"Oh no, not war in Macedonia as well," ran a headline in The Economist on 10 March. Strictly speaking it was a premature verdict, but it captured that curiously Western mixture of dread mixed with weariness when faced with more problems from the Balkans.
The British broadsheet press roundly condemned the guerrillas' actions, but while there was widespread agreement that some kind of intervention was necessary, there was less certainty about exactly what form it should take.
Yugoslavia and the NATO/KFOR powers have found a common cause in confronting the problem of ethnic Albanian guerrillas, who are becoming such a destabilising force in Kosovo, and over the border in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Relations between the former foes, who less than two years ago were engaged in war over Kosovo, have this week continued their recent thaw.
Clashes spill over into Macedonia
The Macedonian border town of Tanusevci was the focus of much of this week's unrest. Insurgents had occupied the village after skirmishes the week before. The killing of three Macedonian troops on 4 March then provoked an attack by Macedonian forces the following day, causing the Albanians to pull out. NATO offered backing: on 8 March its armed forces entered the village; the previous day, American troops had clashed with guerrillas, injuring two.
Similar unrest continued in the demilitarised zone in Serbia's Presevo Valley, where three Yugoslav soldiers were killed on 7 March by a landmine. By the end of the week NATO had agreed to a limited reoccupation by Serb forces of its buffer zone, from which its forces had been banned since the 1999 ceasefire.
Fear of destabilising Macedonia
The big fear is that the unrest will destabilise Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians make up a third of the population of just two million. Thus far the country has managed to avoid the destructive cycle of ethnic bloodshed that afflicted the other former Yugoslav republics throughout the Nineties. But Western powers have long feared that ethnic strife in Macedonia could unleash a regional conflict dragging Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and even Turkey into the Yugoslav wars. As such this small south Balkan state was in the 1990s the recipient for the first preventive deployment of peacekeepers in United Nations history.
Macedonia's two main ethnic groups have a positive recent history of cooperation in government. In 1998 the Democratic Party of Albanians were invited to join the government coalition, and they currently hold five cabinet posts including that of deputy prime minister. This helped to prevent the combat in Kosovo in 1998-99 spilling over the border into Macedonia.
The leader of the DPA, Arben Xhaferi, condemned the insurgents' recent actions, as did the government in Belgrade, while Bulgaria offered Macedonia the use of its armed forces to help suppress the uprising.
In the words of Anton La Guardia in The Daily Telegraph (6 March), Bulgaria's offer of troops to Macedonia "revived fears in the West of a pan-Balkan conflict centred on Macedonia," raising the spectre of the first two Balkan Wars of the twentieth century.
It was easy enough for the press to condemn and call for action. A leading article in The Times on 8 March was typically forthright: "The Albanian provocations are a calculated attempt to start a fresh war, a disgraceful exploitation of the West's readiness to sacrifice lives in fighting Slobodan Milošević's repression of the Kosovan Albanians and the culmination of the continuing lawlessness in Kosovo, marked by intolerance, criminality and corruption."
"Shoot-outs in the Macedonian hills may sound like the definition of obscurity," considered The Independent in a leading article on 6 March. "But, just as the Milošević virus became worse when it was allowed to spread unchecked, so the dangers of growing Albanian violence are real. If Albanians, who form a majority in parts of Macedonia, tear the country apart, then Serbia itself will not survive intact; and so on, indefinitely... The West closed its eyes for too long to the crimes of Milošević, with disastrous results. The Albanian men of violence must be stopped."
The Financial Times (8 March) asserted that: "Now the biggest threat to a fragile peace in the Balkans comes from Albanian extremism."
At the very least it seems a more assertive holding presence is going to be required from NATO for the foreseeable future. The problem for pundits lies in selecting the exact policy to be recommended, which is not obvious.
What to do about it?
The Guardian (6 March) was surely correct to emphasise the broader constitutional context of the issue, which it classed as, "the lack of a clear consensus among NATO's political masters and the UN about the shape of any final Kosovo settlement. Kosovo remains Yugoslav sovereign territory. Yet most of its inhabitants want substantial autonomy, if not independence from Belgrade."
The Daily Telegraph, in its leading article of 7 March, was quite clear about the answer to this conundrum, and perhaps rather too dogmatic: "That uncertainty breeds frustration, which in turn encourages recourse to violence. The sooner the outside powers give the province the green light for independence, the better."
According to a leading article in The Times on 8 March, "NATO's immediate task must be to reinforce the security of Macedonia, the most fragile state in the Balkans. But the message to Kosovo and its rulers must be that continuing violence, far from hastening self-determination, may so sicken a disillusioned West that aid, interest and protection may fast melt away."
While Kosovo is crucial to regional stability, there appear to be no early solutions feasible for the KFOR protectorate that do not impose a settlement on one side unwillingly—which means a long stay for the protecting powers, whatever.
A new affair
As ever in the Balkans, the broader picture cannot be ignored. The West has an interest in seeing president Vojislav Koštunica succeed in building a truly democratic government in Yugoslavia. To go full steam ahead and grant Kosovo independence would hardly make his position any more secure and his task any easier. Yet Kosovo cannot return happily to Belgrade's control when its population so clearly favours independence.
Perhaps the most interesting development continues to be the rapidly advancing rapprochement between Yugoslavia and NATO powers such as the USA and Britain. "Two years after NATO went to war against Serbia, the two sides are engaged in an open courtship," as Richard Beeston put it in The Times (8 March). "The matchmakers in this blossoming romance are the ethnic Albanians, regarded by NATO as the biggest obstacles to peace."
Military personnel are holding meetings over the current problems, and NATO has taken the decision to allow Yugoslavian armed forces back into its buffer zone. Yugoslavia may even be contemplating formal military links with NATO in the longer term. In an interview with The Times on 8 March, Koštunica revealed: "Partnership for Peace is not a priority for us, but it is not excluded and has been discussed. I would need more time and a change of attitude before thinking about it.
As commented upon in this column two weeks ago, Yugoslavia is quickly rebuilding its relations with the West. "Such a turnaround has been encouraged by Belgrade's restraint," commented The Times on 8 March.
Since gaining power in October 2000, it has been in Koštunica's interest to shelve the question of the long-term constitutional status of Kosovo, so that he could concentrate on establishing his authority and sorting out the country's economic and political mess. This suits NATO, which has no short-term solutions to the Kosovo question and also wishes to avoid it for the time being.
So NATO's answer up till now has been to keep the lid on the Kosovo pot and hope it simmers down in time. But that's assuming no more wars break out in the neighbourhood...
Oliver Craske, 12 March 2001
- Archive of Oliver Craske's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
Footnotes:1. Silber, Laura & Little, Allan, The Death of Yugoslavia, 1996, Penguin/BBC, London, pp 380-381.