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By Veton Surroi

Veton Surroi is the famed editor of Koha Ditore, the main Albanian Kosovor newspaper, who was forced into hiding to avoid Serbian capture and execution during the NATO bombing campaign two years ago. Surroi spent part of his adolescence in Mexico.

"Excuse me, sir," the young officer said in a tone approaching that of a beseeching priest. "I am applying the federal law on firearms, and if you would be so kind to open the trunk .... It will be a short routine checkup, it's for the benefit of all of the people .... "

The scene was from my visit to Chiapas, Mexico, a few weeks ago on a road close to where the Zapatista headquarters are supposed to be. The difference in the military checkpoints now and in the past is striking. From the stereotypical "every car is an enemy" of the past, there is now a politeness that makes the soldiers almost seem like representatives of the tourist information office.

Switch now to a Macedonian police checkpoint near Skopje. It reminds me of my 10 years of experience going through checkpoints during the wars all across disintegrating Yugoslavia. A policeman in military fatigues strides forcefully toward the car. With a harsh tone that matches the stern cast of his face, he barks: "Where are you going? What is the purpose of your trip? Where are your personal documents? Your car's documents ...." An AK-47, ready to fire, is swinging off his shoulder. One hand holds the documents, the index finger of the other hand is on the trigger.
In the 10-kilometer drive from the Kosovo-Macedonian border to the capital, Skopje, I encounter more checkpoints than across all of Chiapas, a territory more than twice the size of Macedonia.

A must souvenir from San Cristobal de las Casas, where the original Chiapas uprising began on New Year's Eve seven years ago, is a small Zapatista doll, most commonly a figure of the ski-masked commandantes, Marcos or Esther. A souvenir doll of a masked ethnic Albanian insurgent in Tetovo, where the current uprising in Macedonia originally started, is unimaginable. Anything resembling the UCK (Ushtria Clirimtare Kombetare) insignia would be regarded by the Macedonian authorities as a sign of support for "terrorists," as they call them.

The fact that the war has evolved into souvenirs in Chiapas is no coincidence. The Zapatistas met success and global acclaim not when they established "free territories," but when they went on the Internet to express what they couldn't with guns. Since 1994, the greatest victories for the Zapatistas have been in gathering national and international support, especially among civil-society activists. When, earlier this year, they organized the March of Dignity from their jungle base to Mexico City, the bus carrying the commanders was protectively surrounded by representatives of the Italian activists known as the White Monkeys.

The fact that the war in Macedonia has not produced souvenir dolls instead of casualties is no coincidence, either. The biggest victory so far for the UCK has not been in gathering international support but by physically occupying territory. Its imperative is to demonstrate the weakness and illegitimacy of the Macedonian governmental forces. The capture of palpable soil, not cyberspace, is their objective.

Mexico's President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, demonstrated he knew a thing or two about marketing when he accepted the idea of the Zapatista March for Dignity. An advocate of globalization, he nonetheless invited the anti-globalization insurgents to express their views across the country and in the Mexican congress while withdrawing the Mexican army from most of Chiapas. It was at that moment that the possibility of war on the ground yielded to politics.

With the threat of violence out of the way, the full complexity of the problems of Chiapas were finally possible to see and address. First, and foremost, is the issue of how to guarantee the rights of the indigenous people, especially when there isn't one nation of the Indigenous, but at least three dozen, each with its respective language.

Beyond this is the vast disparity between rich and poor, of which Chiapas is only a microcosm of Mexico as a whole. As much as 40 percent of the Mexican population lives beneath the poverty level.
Boris Trajkovski, the Macedonian president trained as a Methodist minister, has directed his public relations exercise in a far different way from Fox. Wearing military fatigues and visiting his troops in Kumanovo at the end of May, he vowed to "defeat the terrorists," just as the Mexican authorities originally vowed to do seven years ago in Chiapas.

On the Macedonian side there is a public contest of harsh words over who will crush the ethnic Albanian insurgents fastest and with strongest tactics. And, indeed, these words are reflected in deeds: The Macedonian authorities are shelling villages where insurgents mingle with the civilian population.

One great casualty of this violence is that the real issue is buried instead of raised in public debate so it can be resolved: the disparity of constitutional rights between ethnic Macedonians and the Albanians, who make up a third of the population.

It used to be said that real "macho" men would never talk it out, never apologize and never compromise. Now it turns out that in Mexico, the land of macho, the term has come to mean tackling tough problems through a new social contract instead of through war.

The old machismo, it seems, has migrated to Macedonia. European Union diplomats agree with the Macedonian authorities that the "terrorists' backbone needs to be crushed" before there are talks.

This macho imperative to appear strong is leading Macedonia, a young democracy in the making, toward a negative spiral of violence: Governmental action boosts the popularity of the Albanian guerrillas, inviting more governmental action, until the whole of Macedonia becomes polarized into ethnic military camps of Macedonians and Albanians.

As strange as it may be to suggest, perhaps Europe can learn something from Latin America about how to make peace instead of war in the 21st century.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 6/19/01)