SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — More than 1,000 ethnic Albanians marched in the capital of Macedonia on Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of Albania's independence from the Ottoman Empire. Some politicians have opposed such celebrations, saying they could stoke ethnic tensions in Macedonia.
The prime ministers of neighboring Albania and Kosovo, Sali Berisha and Hashim Thaci, were expected to attend the celebrations later Sunday at Skopje's sports center.
The anniversary celebrations in Macedonia's capital are scheduled to last for four days, and similar festivities will take place later this week in the capitals of Kosovo and Albania.
Ethnic Albanians make up about 25 percent of Macedonia's population of 2.1 million, but tension with the country's Slavic-speaking Macedonian majority has remained high since a six-month armed ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001 to demand greater autonomy in minority areas.
For nearly five centuries, Albania was at the heart of a sprawling Ottoman Empire, but it declared independence in 1912, and is now a parliamentary democracy and member of the United Nations and NATO.
In Skopje, Macedonia's capital, thousands of Albanian national flags — a black double-headed eagle on a red background — were on display Sunday there and in minority areas of northern and western Macedonia. Divers even placed the flag at the bottom of Lake Ohrid, which straddles Macedonia and Albania.
"This is really an exaggeration" auto-mechanic Jovan Krstevski, 49, of Skopje told The Associated Press, as ethnic Albanians marched there. "I have nothing against any flag or celebrations, but placing such huge flags in such a manner and with such noise is nothing but dramatizing the event and has nothing to do with a tribute. Just the opposite, only to demonstrate the (minority's) power and to provoke their fellow Macedonians."
The opposition Social Democrats earlier described a decision by the Macedonian government to join Albania's independence celebrations as a "political provocation."
Conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has the country's largest ethnic Albanian party, the DUI, in his coalition government. The DUI is led by Ali Ahmeti.
"We ask whether Gruevski and Ahmeti are aware that their irresponsible behavior and harmful policies will cause fresh ethnic tension and undermine the rule of law?" deputy Social Democrat leader Gordan Georgiev said recently.
Even Gruevski allies have publicly argued that the Albanian celebrations are part of a minority drive toward creating a largely autonomous state — a notion dismissed by Ahmeti.
Stojance Angelov — leader of Dignity, an association of Macedonian veterans of the 2001 ethnic conflict — said such a move would be unfair and damaging to Macedonia.
In an interview with Channel Five TV, Ahmeti said, "Raising the Albanian national flag is not a demonstration of power, but part of a great date for us Albanians and ... should not be seen as a provocation to the Macedonians."
He said, "We do not have any pretensions to dividing Macedonia because Macedonia is our country, Macedonia is our homeland. Our ancestors were here, our future is here and we need to build our future together."
Relations between the two main coalition partners have, however, soured in recent weeks after the country's ethnic Albanian defense minister paid tribute to the insurgents of 2001. Gruevski responded by presenting draft legislation to grant pensions to former government soldiers who fought in the ethnic conflict — but not to rebel veterans.
Two recent incidents in neighboring Albania also have raised tensions in Macedonia.
Macedonian national flags were set on fire in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and eggs were thrown at a car carrying Gruevski as the Macedonian prime minister visited Tirana.
Macedonia's government complained about both incidents, and the Albanian foreign ministry condemned them.