237. Macedonia in Crisis

By
Duncan Perry

The events of September 11, 2001 have pushed the crisis in Macedonia very much into the background of world affairs. Nevertheless, events there remain of crucial importance to stability in the Balkans. Macedonia's future is anything but clear. It faces the multiple threats of civil war, political and social disintegration, and economic disaster.

Macedonia's troubles began in February 2001. Following the cessation of NATO's bombing campaign and the establishment of Kosovo as a NATO protectorate, some members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - unemployed and unwilling to lay down their weapons - began to pursue their trade in Macedonia. These insurgents, who practiced guerrilla warfare and employed terrorist tactics, call themselves the National Liberation Army (NLA). A menu of raids and shellings, firefights and explosions, augmented by threats of violence and posturing from both sides, followed. Most of the action was concentrated in the Kumanovo and Tetovo regions. NLA attacks have radically changed Macedonian politics and life.

The government was seemingly caught off guard by the NLA, which, at first, did not have a clearly identified goal. Leaders' demands eventually came to echo those of Albanian politicians - insisting that Albanian become an official state language and that Albanians gain equal status with Macedonians. Macedonia's security forces and military were ill-equipped and ill-trained to cope with the threat. As soldiers and police died, the government grew angry and frustrated, the more so because theirs is a constitutional democracy under fire from people whom most Macedonians see as separatist terrorists. The NLA goaded the military to attack them, and thus, to attack civilian villages where the insurgents were hiding. This, of course, antagonized Albanian civilians living in the affected areas, most of whom originally had not been especially sympathetic to the NLA. Ironically, NATO allies had troops living in the country but they possessed no mandate to intervene. The Macedonian forces learned fast and began to receive sophisticated weaponry and instruction from abroad.

Many of the NLA seem to be Macedonian Albanians by origin, radicalized and hardened by fighting in Kosovo. Some are Kosovar Albanians. Albanian recruits from Macedonia, who have joined since February, tend to be young, unemployed men attracted by adventure and an opportunity to "get even" with Macedonians. The NLA is ruthless, with a mission that we can only assume parallels that of the KLA - an independent Albanian state to include at least Kosovo and Macedonia's Albanian inhabited territory.

The NLA has demanded a seat at the negotiating table with the government. It has been formally excluded, however, although the West has accorded it some legitimacy by bargaining with its leaders about arms and the Ohrid Agreement - actions which Macedonians keenly resent.

The actions of the NLA insurgents enraged Macedonian civilians, whose xenophobia was boosted with the killing of each Macedonian policeman and soldier. Polarization between Macedonians and Albanians grew. Soon, 'spontaneous' Macedonian attacks on Albanian-owned businesses and Albanian homes followed in Bitola and elsewhere. As rage intensified, rumors of encouragement from hardline government officials in support of revenge attacks on Albanian civilian targets spread. Meanwhile, the press on both sides became more rabidly nationalistic. Efforts at reconciliation all but disappeared.

At this point, the West intervened reluctantly, slowly, with no firm plan and little apparent concept of the issues or their importance. With the Kosovo struggle still on their minds, the West's spot-light fell on Macedonian-Albanian relations. Noting that the various Macedonian governments had failed to end discrimination against the Albanian minority or give them equal constitutional standing, the West publicly chastised Skopje, its ally and partner, while seeming to sanctify the Albanians.

What most in the West seemed to forget was that Macedonia is a sovereign state, not a protectorate like Kosovo. It is a democracy, albeit perhaps a weak and corrupt one. Nevertheless, the horrors of Kosovo have not been visited upon the Albanians of Macedonia. Unlike in Kosovo, Albanians had been actively serving in the government and in parliament since the virtual inception of the new state. Moreover, although the plight of Albanians in Macedonia was far from ideal, discrimination against them was nothing like the violence and ethnic cleansing practiced against them in Kosovo.

Still, the West is allergic to changing any borders and pressed the Macedonian government for reforms, presumably on the logic that happier Albanians will want to stay within Macedonia and not try to unite with Kosovo, which Western leaders seek to keep within Yugoslavia. Macedonians felt like they were the enemy with the Albanians, including the Albanian insurgents who were attacking a sovereign state, as the good guys. The Western media generally painted the Macedonians as troglodites. Even reform-minded Macedonians began to resent the West, in particular NATO and the US - and still do.

