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Vol 3, No 26
24 September 2001
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From Bar to Bitola?
"Greater-Kosovo," Serbia and Macedonia: The roots and implications of the concept of "Greater Kosovo" - Part one
Stefan Troebst

The slogan "Kosova Republika!" emerged in 1981, during the first Albanian protests in the then Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo; from the very beginning, it was ambiguous: on one level, it aimed to promote what was, at the time, an autonomous region belonging to the Socialist Republic of Serbia to the status of seventh component republic of the Yugoslav Federation; on another, it already voiced the demand for sovereignty as well.

In 1989, the year the territorial autonomy of Kosovo was confiscated by the leaders of the Serb Republic, the latter aspect of the "Kosova Republika!" motto stepped into the foreground to become the common goal of all political forces in Kosovo. Correspondingly, the "Kosovo Liberation Army" (UÇK) fought explicitly in both rounds, in 1998 and in 1999, for the severance of Kosovo (as demarcated by the old internal administrative borders of the Serb Republic) from the Serbian-Montenegrin Federation and for its independence as a state. An extension of these political concepts—such as a union with the Albanian Republic and/or a merger with certain areas of Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia inhabited by an Albanian majority—was not articulated at that time: Kosovo was the first item on the agenda, everything else was cura posterior.

Nothing changed, in the first instance, after the surprise capitulation of the Yugoslav Army and of the troops of the Serb Ministry of Interior in June 1999: from the perspective of the moderate parties in Kosovo, led by Ibrahim Rugova's "Democratic League of Kosovo" (LDK), as well as that of the UÇK—at the time partly disarmed and demobilised, partially absorbed into the Kosovo Protection Corps (TMK) and Kosovo Police Service (KPS)—the main current objective was the transformation of the UN Protection Zone into an independent entity and achieving the diplomatic recognition of the newly created state by international organisations, major powers and neighboring states.

Corresponding programs were also adopted by both political successors of the UÇK, the "Party for Democratic Progress in Kosovo" (PPDK) of Hashim Thaçi and the "Alliance for the Future of Kosovo" (AAK) of Ramush Haradinaj. "Greater-Kosovo" rhetoric was considered inappropriate on a number of grounds: among them was the fact that one was aware of the deterrent effect pan-Albanianism would have on an international level, as well as the fact that there were genuine concrete reasons against it. The utterly collapsed Albania of 1997 was not capable of any kind of "national" foreign policy and, in light of the by no means halted danger of military revenge from Belgrade in the summer of 1999, the Kosovo-Albanian political leadership had a strong interest in cultivating a good relationship with both Montenegro and Macedonia, in the governments of which Albanian parties were represented.

In the case of Montenegro, Pristina's indirect support for the centrifugal tendencies in this Yugoslav constituent republic played, and still plays, a role, as the disintegration of the remainder of the federation promises positive effects on its own struggle for independence. This is also one of the reasons why Montenegro has so far remained outside the range of activity of Kosovo-Albanian extremists.

Besides the mainstream of Kosovo-Albanian politics, however, one would also find, primarily among the Kosovo-Albanian economic and political migrants, radical groups who propagated pan-albanian ideas. Central to these efforts was the concept of a "Greater Albania" uniting all Albanians in the Balkans under the roof of one state; a second slogan, making reference to a "post-Yugoslav" "Greater-Kosovo" united with Albania, surfaced, as a result, during the first round of the Kosovo war in spring and summer 1998.

This is illustrated by the words of Jashar Salihu, chairman of the Kosovo-Albanian diaspora "Homeland Calling Fund" (which collected donations to finance the activities of the UÇK), who described his vision in a press conference in London in July 1998 as follows:

Kosova starts in Tivat [Bar in Montenegro] and ends in Manastir [Bitola in Macedonia]. We don't care what America and England think about it. We don't care what Clinton and other devils think! We are going to tell the truth!

What was, at the time of the decisive offensive against the UÇK by the Yugoslav army and the Serb special police, the inconsequential remark of a minor political figure, was to undeniably gain greater prominence after the "victory" of UÇK in their second campaign.


The all-Kosovo consensus regarding a cooperation with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Kosovo Force (KFOR) begun to crumble only half a year after the NATO troops and the UÇK marched into in Pristina.

The background to this situation was the intense clandestine power struggle between the representatives of the older generation of moderate pacifists in the case of the LDK and the, as a rule, younger radicals in the case of the cover organizations and the successors of the UÇK, as well as the likewise internal, in parts bloodily conducted, strife inside radical camps between politicians and militants. Besides those factions of the UÇK that had regrouped, in the course of their formal demobilization on the 20 September 1999, in the aforementioned "official" parties and institutions PPDK, AAK und TDK, there was another emergent faction, now called "The Albanian National Army" (AKSh), which chose to reemerge in illegality.

The actual trigger was the escalating conflict in and around the town of Mitrovica, the Serb stronghold in the north of Kosovo: the clearer the division of the town became, the more attractive appeared to the leaders of the demobilized UÇK the plan of a Serb-Albanian exchange of territories by altering the now internationalized external borders of Kosovo: "East-Kosovo," together with both of the two regions with a majority Albanian population in the southwest of Serbia, one located around the village of Medvedja and around the towns of Bujanovac and Preševo on the road- and rail- link between Belgrade, Skopje and Athens, were to be exchanged for North-Kosovo and the districts Zveçan and Leposaviq, together with parts of Mitrovica.

At the end of January 2000, these considerations led to the foundation by UÇK extremists of the "Army for the Liberation of Preševo, Medvedja and Bujanovac" (UÇPMB) in the south of the five-kilometer-deep demilitarized Ground Safety Zone at the border between Serbia and Kosovo and to the creation of "liberated regions" with its help. Under USA pressure, Hashim Thaçi asserted on 24 March 2000 that the UÇPMB formally renounced its armed struggle against Serbia. In future, the fight for the "liberation" of the region, ie the merger with Kosovo proper, was to be fought with peaceful means by a "Political Council for East-Kosovo."

This pursuit only engaged a fraction of the UÇPMB activists. The others started cooperating closely with the aforementioned "Army for National Liberation"- also abbreviated as UÇK and described hereafter as "UÇK II" - an organization that since Autumn 1999 perpetrated attacks in the border regions between Macedonia and Kosovo, the so-called "Second Operative Zone" of the UÇK in the Kosovo war.

A virtual frontier

The collaboration between the two successors of the UÇK, UÇPMB in the Serb "East-Kosovo" and UÇK II in the Macedonian "South-Kosovo," had been strongly facilitated by two peculiarities of the border regime in the triangle formed by Yugoslavia, Macedonia and the UN Protection Zone. The situation was such that, on the one hand, the control by Yugoslav border guards over a five-kilometer-long section of the Yugoslav-Macedonian border by the Crni vrh mountain had been withdrawn until March 2000, as the area belonged to the aforementioned Safety Zone. On the other, since 1991, the entire northern Macedonian border with Yugoslavia and the International Protection Zone had consisted of broad stripes of no-man's-land one kilometer wide or more; by the beginning of 2001, the shape of these former internal Yugoslav borders had been established in detail, but they were still not physically marked.

The reasons for this are varied: first of all, the boundary line was only partially recorded in strict land-registry terms; in some parts it was merely hinted at by descriptions of the "from-the-three-beech-trees-to-the-source-of-the-stream" type. Moreover, the creation of the Republic of Macedonia in 1991 did not lead to diplomatic recognition by the neighboring SFRY (respectively, from April 1992, the neighboring Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and, as a result, no bilateral border commission was employed to determine the border line.

This situation did not change even after the recognition of Skopje by Belgarde in April 1996, as the memories of the weeks of military occupation of the mountain Cupino brdo, situated on Macedonian territory, by the Yugoslavian army in summer 1994 were too fresh in the minds of the Macedonians; this was compounded by the fact that the Yugoslav side had strictly refused the historically justified Macedonian demand for the ceding of the Sv. Prohor Pcinski monastery, situated close to the border.

Finally, UNMIK felt it was not its duty to mark the border of the protection zone to Macedonia, as the UN Security resolution 1244 from 10 June 1999 spoke merely of border control, not of border determination and, furthermore, foresaw a "Yugoslav and Serb presence at important border crossing points", two of which were into Macedonia.

A Yugoslav-Macedonian border commission was, in fact, created at the beginning of 2000 and held a series of meetings, but, by the beginning of the year 2001, out of the 330 kilometers of the borderline only eight had been fixed. Correspondingly, during the entire 1991-2001 decade, the Yugoslav-Macedonian border and its respective successors, the Serbian-Macedonian border and the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, were a source of constant insecurity and the cause of numerous, at times very serious, border incidents—a dozen of which resulted in deaths.

At the beginning of the year 2000, this volatile situation changed from a military problem and one of security policy into a problem of internal policy for Macedonia, due to the fact that the northern border of the country, as well as a part of the boder to the west, had been patrolled, from the beginning of 1992 to the beginning of 1999, not by the Macedonian police and army, but by the Macedonian UNPROFOR contingent (ie, from 1995 onwards, the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force - UNPREDEP). The withdrawal of the blue helmets from Macedonia, in a move forced by China in the UN Security Council as a reaction to the recognition of Taiwan by Macedonia, led to the creation of a complete vacuum in the northern reaches of the country, as Macedonian border troops and police did not take over the UNPREDEP infrastructure and so they did not advance to the theoretical border line.

The motive for this was that the Minister of Interior Dosta Dimovska, a member of largest government party, the "Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation—Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity" (VMRO-DPMNE), was bound by a Gentleman's Agreement struck with her coalition partners, the "Democratic Party of Albanians" (DPA) lead by Arbën Xhaferi. This informal arrangement dating from the end of 1998 meant that DPA Deputy Menduh Thaçi could cream off the profits of the ongoing illicit trade through both border crossing points between Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as through the ground border itself—respectively, that he could conduct it himself.

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The fact that, as a result of these events, the border zone—including a few larger villages such as the border village of Tanuševci (in Albanian: Tanusha)—had been an unlegislated area since 1991, had already been used by the "old" UÇK during the second round of the Kosovo war. Now the same circumstances came in useful for the UÇK II, who also profited from the fact that, on the other side of the border zone, the stationed US KFOR contingent allowed, beginning with June 1999, the uncontrolled traffic of goods and people from Tanuševci in Macedonia to Marktflecken Viti (Serb name: Vitina) in Kosovo.

As a result, the infiltration of the border zone by the guerilla forces was as easy a task as the securing of new spheres of influence in the interior of the country with the help of anti-tank mines; correspondingly, in the interval between April and September 2000, one witnessed a series of serious incidents. Besides the south sector of the security zone, the militant Kosovo radicals also built the border zone in the north of Macedonia into their sphere of influence, retreat and protection, in which they set up supplies of weapons, ammunition and equipment, underwent military training programs, built logistic support and constructed command structures.

The longer the uncertainty regarding the future status of Kosovo, the greater the frictions between the part-demobilized "old" UÇK on the one hand and the LDK, Kosovo Serbs, UNMIK and KFOR on the other, the larger became in Kosovo, as well as in the Ground Safety Zone and in Macedonia, the personal popularity, financial support and political sympathies of and for the violence-ready guerilla.

Turning points 2000

A number of events that occurred in the summer and autumn of 2000 were interpreted by the radicals in Kosovo, as well as by the entirety of the UÇPMB and the UÇK II, as a threat and were correspondingly reacted to with militant action:

  • At first glance not very spectacular, yet hard to overestimate, however, in view of its symbolic content, was the new law regarding higher education adopted in the Macedonian parliament on the 25 July 2000; it cleared the way, after years of confrontation and a number of fatalities, for a compromise solution to the problem of an Albanian(-speaking) University in Macedonia. This compromise, which took the form of the foundation of a private, internationally-funded, tri-lingual "South East European University at Tetovo" under the patronage of the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, was lashed up on 19 December 2000 in Skopje together with coalition partner DPA. Through this, they headed towards a partial solution to the famous "problem of the University" (which had been growing since 1995)—through the marginalization of the "illegal" Albanian university founded in 1994 in the Tetovo borough of Mala Recica, which constituted a stronghold of the radicals.
  • The overwhelmingly positive reaction of the international community to the change of government that took place on the 5 October 2000 in Belgrade came almost as an outright shock for the entire Albanian public in Kosovo: what Pristina found threatening was not only the fact that the Kosovo theme was demoted from its previous status as first item on the international agenda for the Balkans, but also, first and foremost, the fact that Milošević had ceased to play his role as common transatlantic enemy.
  • The next shockwave reached the radical Kosovo Albanian groups soon after, during the local elections in Kosovo on the 28 October 2000—which resulted in a clear win for the moderates gathered around Rugova's LDK. These political circumstances clearly enhanced their readiness for the return a tactic of violence.
  • Also not to be underestimated is the effect of the presidential elections in the USA on the 7 November 2000, which, after weeks of electoral deadlock and the forming of a new administration, resulted in a passivization of Washington as far as Balkan politics was concerned. The direct line to the State Department, which the UÇK boosted, rightly or wrongly, to have was now torn. This immediately meant that keeping militants under control, as it happened in March 2000 when the USA succeeded to alter the behaviour of the UÇPMB, was, under the new circumstances, difficult, if not completely impossible.

Beginning with the end of November 2000, the many frustrations of the Kosovo radicals lead to a reactivation of the UÇPMB in the Ground Safety Zone. "We can change our tune again!" and "The fight goes on!" were the messages it sent to the international community and its position regarding the recent creation of "liberated areas" in East Kosovo.

[to be continued]

Stefan Troebst, 24 September 2001

Stefan Troebst is a historian of modern Russia and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is professor of East European Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig and deputy director of the Leipzig Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe. Formerly, he was director of the Danish-German "European Centre for Minority Issues" and has worked for the International Commission on the Balkans, the Crisis Prevention Network of the EU as well as on OSCE Missions to Macedonia and Moldova.


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