With fighting breaking out in and around the Albanian-dominated city of Tetovo this week, a new Balkan conflict was upon us. How we arrived here so soon after the Kosovo war and the overthrow of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević was a key question being posed in the British press.
Rory Carroll and Nicholas Wood in The Guardian (16 March) reported ethnic Albanians in Tetovo blaming "years of Macedonian discrimination" for provoking the uprising. Certainly they have some cause for complaint, but when you compare their lot with the suffering endured by their fellow Albanians in Kosovo for a decade this is not entirely convincing.
A historical approach
Mark Mazower, professor of history at Birkbeck College London, argued in the Financial Times (16 March) that the Western powers had been sucked into the ethnic Albanian cause two years ago and were now reaping what they had sowed then in Kosovo.
He drew parallels with anti-Turkish unrest in Macedonia a century ago, when Macedonian Slavs "blew up banks, sank ships and even triggered a peasant uprising—all in the hope of dragging the Great Powers into the region." This time, of course, the insurgents are not Macedonia's Slavs but ethnic Albanians. Mazower contended that in Kosovo "they have already gone one better" than their predecessors of the early twentieth century, in achieving victory "by provoking the Serbs and then manoeuvring the Great Powers to intervene on their behalf," adding for good measure that this was how the Greeks and Bulgarians gained independence in the nineteenth century.
After Vladimir Putin and others, he argued that the Kosovo conflict established a dangerous precedent in effecting changes in international borders through force. "And so the west is forced to confront these unpredictable consequences of the Kosovo campaign," he avers—though perhaps one should follow Mazower's argument through to what is surely its logical end and conclude that the consequences were predictable.
Forecasts and forebodings
Powers of prediction have generally been poor this time. Few commentators forecast this next phase of Balkan crisis. Jonathan Steele (The Guardian, 15 March) described it as "doubly unexpected" and said it had "caught Balkan politicians by surprise." (It is worth noting that he also argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that, "The fighting is not connected to the trouble in the Presevo valley of southern Serbia.")
One predictive article that comes to mind was that written by Paddy Ashdown, former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, shortly after Milošević was toppled from power (The Guardian, 14 October 2000). His case was that the West "seems incapable of thinking of more than one Balkan thing at a time. But in the Balkans it is the interconnection of things which matters." His principal concern at that point was that the West not undermine Croatian stability through accommodating the new Serbia, but he also proposed a "southern Balkans Dayton" with the aim of addressing:
a number of interconnected southern Balkan issues still to be resolved: the status of Kosovo, the relationship between Montenegro and Serbia, the stability of Macedonia and, now that we have removed the danger of a greater Serbia, the question of a greater Albania.
Martin Woollacott, writing in The Guardian on 16 March, felt the new conflict fits a consistent pattern which goes back over the past decade, suggesting that the West's repeated selection of the "easy way out" with each conflict has repeatedly stored up future trouble elsewhere.
Focusing on the current unrest, he laid the blame at the doors of both the West and the Albanian insurgents themselves. The KFOR powers were blamed for their "timorous and unrealistic" approach, while he pinpointed the reckless selfishness of the Albanians, suggesting that the violence may have its roots in "an alliance of convenience between Macedonian Albanians who are for the moment political losers and Kosovan Albanians who did not get their share of the spoils in Kosovo." Again, echoes of previous conflicts in the region, where countless politicians have been unable to resist the temptation of stirring up ethnic hatred in order to expand their own personal power base.
America comes in for criticism
Woollacott suggested that there was a new example of the timorous approach this week: the USA's announcement that it will withdraw some of its forces from NATO's SFOR contingent in Bosnia, including 900 troops and all its 16 Apache helicopter gunships, with a view to winding down its Balkan commitments.
It is indeed hard to imagine that America could have managed worse timing. "NATO officials were stunned by the plan, which comes as instability in the Balkans is worsening," according to Julian Borger's article in The Guardian the same day, citing not only the trouble with ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia and Serbia, but also the uncertainty in Bosnia itself where Bosnian Croats declared autonomy for Croat-dominated areas on 3 March.
Earlier, a report in The Observer (11 October) cited a claim by "senior European officers" who served with KFOR that the CIA bore responsibility for the unrest. Corroborated by Macedonian and US sources, they said that the CIA had secretly backed former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters to form an underground army in Serbia with the aim of undermining Milošević, and ignored the cross-border smuggling of troops and arms, thus encouraging the current uprisings.
Mazower argued that the American element of KFOR, which operates in the crucial border areas, has been patrolling the frontiers "half-heartedly." Woollacott said it was "shameful that K-For should have permitted guerrillas to cross into Macedonia and cause increasingly serious trouble there." He also blamed KFOR in general for not preventing attacks on Serbs in Kosovo or clamping down effectively on the criminal activity that funds the insurgencies.
Ashdown was right to argue that the West has consistently failed to bear in mind the next Balkan conflict when trying to resolve the current one. But the West has tried to apply some lessons learnt the hard way (unfortunately sometimes the wrong lesson, hence the belief that Milošević might give up Kosovo as soon as the first air strikes hit in 1999). Up till now Macedonia, beneficiary of a UN preventive peacekeeping deployment that might have worked earlier in Bosnia, has been the international community's proudest Balkan success story, while Kosovo is the example of its greatest interventionism. The West thought it had learnt some Balkan lessons.
That may not be the case. All is not lost yet in Macedonia and Kosovo, but the stakes are high. A leading article in The Times (16 March) predicted that Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece too may be drawn into a Macedonian civil war, arguing: "It is not too late to put this Balkan genie back in its bottle, but Nato needs to act decisively now."
Moreover, if full-scale conflict returns here, under the noses of 40,000 KFOR troops who are unable or willing to prevent it, or may even in some cases have helped encourage it, there will be serious implications for future international intervention missions.
Oliver Craske, 19 March 2001
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