Another Rebel Victory-By Default

By
Henry Dinella

July 2001 - The battle to decide if F.Y.R. Macedonia will continue as a multi-ethnic state with a Slav majority and a large ethnic Albanian minority is almost over. At this point in the five-month-old insurgency, the rebels know that all they have to do to win is not to quit.

The West could defeat the rebels militarily. However, it is unlikely that NATO countries would accept the casualties that such a victory would require. The Macedonian army, in its current state of training and preparedness, cannot defeat the rebels by itself.

A NATO training mission to teach the Macedonian army how to fight the insurgency does not appear to be under active consideration. If the insurgency continues, the Macedonian army can either be expected to continue to shell rebel-occupied Albanian villages from a distance or stop its barrages and simply leave the rebels in control of the majority Albanian areas they occupy.

Current policy in Skopje furthers the interests of the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), which wants the government to alienate ethnic Albanians by threatening their lives, destroying their homes, and displacing them from their farms and villages. The shelling of Albanian villages by the government creates more support-and recruits-for the NLA and increases its profile as the protector of a besieged minority.

The NLA rebels will show the villagers how to take cover from shelling and how to ration food and water supplies. When possible, the rebels will provide medical assistance to ill and wounded villagers and help evacuate displaced Albanians to other rebel-dominated areas, or even Kosovo.

The rebels, by their presence in Albanian villages, demonstrate their preparedness to defend Albanian property and rights. At the same time, the guerrillas will ensure that no one tries to inform the villagers that they are being shelled because violent separatists occupying those areas are waging war against the government.

On a recent trip to F.Y.R. Macedonia, I observed some small contingents of the Macedonian army and police, including a truck full of soldiers south of Skopje. From the condition of their uniforms and their general appearance, the soldiers looked like an uninspired and undisciplined lot. Two casually aimed rifles poked out of the open rear of the truck.

Although the truck was traveling in a potentially hostile environment, subject to attack by guerrillas at any time, the soldiers, through a lack of training or leadership, or both, were clearly not prepared for an attack.

The canvas on the truck was tied down on both sides. The rear of the truck was the only point from which the soldiers could respond to an attack. Ignoring the rear of the truck, at least initially, guerrillas could have sprayed the entire vehicle with automatic weapons fire and received no fire in return. Any soldiers trying to escape or deploy against such an attack would have had to exit from the rear, where they would have been convenient targets. This is a perfect example of how the Macedonian army makes it easy for the NLA to score tactical victories.

Throughout the insurgency, Macedonian forces have been hugely successful in implementing rebel strategy. It is believed that one-fifth of F.Y.R. Macedonia's ethnic Albanians-100,000 people-have been displaced within the country or compelled to seek shelter in nearby Kosovo. As the misery index in F.Y.R. Macedonia climbs and television cameras broadcast images of desperate refugees to Western audiences, so too will climb the West's interest in stopping the bloodshed.

Unable to rely on its army yet desirous of a military victory, the government is reportedly condoning, or at least not impeding, the emergence of a nationalist paramilitary group called Paramilitary 2000 to battle the NLA. This is another strategy that plays directly into NLA hands.

Government paramilitary troops, as we have seen in Bosnia and Kosovo, traditionally act more like thugs and terrorists than disciplined soldiers. Such groups, unlike the Macedonian army, may be more inclined to engage the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters of the NLA head-on. However, if past actions are an indication of future trends, paramilitary forces of this type will be more likely to burn villages and to rape, kill, and otherwise terrorize ethnic Albanians wherever they encounter them in the country.

Initiatives like Paramilitary 2000 will convince the ever-decreasing number of ethnic Albanians who may still harbor thoughts of a multi-ethnic F.Y.R. Macedonia that they can no longer live in the same society with F.Y.R. Macedonia's Slav majority.

Western policy for F.Y.R. Macedonia calls for the continued territorial integrity of the country and the perpetuation of a multi-ethnic society primarily comprised of Slavs and Albanians. Now, on the verge of all-out civil war, F.Y.R. Macedonia is being urged by the West to seek a political solution to the NLA insurgency through negotiations with its Albanian minority. This is a difficult task given the Macedonian government's reluctance to negotiate directly with the NLA rebels, who are holding the weapons and conducting the insurgency. There will be no ceasefire without their consent.

According to the Western plan, when the Macedonian government successfully concludes its negotiations with the country's ethnic Albanian political leaders and they, in turn, convince the rebels to stop fighting, NATO will send 3,000 troops into F.Y.R. Macedonia to ensure that the ceasefire holds by collecting the weapons that the NLA will voluntarily turn in to alliance troops. The premise that the ethnic Albanian leadership can influence the rebels, most of whom come from Kosovo, to stop fighting and turn in their weapons is, at the very least, dubious.

Moreover, if NATO's collection of KLA weapons in Kosovo is any measure of the success it hopes to achieve in F.Y.R. Macedonia, it becomes apparent just how unrealistic the alliance's approach might be. If NATO had collected the KLA's newest and most lethal weapons in Kosovo, the NLA would certainly have fewer weapons to use against F.Y.R. Macedonia and turn in to NATO today.

It is only a matter of time before NATO will be compelled to intervene to stop the fighting. NATO's June evacuation of up to 400 armed NLA rebels from the Macedonian town of Aracinovo to an NLA-dominated area further from Skopje demonstrates that the alliance is more committed to stopping the fighting than ensuring the territorial integrity of F.Y.R. Macedonia. In the end, the rebels left Aracinovo under their own terms, one more indicator that it is the rebels, rather than NATO or the Macedonian government, that are in control.

Aware of the dangers that the insurgency poses, a number of influential present and former Macedonian government officials are not overly anxious for a NATO intervention, even in the event of a stable ceasefire. Such an intervention may lead to the very outcome they wish to avoid: a territorial break-up of F.Y.R. Macedonia along ethnic lines.

Therefore, a number of officials prefer that Skopje handle the insurgency on its own. Certain forms of support, such as a genuine sealing of the Kosovo-F.Y.R. Macedonia border by NATO and a determined effort by the West to curtail rebel propaganda and fundraising in the U.S. and Europe, would be welcomed by the government.

A NATO training mission for the Macedonian army would also be welcomed in some quarters. A NATO-trained group of dedicated and professional Macedonian soldiers would certainly fare better against the NLA and alienate far fewer ethnic Albanians than any paramilitary groups that might be employed as a last resort. However, it may already be too late for actions short of an outright NATO intervention that, regardless of its initial mission statement, ends up imposing a de facto separation of the antagonists along ethnic lines.

In its Bosnia and Kosovo interventions, NATO ultimately redefined "victory" to mean stopping the bloodshed by separating combatants along ethnic lines. While the West prefers to see F.Y.R. Macedonia continue as a unified, multi-ethnic state, this becomes less likely every day.

NATO's current policy of non-intervention, except under special circumstances like Aracinovo, makes an eventual intervention that separates the combatants along ethnic lines likely, if not inevitable. If NATO won't fight the rebels, and it is almost certain that it won't; if F.Y.R. Macedonia won't fight them, and it is almost certain that it can't; and if the rebels don't quit, then, in one manner or another, the rebels will win.
 

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