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Behind the Headlines: Worker for Interethnic Peace Frets As War Touches Macedonia

April 28, 1999
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Eran Frankel has a lot invested in the Balkans, and as the Kosovo conflict threatens to widen, he is watching nervously.

The Jerusalem-born American works in Macedonia as head of the nonprofit Search for Common Ground. For five years, the group has worked to bring together Macedonians and their large ethnic Albanian minority.

Among the group’s projects are Macedonia’s first three bilingual, ethnically mixed preschools, modeled after Israel’s Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam school for Arab and Jewish children. But now, Frankel’s work is unraveling before his eyes.

Despite a month of NATO airstrikes, Serbia is continuing its campaign of killings and forced deportations of Albanians from its southern province of Kosovo. The tidal wave of 135,000 refugees that has hit Macedonia since NATO began its air campaign now threatens that country’s own delicate ethnic balance.

“I’ve been very depressed and worried for weeks,” Frankel said last week in his Skopje office, which is adorned with Turkish-style carpets and beaded crafts from across the Balkans. “Unfortunately, the power to destroy and make things worse is now in the hands of those who can do it in an instant. So I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon.”

As the calls for NATO ground troops grow louder, many Macedonians believe that it’s only a matter of time before their own country is engulfed in civil war.

Before the Kosovo crisis, Macedonia’s Albanian minority was officially counted as 23 percent of the population, but was said to be closer to one-third. Yet few political forums exist for Macedonians and Albanians to resolve their differences together, Frankel said. Since Macedonia gained its independence in 1992 from Yugoslavia, the two communities have lived almost entirely apart.

Macedonians and Albanians speak different languages, attend different schools and live in segregated areas. While Macedonians are generally Orthodox Christian, Albanians are mostly Muslim. Mixed marriages are virtually unknown.

When conflict arises, political rhetoric usually degenerates into nationalism and chauvinism.

That’s where the SCG stepped in.

The objective of the Washington, D.C.-based organization is to foster interethnic tolerance and gradually empower both communities. The SCG targeted the primary sources of intolerance — the schools and media. It juggles more than one dozen projects that bring together Macedonians and Albanians, along with the smaller minorities of Turks and Romani, or Gypsies.

The projects focus not on overcoming differences, but on stressing what they have in common, such as preserving the environment.

“We try to show them that there are innumerable issues in one community that also affect members of another community,” Frankel said. “It’s not that you breathe Albanian air and I breathe Macedonian air. Clean air and water are issues you can’t divide by ethnicity.

“If these intercommunal interests don’t take precedence through collaborative efforts, there is no future for Macedonia,” he said. “Its only future is as a pluralistic, integrated society. In America we learned that there’s no such thing as `separate but equal’ because it polarizes society into `us’ and `them,’ not `we.'”

Much of Frankel’s work has been with the Macedonian- and Albanian-language media. They have been traditionally partisan, with most media outlets linked financially with the various political parties. He gives them mixed reviews in their coverage of the Kosovo crisis.

“With a few exceptions, they’ve reported the events fairly and not advocated of a certain point of view,” he said. “But I’m disappointed they haven’t tried to engage the country as a whole in an interethnic approach to resolving the crisis. On the other hand, the fact they haven’t inflamed the situation is a big change.”

Meanwhile, the SCG projects are in limbo, Frankel says he is “just facilitating” and trying to “act constructively.” One activity has been to work with a local Albanian newspaper, listing the names of Kosovar Albanian children separated from their parents during the mass deportations. But mostly, Frankel watches as SCG’s modest gains disintegrate.

“Even if bombing ends tomorrow, this means years of more work for us,” he said. “This crisis has dramatically undermined the little confidence Macedonians had that they were on a path of self-determination.

“Macedonia’s future is being determined by decisions made in Western capitals and Washington”

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