240. Making a Drizzle into a Rain Storm: Lessons to be Learned from the Conflict in Macedonia

By
Isa Blumi

The events of September 11 and the subsequent military and diplomatic reactions have consumed the attention of the world's media and viewing public. While the horrible events have been condemned by the global community, that does not mean they have been immune from manipulation by the unscrupulous. Unfortunately, September 11 has provided the latest rhetorical backdrop for a number of personalities in the Balkans who seek to recharge a rationale of war. With its attention directed elsewhere, the mainstream media has failed to cover how policy-making entities in the Balkans have actively sought to associate so-called Islamic terrorism with the region's millions of Muslims. This is a rhetorical gesture that had been frequently used in the past to promote social tensions and create a sense of siege. The new wave instigated by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic and counterparts in Skopje must be addressed if Western diplomats want to bring lasting peace to the region.

While I do not wish to focus on this opportunistic use of Bush's "war on terrorism," the instinctual move Macedonian and Serb politicians have made nevertheless provides a perfect backdrop to this discussion. I suggest that mechanisms of conflict in the region are very much embedded in state agencies and in the state's enduring legacy on how citizens choose to understand the world around them. For example, the media in the Balkans, whether "free" or directly linked to the state, have propelled the region into more than a decade of war, mass murder and economic ruin.

Commentators are correct to find reasons for legitimate social uneasiness in the relative failure of Balkan societies to adjust to the economic transformations of the last 15 years. Such economy-driven considerations, however, fail to identify some of the more pervasive and persistent legacies of the socialist era. I would argue that mechanisms that create - and indeed, the personalities who evoked - the spectra of "Albanian terrorism" and "Islamic fundamentalism" on Europe's doorstep are mobilizing resources and socio-relational patterns introduced by various Communist regimes in the 1940s. The remarkable success of the state - including state institutions such as the Church and the media - in maintaining a central role in shaping how society understands its place in the world can best explain the wars in the Balkans. The population at large, while often armed with cynicism, has consistently proven amenable to state propaganda which actively sought to demonize parts of its own population in order to empower the regime.

Macedonia's media consumers - very much a recipient and product of many years of Yugoslav ethnic politics - have, over the past ten years, revealed a debilitating affinity towards journalists and political parities which leave objectivity and ethics at the door. One of the consequences for Macedonia has been the last year of "ethnic" violence, which has pitted an artificially construed Slav Macedonian State against a "minority," often labeled as the "foreign" "fanatic" and "terrorist" Albanian-speaking population.

Unfortunately, much of the basis of this ethno-national rhetoric has been adopted by Western policy makers and the media in explaining this part of the world. While the formula is well known and has often been criticized by liberal democratic societies whose own problems with xenophobia have only recently been (though incompletely) eradicated from mainstream society, Western diplomacy still pays heed to this kind of politics. In Ohrid, Macedonia, for example, delegates from the European Union, the United States, and Macedonia's combatants completed a series of meetings to end the crisis of the last ten months. As delegates hammered out reforms that promised "equality" for the country's large Albanian-speaking population, one could not help but be struck by how readily the participants accepted the notion that there were hard and firm "ethnic" divides that animated the events.

More than four years ago, I tried to define the West's failed intervention in the southern Balkans as the reflection of a policy largely dictated by erroneous notions mired in "ancient hatred" animosities and unsolvable ethnic divides. I argued then, as I argue now, that while it is easy to subscribe to overarching assumptions about the protagonists in Macedonia's domestic crisis, it is a dangerous mistake to subscribe to the use of these assumptions in the attempt to find a solution. I am afraid, Ohrid and the diplomacy that followed hint that nothing significant has changed.

I suggest that the political agreement that has been cobbled together after a last minute intervention from leading EU officials may prove short-lived precisely because methodologically nothing has changed. Nationalist elements within the Macedonian Slav cabinet, mobilized by the fiery Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, have continuously dashed hopes for a reliable, peaceful solution, openly criticizing the Ohrid plan's founding principles guaranteeing basic equality for all of Macedonia's citizens. Periodic assassinations, roaming paramilitary groups and indiscriminate use of Ukrainian attack helicopters on loan has sustained the atmosphere of war. The kind of baiting practiced by Boskovski and even Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, over the last ten months is a proven weapon in Macedonian politics that has yet to be removed from those who abuse it.

Such tactics of "mass mobilization" have been used in Yugoslavia in the immediate post- communist period to produce the wars that grabbed the world's attention. Such well-organized "media events" are the engines that drive the rhetorical content, which in turn shape the parameters of analysis within which national and international discourse rests. This has prompted a chain of collective reasoning that, in the case of Macedonia, turned a minor police matter involving a local community of smugglers into an international crisis. The West will always be vulnerable to such tactics unless serious efforts are made to change how we conduct our diplomatic affairs.

To address this crisis, the West must remove the rhetorical tools of nationalists like those attached to VMRO-DPMNE, the ruling Macedonian political party, and those who emerged in the now disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK in Albanian). These extremists, purposefully or not, fan the fires of war for domestic and international consumption. Diplomats should at the same time develop a greater appreciation for the internal, domestic dynamics of inter-community conflict in order to find a "lasting resolution" to the ills plaguing the Balkans, in the process once and for all silencing the politics of ethnic, communal and racial hate.

Unfortunately, the international community's imposed political mechanisms actively seek to sidestep an inherent dynamism in local life which articulates the complexity and nuance of the Macedonian population. Instead of finding ways to intervene locally, Western diplomats patronize "leaders" who are at best linked to residual communist structures of power in the country (i.e., leaders of political parties). In this diplomatic formula, it is simply not possible for alternative voices to be heard, resulting in an unintended empowering of political opportunists and irresponsible extremists. This process was most noticeable in the case of the border with Kosova.

Unfortunately, the West is so consumed by the myth of ethnic tensions and the force of nationalism in the Balkans that it is impossible for their diplomatic corps to understand that patronizing party bosses does not work. It is for this reason that the West should double its efforts to disrupt the power "representatives" of both "communities" enjoy by permitting a space within which local communities have a way to represent themselves. That said, if these changes are to have any hope of surviving, there is going to have to be serious consideration given to changing how the West understands the region and its place in the world.

Isa Blumi spoke at an EES Discussion on November 14, 2001. The above is an edited summary of his presentation. Meeting Report #240.

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