring the whole case would be the best reply to the proposal of Macedonian academicians, although it is widely believed among their counterparts here - the Albanian academicians, that an agreement is needed because it seems that they too feel a moral obligation to pay back for their academic lunch in Skoplje by giving Tirana their political answer.

AIM Tirana

Arjan LEKA