Thanks to the Ohrid Agreement of August 13, the NLA, in a symbolic gesture, has been voluntarily surrendering weapons - some 3,300 in all are to be handed in. Some Western diplomats suggest this number represents the total of the NLA arsenal. This is an absurd assumption based on all known facts, but the principle is that the arms surrender, called Operation Essential Harvest, is a conciliatory gesture, which, in turn was meant to induce the Macedonian parliament to initiate constitutional reforms. The Albanians seem to be holding out their heavy weapons like grenade missile launchers, among other equipment, just in case.

The President of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, a moderate, argues that his country should follow NATO's lead in an effort to move Macedonia out of the shadow of civil war. The government of national unity, formed in May 2001, is a coalition made up of members from the main parties. Ministers exhibit differing levels of sophistication and experience, as well as clashing values and ideologies. The Macedonian members are either moderates or right-wing nationalists while the Albanians are nationalists who, at present, are behaving like pragmatists, seeking to promote the best deal they can. Politicians, in general, have not distinguished themselves by their statesmanship. All parties have lost considerable popular support and trust, a serious matter given that national elections are scheduled for January 2002. The rightists seem to see only a military solution to the Macedonian crisis and would prefer not to have Western forces remain in the country after the NLA arms collection is concluded. They appear to believe that they have the needed wherewithal to wipe out the NLA. The timing, of course, is excellent, as the West has other preoccupations.

Compounding the low esteem in which most leaders are held is the matter of corruption. The media in Macedonia regularly recite instances of graft, theft and other forms of dishonesty, petty and great, high up in the government.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski reluctantly asked the parliament to approve the reforms called for in the Ohrid document, in order to gain a promised $240 million in aid, but in truth opposes the changes. On September 6, the Macedonian Parliament did indeed pass them by a 91-19 margin - with a majority feeling as though the reforms had been, in the words of one legislator, "extorted."

The Agreement includes hiring more Albanian police - about 1,000 by 2003; the elevation of the Albanian language to "official" status in specified circumstances; provisions for greater decentralization at the local level of government; and, local control over appointment of police chiefs. The new draft preamble asserts that Macedonia is the land of its citizens, thus eliminating reference to non-Macedonians as "nationalities," i.e., minorities. In addition, the parliament has been asked to offer an amnesty to most of the NLA fighters, a notion that is greeted by Macedonians with much anger.

The debate, however, is far from over. Some politicians are calling for a referendum on the parliamentary action. Should the referendum fail, the reforms could be abandoned, leaving the Macedonian government potentially out in the cold regarding Western assistance, but stronger at home, given that the majority will would support its position. With elections approaching in early 2002, this outcome could be of material help to nationalists seeking to be elected or reelected. It could also turn Albanian popular opinion toward secession.

While discussions continue, reports of ongoing, though sporadic violence, kidnappings and more are being reported by both sides. In an especially troubling turn of events, Macedonian paramilitary militias are sharpening their knives. According to press reports, Ljube Boskovski, Minister of the Interior and a right-wing nationalist, is credited with supporting and encouraging the formation of Macedonian extra-legal paramilitary groups. These groups, with names like the Lions and Eagles, are increasingly visible and seem to be working with the military and police, exercising force and intimidation and acting like vigilantes. Their behavior is a challenge to democracy.

For the West's part, plans are shaping up for a continuing Western presence in Macedonia, although the military force will be small, perhaps no more than 350-600 EU or NATO troops, likely under the leadership of Germany, to provide protection for a contingent of unarmed OSCE and/or EU observers that would be placed there with the approval of the Macedonian government.

In all of the turmoil, religious institutions in Macedonia are noticeable by their lack of influence and lack of leadership in the current crisis. The same cannot be said of the media, which has demonstrated itself to be highly incendiary, highly influential, and highly biased, operating generally with no ethical and few, if any, professional controls.

What is All This About?

In its essence, this turmoil is about the lack of trust between peoples who have shared the same territory for a millennium or more, sometimes in amity and peace, sometimes with bloodshed and oppression, one to the other. Today, anger and emotion, nationalism and xenophobia, rule. Macedonians increasingly feel besieged by the growing Albanian population, while the Albanians feel increasingly oppressed by the majority Macedonians. Instead of finding common ground, they have each dug in and thanks to the presence of the NLA, the Macedonians tend to be distrustful of all Albanians, while the Albanians feel increasingly alienated.

A recent poll suggests that a majority of Macedonian citizens, irrespective of ethnic identity, believe that all can live peacefully together with members of other ethnic groups, proof that there are rational people, and lots of them, who want to find a way to bridge the chasm and move on with reconstructing the democracy. The danger is that escalation, brought on by nationalists from both sides, will push reasonable people farther apart.

Recommendations

The following are some thoughts on what might help build confidence - in the West, in the Ohrid Agreement plan, in the state, and in each other. By no means exhaustive, this list nevertheless is suggested in the hope of stimulating thinking about ways of bringing the divided land together. Items are listed with the understanding that any overtures from outside Macedonia must be made with care and circumspect understanding of the circumstances and the cultures. They are not prioritized.
 

  • Find a modality that keeps a substantial number of Western troops actively in Macedonia, with a mandate to manage the borders and broker the peace, serving as a buffer between the two sides.
     
  • Begin to treat the resolution of Macedonian affairs as part of a plan to resolve the Balkan crisis.
     
  • Immediately disarm and disburse the Albanian insurgent organizations, Macedonian militias and other extra-constitutional forces.
     
  • Actively promote the creation of a Southeastern European cooperation agreement that confirms borders and provides for security, economic and other cooperation.
     
  • Resolve the issue of Macedonia's official name so that Macedonian citizens may feel like full members of the international community.
     
  • Have the West mount a serious, carefully thought-out and sustained public relations campaign within Macedonia in support of achieving stability and helping people understand why it is so essential.
     
  • Identify and empower high-minded people to help make them opinion makers.
     
  • Quickly intervene to help rebuild the economy, create jobs, and establish a viable economic infrastructure.
     
  • Ensure that the government puts in place and enforces effective anti-corruption measures, using appropriate leverage if required.
     
  • Aid in bringing down unemployment, creating jobs to deflect people from war related activities.
     
  • Give people a stake in their futures, something to hang on to - property.
     
  • Aid in introducing legislation for business and promote a free market economy; help develop a middle class; and, facilitate entrepreneurship.
     
  • Promote education for all, especially children; integrate schools and universities; and, eliminate ethnic bias from textbooks.
     
  • Create a professional school for journalism; create a professional school for business; and, reform teacher training - teach tolerance.
     
  • Employ strong diplomatic representation in Skopje.
     
  • Work with the police and the military, equipping them with appropriate knowledge, technology and weapons, while ensuring that they are trained in the constitutional limits of their authority, with consequences for failing to behave properly.
     
  • Find ways to restore confidence in government, judiciary and civil service.
     
  • Publish and broadcast unbiased reporting.
     
  • Find ways through the media and elsewhere, to teach people of different cultures about others.
     
  • Work with the media to create and enforce ethical standards for journalists, perhaps through the creation of a national ethics board and provide professional training for journalists.
     
  • Assist in promoting multi-cultural dialogue at all levels of society; encourage interfaith dialogue at all levels; promote multi-ethnic companies; teach Albanian to Macedonians and Macedonian to Albanians; and, develop serious and meaningful programs that demonstrate the value of working and living together and reward this behavior.
     
  • Bring other minorities, who are lost in the debate, to the table.
     
  • Expand regional government - local units are too small (this may be under way).
     
  • Fight regional crime.
     
  • Resettle refugees in their homes.

Such activities require a good deal of work and demand a great many resources that most countries would rather not commit. Making this kind of commitment now, in the face of the events of September 11, will be doubly difficult. But, already, at least two other Albanian terrorist groups have turned up recently, even more militant than the NLA - the Albanian National Army (ANA) and the National Committee for the Liberation and Protection of Albanian Soil. Both seem to want a unified Albania based on pre-1913 boundaries. Neither is interested in observing the Ohrid Agreement and both pledge to carry on with a terrorist insurgency. The ANA claims to have killed 17 Macedonian soldiers so far, along with two Serbian soldiers in the Presevo Valley of Serbia.

The US will certainly be distracted by its own issues. Other countries will also be reassessing their commitment to Southeastern Europe. Macedonians and Albanians state that they have the impression that the West wishes to deposit a few observers in this troubled land, provide a few soldiers to cover them, then declare victory and go home. This augers badly for stability as only a sustained, long term, and committed presence in Macedonia can turn things around. Absent this, we can be assured that left unattended, the Macedonian hearth will ignite fires that could grow into another Balkan conflagration.

Dr. Perry was scheduled to speak at an EES noon discussion on September 11, 2001, which was subsequently postponed due to the tragic events of that day. The above is a summary of his postponed presentation. Meeting Report #237.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant