The recent conflicts in Macedonia have raised many concerns over the future of the Macedonian state and its people. This article is an attempt to shed light on the recent events in Macedonia by reviewing the events that led to the current situation and examining the standpoints of the current parties directly or indirectly involved in the conflict.
Macedonia has been written off the chart of Europe several times in the last ten years; when it proclaimed independence in 1992, during the war in Bosnia, during the war in Kosovo, and again now, during the latest insurgence of the ethnic Albanian extremists. Macedonians and Albanians have shared the northwestern territories of geographic Macedonia since the coming of the Slavs to the Balkans in the fifth century AD.
During the Ottoman occupation, Macedonians called Albanians "Arnauti" and later "Shiptari," which comes from "Shqipëria." Now, Shqipëria is how Albania is pronounced in Albanian. Although according to official Albanian history all of Macedonia was once populated by Albanians, in the first census after Macedonia became a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in the 1950s, only about 12 percent of the population of the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared themselves as Albanian.
In the latest census, from 1995, the Albanian population increased to 22.3 percent. In other words, it has almost doubled in less than 50 years. Macedonia was the only state in the Balkans with a successful multi-ethnic democratic government. There has been an Albanian political party in every post-independence government. However, rising unemployment and a deepening economic crisis, worsened by the sanctions against Serbia and the economic blockade from Greece, as well as refugees from Kosovo who spread their bitterness among the Albanians in Macedonia, gave rise to ethnic tensions.
During the bombardment of Kosovo in 1999, over 350,000 Kosovo refugees were sheltered in Macedonia. Later, since NATO was unable to enforce order in the "liberated" Kosovo, Macedonia was used as a channel for drug and human trafficking by Kosovo-based criminal groups, many of them parts of the former KLA, which was never effectively disarmed.
The party that cried wolf
The largest opposition party in Macedonia, SDSM, raised its voice many times last year to warn the public of the upcoming "spring offensive." But since they earned a reputation for alarming the public of anything that might be detrimental to the incumbent government, no one really paid attention. However, just like in the story about the shepherd and the wolf, this time it was for real.
Groups of Albanian extremists, who happened to be former KLA fighters, crossed into Macedonia and started mobilizing the local population. The crossing of the Macedonia/Kosovo border itself is by no means a great feat, bearing in mind that the border is completely unguarded by NATO troops.
The Albanian population in the northwestern parts of the country, already on bad terms with the government because of high unemployment and a general economic decline, was easy prey for the experienced former KLA fighters. Many Albanians from Macedonia fought in the KLA against the Serbs and were now ready to transfer that experience to Macedonian soil.
The first shots were heard above Tetovo, during an Albanian protest meeting, and each new shot and detonation heard in the mountains above Tetovo was cheered loudly by the crowd assembled on the main square of Tetovo. What started as a peaceful demonstration turned violent, as a 60-year-old Macedonian journalist was savagely beaten by the Albanian crowd.
The extremists "liberated" several villages above Tetovo from which they were shelling the positions of the Macedonian army and police bellow, hitting many civilian houses as well. The extremists, or the National Liberation Army (NLA, which is spelled the same way as KLA in Albanian—UCK), as they called themselves, made their headquarters in the village of Lavce, while also having positions on the Tetovo Kale, the medieval fortress above the town.
The extremists initially proclaimed "liberation" of the territory they occupied and, according to the BBC, a villager from Lavce told a BBC journalist that his village was now part of Kosovo. However, after the Macedonian army started making progress flushing them from Macedonia, with the help of the two MI-24 flying fortresses bought from Ukraine, their supposed agenda suddenly changed. Now they were fighting for "greater rights" of the Albanian population in Macedonia, which allegedly felt like "second-class citizens."
Many Macedonian journalists stated that Macedonians in Albania would be ecstatic if they had only half the rights the Albanians have in Macedonia. As a reminder, the Albanians in Macedonia have ministers in the government and MPs in the Parliament, while the Macedonians in Albania weren't even given a separate category in the recent census. Instead, they were forced to declare themselves in the "others" category.
Nevertheless, the Macedonian army flushed the extremists, or "terrorists," as they called them, from their position in the only possible way—sheer physical force. Houses and property were destroyed in the process, but there was no other choice. The extremists were condemned by everybody: the international community, NATO, the EU, the US, Albania and the neighboring countries and even by Kosovo and Macedonian Albanian leaders.
The EU and the US supported the Macedonian stance not to negotiate with the extremists, which, according to the Macedonian government, would signify admitting defeat. Even the wider Albanian population in Macedonia was reserved towards the extremists, confirming the rumors that many of the NLA recruits among Macedonian Albanians were mobilized by force and physical threats.
The immediate threat was averted, but the incumbent government showed itself unable to deal with the situation in the country, and talks for a "wider coalition" of all the relevant political subjects in the country were under way. And just when everybody thought that the worst had passed by, along came…
On the morning of 2 May, a traditional picnic day in Macedonia, a group of four vehicles was making a routine patrol near the village of Vejce. Two of the vehicles were two-door Lada Niva SUVs. Just before the village of Vejce, they were ambushed by a group of Albanian extremists. The extremists let the first vehicle pass and then fired rockets and threw hand grenades into the other vehicles. Then they pulled the wounded, but still living, soldiers out of the burning vehicles.
While the Macedonian soldiers were still alive, the Albanians, with knives, dug their eyes out, then cut their ears and genital organs. Finally, they cut the stomachs and bowels from the molested bodies of the Macedonian soldiers. One soldier survived the initial attack and hid under one of the Niva SUVs and watched as the Albanians tortured his fellow soldiers. After seeing the horror, he shot himself in the head with his gun, unwilling to give himself up to the Albanian extremists. When the army later found the surviving soldiers in the first vehicle, they were crumpled in fetal positions and unable to speak.
After this act, which Macedonian President Trajkovski called "demonic" and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson called "monstrous," many Macedonians were wondering how they could continue to live together with people who had such hatred against them.
In Bitola and Skopje, from which most of the soldiers came, riots broke out and many shops owned by ethnic Albanians were demolished; one person was even killed. Prime Minister Ljubčo Gjorgjievski and the leader of Democratic Party of Albania (DPA), the Albanian party in the government, Arben Xhaferi, appealed to the people not to "collectivize guilt."
New fighting broke out near Kumanovo, and the extremists "liberated" several villages again. The Macedonian army started shelling the extremists' positions and reported that the extremists were using the villagers as "live shields" and weren't allowing them to leave. The extremists claimed that the villagers were staying of their own free will.
The Macedonian army adopted a strategy of unilateral cease-fire for several hours each day to allow for the civilians to leave, but the busses that were sent to the villages for evacuations most often came back empty. The old flashpoint, in the highlands of Shar Planina, above Tetovo, was lit anew when another army patrol was ambushed and two soldiers killed.
After giving the Albanian Extremists a "final" ultimatum to retreat by Thursday, 17 May, which was used by the extremists only to regroup themselves, the Macedonian army started the heaviest shelling of the Albanian extremists' positions yet on Wednesday, 23 May.
During the week after the "final" ultimatum passed, most of the civilians left the villages, but, according to Army Col Blagoja Markovski, about 1000, still remained. Extremists' commanders claimed that up to ten civilians have died during the shelling so far, but the Macedonian army said that the extremists are using their old tactic of re-dressing their dead soldiers into civilian clothes.
From a political perspective, and after much pressure from the EU and NATO, the main political subjects in Macedonia agreed to form a government of "national unity" in which the two major Albanian parties were represented. The extremists condemned this move as an invitation for more bloodshed, and one of their commanders stated that if they are not included in the government they will start fighting in all the Macedonian towns "where Albanians are in [the] majority."
It was no secret by this time that the leading Albanian politicians in Macedonia were on the "black list" of the extremists, who were blaming them for betraying the ideals of the Albanian people. Rumor has it that extremist commanders are blaming Xhaferi for failing to "give all Albanians passports," referring to the numerous refugees from Kosovo who settled illegally in Macedonia in the last ten to 20 years.
But an unexpected turn of events occurred when the KosovaLive news agency reported that the leaders of the two Albanian parties in the new coalition, Xhaferi and Imer Imeri, had brokered a deal with the self-appointed political leader of the so-called NLA, Ali Ahmeti, near Priština in Kosovo. The deal calls for amnesty and incorporation of the extremists into the political dialogue in Macedonia.
This was a shock to the Macedonian parties in the coalition and drew widespread and strong-worded contempt from the international community, especially from the EU which, in a statement issued by the British Embassy in Skopje, on behalf of the European Commission, says: "Let us repeat to the so-called NLA: there is no place for you at the negotiation table. If you have ever had any doubt about the messages from the international community, you should have no doubts now. And the fundamental message is simple. Go. Now."
There are many parties who are intensely interested in the conflict in Macedonia, be that from historical, political or other reasons, and they've all taken a certain stand towards the crisis. While the official stance of each party was condemning the Macedonian conflict, their specific actions were quite varied.
The Serbian position can be summarized in one short sentence: "I told you so!" They've been telling everybody that the Albanians are the problem and the factor of instability in the Balkans, and now the Albanians themselves did their best to prove them right.
Serbians have too many problems of their own to think seriously of helping Macedonians, unless that also means helping themselves. Their entry into the last buffer zone section is their priority, and they will not make any hasty statements until they are fortified there. This will indirectly help Macedonia a great deal, since it is no secret that most of the logistic support for the extremists comes from Kosovo and the last buffer zone sector.
Serbia is also considering repaying some of its substantial debt towards Macedonia with arms, tanks and planes, which would probably be more than welcomed by Macedonia. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić signed a contract for military cooperation with his Macedonian counterpart, which raised fears in Bulgaria that they might be ousted from their position as Macedonia's "best friend."
Still officially part of Serbia and with elections coming in six months, Kosovo leaders do not have much time to dedicate to Macedonia, even to Macedonian Albanians. Of course, arms and logistic support from Kosovo territory is granted, but they have shied away from officially supporting the extremists, since they are aware that they have too much at stake. Now they have another worry to ponder, with Nebojša Čović, the Serbian negotiator in southern Serbia, officially stating that the partitioning of Kosovo into Albanian and Serbian parts would be the most acceptable option.
Albanian elections are drawing near and the opposition parties, with a lack of anything else to offer to the masses, pledged support to the extremists in Macedonia and the unification of all Albanians in one state. They were quick to withdraw those statements under Western pressure, though. It is now common knowledge that KLA fighters were trained in military camps in Albania under the supervision of US and British experts.
Intelligence circles claim that both south Serbian and Macedonian Albanian extremists were trained in the same camps, but that the West withdrew their experts and support after the fall of Milošević. However, there are indications that these camps are still in use. Albania also recently announced a military exercise near the Macedonian border, which could make one wonder.
After the initial panic that the conflict might spread into its territory, Greece saw the events in Macedonia as the perfect time to push for the solution of its decade-long problem with the Macedonian name. It sent help in the form of military supplies, but when it became obvious that the conflict would not spread over its territory, it changed tactics and is now trying to get as many political points as possible out of the crisis.
Greece's logic is that it will be much easier to negotiate the name when so many different political parties with differing viewpoints are in the government and constitutional changes seem pending.
Greece is not the only interested party that is trying to use Macedonia to score points in its daily politics. Bulgaria is doing the same to a much greater degree, although the situation there is more complicated.
Bulgarians have found themselves torn among several conflicting concerns and could easily be the greatest losers from the situation. There are people in Bulgaria who sincerely want to help Macedonia. Then again, Bulgaria is trying to play obedient puppy to NATO and, therefore, cannot rush into hasty statements or decisions that Big Brother will dislike. That's why Prime Minister Kostov had to explain to the Bulgarian Parliament that when President Stoianov promised Bulgarian troops to Macedonia he meant "only within multinational troops."
On the other hand, Bulgarian politicians see that if they do not do something substantial to help Macedonia, they will lose their place as Macedonia's "best friend" to Serbia, which is making decisive steps to tighten mutual connections.
Bulgarian elections are also close. With a new major player, King Simeon II, every party in the elections will consider its duty to take a stance on the Macedonian crisis that will be appreciated by the electorate. And the long-standing Bulgarian claim over Macedonian identity and language must not be forgotten, so any forceful move by Bulgaria could be viewed as a threat rather than help to Macedonia.
Whatever Bulgaria does (and it has to do something in order not to lose its supremacy to Serbia), it has to be substantial and very precisely calculated and articulated. However, this is not happening. Prime Minister Kostov's recent hint that Bulgarian elections should be postponed, because the Macedonian crisis is threatening Bulgarian stability, is another example of how Bulgarian political parties are using Macedonia as a cover-up for their own mistakes and unpopularity. Kostov's statement came only days after the polls showed that he is way behind Kind Simeon II in popularity among the Bulgarian voters.
EU, US, NATO, etcetera
The West finally seems tired of any kind of new conflict in the turbulent Balkans and will use any available means to stop such a conflict. All the diplomatic work in Macedonia is done with that goal in mind.
The recent signing of the "Stabilization and Association Agreement" with the EU was also with that goal in mind and was more a political gesture than recognition of true economic and political progress in Macedonia. The West seems to desperately want to prevent another conflict on the Balkans, but in case all their means fail, we can expect them only to pack up and leave.
It is highly improbable that the Kosovo scenario will be repeated. On a darker note, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman-in-Office Robert Frowick has become infamous recently with his suggestions about creating a "withdrawal corridor" and amnesty for the so-called NLA. He is also rumored to have mediated the deal between the Albanian leaders and Ali Ahmeti. This caused outrage in the Macedonian government, which proclaimed him persona-non-grata in Macedonia.
The Macedonian daily Utrinski Vesnik says the foreign ambassadors gathered Thursday in the US embassy and agreed on moving Frowick discreetly out of the mission in Macedonia.
We can expect the Macedonian government to carry on with the much-delayed offensive. With the help of the new military equipment that is arriving on a daily basis, there are good chances for its complete success. The extremists on the other side will try to hold on as long as they can, but obviously all factors, except brute force, are against them, and they can hardly justify their cause of fighting for human rights by "liberating" villages and conquering territory.
Eventually, they will have to either surrender or relocate to Kosovo, where, no doubt, they will have a warm welcome. Macedonia can expect more problems from such groups, especially having in mind the porous Kosovo border and the large amount of weapons in the region.
The only way to deal with this issue is to build an effective army that can cope with similar threats in the future. Steps towards achieving this are already being taken, as a new unit for the rapid deployment of about 700 people, popularly know as "The Commandoes," is already being trained in the US, according to the Macedonian daily Vest.
There's hope also that the Serbian army will be allowed to patrol the Kosovo border, in which case the chances of the illegal transfer of armed groups will be significantly smaller. But that, as well as many other issues, is up to the "West" to decide.
Borce Gjorgjievski, 4 June 2001
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Utrinski Vesnik, a private Macedonian daily
Vest, a private Macedonian daily
Nova Makedonija, a government Macedonian daily
Kapital, private Bulgarian daily
Dnevnik, private Bulgarian daily
B92 News, Serbian radio station
Kosova Live, Independent Kosovo news agency