255. Making Macedonia Work: Balancing State and Nation after the Violence of 2001

By
Gregory Michaelidis

Introduction

In February 2001, violent clashes between armed Albanian insurgents and Macedonian forces broke out in Macedonia's mountainous northwest. It was thought initially that the violence was a spillover from clashes in the Presevo valley on Serbia's southern border with Kosovo, where a splinter group from the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was fighting Serb forces for control. However, over the ensuing months, it became apparent that a new group - the National Liberation Army (NLA) - had formed on Macedonian soil and, with the help of recruits from Kosovo and elsewhere, was mounting a rebellion against Macedonian authority. They claimed to fight because of discrimination against Albanians in Macedonian society, and because of the slow pace of reform. Macedonian authorities, however, believed the insurgents sought to carve out a piece of northwestern Macedonia, near the city of Tetovo, where ethnic Albanians predominate.

Violence escalated rapidly and a state of near guerilla war ensued for six months, in which roughly 100 lives were lost, mostly combatants. Because the NLA terrorized local Macedonian populations, killed soldiers by ambush, and bombed a centuries-old Macedonian monastery, little good will remained toward Albanian non-combatants and politicians, who were viewed by Macedonians as giving aid to the insurgency. In reply, the Macedonian army's crude handling of the insurgency, and the rapid deputizing of angry Macedonian civilians by the hawkish Interior Minister Boskovski, led outsiders to believe that a repeat of the vicious Balkan wars of ethnic cleansing of the early 1990s was at hand.

After several months of shuttle diplomacy, EU and American officials managed to bring both sides to the negotiating table. The NLA was ostensibly represented by civilian Albanian politicians who claimed to be proxies of, not sympathizers with, the NLA fighters. In August 2001, a provisional deal was struck in Ohrid which provided greater rights and representation for Albanians in Macedonian society and an amnesty for NLA fighters, in exchange for the group disarming and disbanding. The later phase was overseen by a 3,500-men NATO contingent, which has since been replaced by a 1,000-men, largely German, peacekeeping force dubbed "Amber Fox." In spring 2002, tensions remain high as the reforms are slowly enacted.

State of the Nation

Several things have been remarkable about Macedonia these last few months. First, it is not much in the news, pushed off the major newspapers' Europe pages by the war on terror and the country's relative quietude. Second, Macedonia is generally peaceful. Given the speed with which the conflict between the NLA and government forces escalated last year, it is remarkable how quickly the general situation has stabilized. Finally, Macedonians have reacted with a muted sense of cynicism to two recent moves on the foreign stage: the haul of several million Euros from an EU-led donor conference, and the circulation of an unofficial list of likely new NATO members that leaves Macedonia out of the running for the next round of expansion. On the latter point, resignation, rather than outright bitterness, seemed to be the prevailing mood in Skopje in March 2002.

Macedonia's "Difficult Decade" of Independence

Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Macedonia has had a very difficult first decade of independence. It left Yugoslavia in 1991-92 as a poor country with little or no military resources. Soon, sanctions placed on Serbia because of its actions in Bosnia, decimated trade to the north. Border sanctions by Greece, owing to several Greek objections related to Macedonian independence, decimated trade to the south until the dispute was resolved in 1995. That same year, an assassination attempt on President Kiro Gligorov left the young country with internal turmoil and unsteady leadership at a time when urgent reforms were needed most. Four years later, the NATO-led bombing of Kosovo and Serbia spawned a refugee crisis, bringing into Macedonia a number of refugees equal to almost half of the country's total population. Finally, the ethnic violence of 2001 slowed economic reform, investment, and tourism.

Major Concerns in the Short-Run

There are still obstructionist politicians on both the Macedonian and Albanian sides, who threaten to slow or block reforms, amnesty, policing agreements, etc. Internal tension over the hardline approach of Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski also threatens progress toward peace. Meanwhile, radical Albanians and NLA splinter groups, angered by the slow pace of reform, may mount more violence in the coming months.

Lack of border control and the inability of Macedonia to prevent smuggling, trafficking, and infiltration of potential terrorists pose a major threat over both the short- and long-term, as does a backlash against the US and NATO because of exclusion in the next round of enlargement.

Needed Reforms

The following is a list, by no means extensive, of the most basic, necessary reforms and changes, in no particular order. Normalization of relations with Greece, with final settlement of the name issue, would bring a sense of regularity and international acceptance to the young Macedonian state, firming up its place in a troubled region and solving the fundamental problem with what has become its largest, most important trading partner. With trade and investment already flowing freely between the two countries, the recognition would come as a major psychological achievement that would end, at least legally, a decade of dispute over Macedonia's existence as a free and independent state.

Greater foreign investment is also needed to counter the lack of jobs and lack of hard currency in the Macedonian economy. Though at first glance Macedonia may seem a long shot for major foreign investment and development, the country harbors no great fears over the de-nationalization of its industries, and possesses an educated, largely non-union, low-cost labor pool in major towns with decent transportation.

The nation should also benefit from effective use of the recent aid package from the EU. The government needs to reverse public cynicism about the use of such aid by effectively communicating the intended use of financial assistance to Macedonians. Aid should go toward uses that help integrate the country and rebuild areas damaged by violence.

The government, as well as other aspects of Macedonian civic life, needs to mount a national effort at ethnic reconciliation and understanding. This will need to be both a top-down and bottom-up process that involves Macedonian civil society, NGOs, schools, universities, and the press. Currently, there seems to be little distance between government, the press, and the academic sectors. This national effort ought to seek to create greater independence and transparency among all of these actors. Part of this effort should be a national dialogue on the meaning of "terrorism," as even moderate Macedonians use the term indiscriminately, applying it to nearly any Albanians accused of violence against the Macedonian state.

Finally, Macedonia needs to continue to seek greater political and security integration with EU, NATO, and the US. Macedonia will do best when its progress is coordinated with broader trends in Europe, such as collective security, and common legal, banking, and border policies. The fact that the country already uses the Euro is a positive sign.

Gregory Michaelidis spoke at an EES Discussion on April 17, 2002. The above is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report #255.

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
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant