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From Bar
to Bitola?

"Greater Kosovo," Serbia and
Macedonia: The roots and
implications of the concept of
"Greater Kosovo" — Part two

Stefan Troebst

Click here to read Part 1

The Return of the Yugoslav army to the south of the Ground Safety Zone

By choosing to implement their newest tactics of driving the Yugoslav security forces out of the Ground Safety Zone in winter 2000/2001, the UÇPMB had, however, bitten off more than they could chew. Deciding to pursue a flexible dual strategy, the deputy head of Serbian government Nebojša Covic ordered an extensive retreat of the police forces from the Ground Safety Zone and launched, at the same time, an attempt to modify through diplomatic means the military and technical agreement struck with NATO in Kumanovo on 9 July 1999.

The practical and operative cooperation that had developed since October 2000 between KFOR on the one side of the Safety Zone and the Yugoslav army and the Serbian police on the other began to also take on a political quality. The death of three Serbian policemen who had driven onto a mine laid by the UÇPMB in Preševo on 18 February 2001 acted as a catalyst, and so did a previous successful missile attack upon a bus carrying Serbian civilians that had happened two days earlier and which had lead to the death of seven people.

Given its position as KFOR mandatary, NATO had to act. As the deployed negotiator, special envoy Pieter Feith, did not succeed in convincing the UÇPMB to alter its position, the NATO Council decided on 8 March 2001 to allow Yugoslav troops to move into the 25-square-kilometer-large south area of the Ground Safety Zone (Sector C East)—and thus to make it possible for Belgrade to control not only the border to Kosovo, but also to Macedonia.

The effect this development had on the UÇPMB was compelling in the truest sense of the word: on 12 March in Končulj (close to Bujanovac), their representatives signed a NATO-negotiated cease-fire agreement with Belgrade and vowed to renounce the use of force as of 13 March. On the same date, in Kosovo, NATO and Yugoslavia closed an agreement in Medare (close to Podujeva) concerning the gradual return of the Yugoslav troops tp the Ground Safety Zone. Already on 14 March, the 63rd Paratrooper Brigade of the Yugoslav army moved into the southern sector, which the UÇPMB had evacuated at this point.

A compelling factor for NATO's decision and for the agreement with Belgrade had been, besides the acute tension in the Ground Safety Zone, the expansion of guerilla activity into north Macedonia, namely into the area neighbouring the border village of Tanuševci.

Drôle de guerre in Macedonia

This shift towards north Macedonia had been informed not only by the recent restrictions placed on the room for manoeuvre of the Kosovo-Albanian guerilla in the Ground Safety Zone, but also by a clear rapprochement between Belgarade and Skopje: in the second half of January, Yugoslavia and Macedonia had agreed, in the frame of the bi-lateral border commission, to fix the course of the border to Kosovo—which, from a Kosovo-Albanian perspective, negatively affected the course of the southern border of a future independent Kosovo and was therefore seen as a provocation.

From the same perspective, the raison d'etre of the multi-ethnic government coalition in Skopje—a coalition that consisted of conservative Macedonian and conservative Albanian parties—namely the common anti-Serb position, had, at the same time, ceased to exist. This was compounded by the criticism that, in its ten years of independence, the Macedonian state and the Macedonian majority group shunned the difficult task of integrating the Albanian segment of the population into the political process—in the civil service, even—in other words, the task of enhancing their status from that of inhabitant to that of citizen.

Finally, the practice of the bi-ethnic governing coalition, consisting of members of the political establishment of the VMPRO-DPMNE and the DPA, of ensuring mutually lucrative benefits through economic horse-trading triggered a rejection on moral, respectively patriotic grounds.

This change of heart found a violent expression on 22 January 2001 and took the form of an attack on a Macedonian police station in the village of Tearce close to Tetovo, during which a policeman was killed. The Macedonian security forces took countermeasures, but on 12 February UÇK II fighters occupied Tanuševci once more and engaged the Macedonian special police in battle until 11 March.

This lead to a serious incident on 4 March, when three Macedonian policemen died after driving onto an anti-tank mine planted by the guerilla. The reaction of the US KFOR units, stationed only several hundred meters away in the hamlet of Mijak, was predominantly passive. Only on 7 March did they enter the conflict and move up towards Tanuševci.

Once there, however, they did not detain the guerillas they encountered; instead, they allowed their retreat towards inner Macedonia, which made it possible to re-create and transfer the action zone in the vicinity of Tetovo, a town with an 85 percent Albanian population and, with 100,000 inhabitants, the second largest town in Macedonia. On 12 March, the day of the Konculj and Medare agreements regarding "East Kossovo," the Macedonian security forces brought Tanuševci under control.

The straw that, from the perspective of the Albanian Guerilla, broke the camel's back remained almost unnoticed by the international media: on 23 February, while attending a Southern Europe summit in Skopje, the Yugoslav president and the Macedonian president signed the January-devised arrangement concerning the determined course of the common border—which included both the case of the south Serbian border, as well as that of the border to Kosovo. The aim of this agreement, which had been explicitly welcomed by the UN Security Council, was to make the illegal crossing of the border more difficult as well as to remove the prescribed strips of no-man's-land.

Around midday on 14 March—the day the Yugoslav units moved into the Ground Safety Zone—UÇK II guerillas fired their weapons from the hills situated to the north-west of the town during a demonstration with the motto "Against Macedonian State Terror" announced by representatives of Kastriot Haxhirexha and attended by several thousand young Albanians. What the international media chose to describe, too eagerly, in the following days as the beginning of a civil war, proved to be, in the first instance, a drôle de guerre, an armchair war, a farce even. A neutral observer of inter-ethnic relations in the country, Eran Fraenkel—the long-serving director of the Macedonian bureau of an NGO named "Search for Common Ground"—warned at the time that irresponsible reporting by international media could incite more violence than UÇK II itself.

In truth, the Macedonian army and Macedonian special police needed several days to transfer tanks and artillery to what was to become the conflict zone—and, first and foremost, to purchase three attack helicopters from Ukraine and move them into position; however, during an offensive that spanned from 18 to 26 March, they drove the guerilla force partly into the northernmost regions of Macedonia, partly over the Šar Mountains into Kosovo. In the course of this action, both sides displayed undeniable restraint; as a result, it caused a remarkably low number of deaths or injuries and almost no material damage—a serious difference to the course of the conflict in Kosovo in 1998-1999.

Once they had dug out the pockets of resistance to be previously found on Macedonian territory close to the village of Gracani, the security forces re-established control over the area; by the beginning of April, this control was extensive. A parallel development occurred in the border zone between Serbia and Kosovo, where, on 25 March, the Yugoslav army also returned to the south section of the 40-kilometer-long Sector B of the Ground Safety Zone.

The closing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and Macedonia on 9 April had a calming effect on this tense situation. It is to be noted, however, that the DPA chairman, Xhaferi, had attended the Luxembourg ceremony while the second largest Albanian party in Macedonia, the Party of Democratic Prosperity (PDP), lead by Imer Imeri, eschewed the event on the grounds of the non-fulfillment of their demands for substantial changes to the 1991 constitution.

A Macedonian zig-zag course

The confrontation between the reorganizing UÇK II and the security forces in Macedonia took on a new quality on 28 April, as one of the mine clearing units of the Macedonian Army fell victim to a rebel ambush. Eight soldiers from an elite unit died in the heat of a mortar attack. The burial of four of the victims in Bitola on 1 May triggered, on both following nights, pogrom-like riots against Albanian shops and bars in the center of the town. On 2 May in Skopje, the nationalistic Macedonian "Commando Todor Aleksandrov" stormed an Albanian café, during which incident a Kosovo Albanian was killed.

Following the military action in Tetovo, UÇK II transposed its operations in the triangle Macedonia-Kosovo-Serbia, where they proclaimed a "liberated area" on the Macedonian side around the villages of Lipkovo, Slupcane and Vaksince, north-east of the multiethnic town of Kumanovo (inhabited by Serbs, Roma, Albanians and Macedonians).

On 3 May, the Macedonian special police and the Macedonian army launched an offensive aimed at ousting the rebels in which they deployed heavy artillery, tanks and attack helicopters and which cost the lives of several people on both sides. The creation, as a result of considerable international pressure, of an all-party government in Skopje on 13 May with the purpose of pacifying the situation, as well as achieving the goal of constitutional change, however, clearly caused the situation to become even more tense.

Since its inception, the Abanian side of the government has seen the inclusion of PDP alongside the DPA, while, on the Macedonian side, the VMRO-DPMNE has been joined by the large Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) of former Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski. The "inter-ethnic dialogue" demanded by DPA-leader Xhaferi in March and initiated by President Boris Trajkovski in April in the guise of a round table could now take place in parallel at ministerial level.

Positive spillover effects from Kosovo in this respect constituted the announcement of the first parliamentary elections in the Protectorate on 17 November 2001 through UNMIK leader Per Hækkerup as well as his idea, launched one day later, of creating a "constitutional framework for [the] temporary self-governing" of Kosovo-which met with the agreement of all important political factors in Pristina. The concrete result of all these small steps towards an improvement of the situation was a provisional cease-fire between the Macedonian army and the UÇK II negotiated by NATO.

However, it became clearer and clearer that Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and his VMRO-DPMNE have increasingly hardened as a result of military pressure from the UÇK on the one hand and of diplomatic pressure from the western mediators on the other: "The West," reproached Georgievski, allegedly wanted to reward "Albanian terrorists" with concessions obtained from the Macedonian majority, indeed, the West was in bed with these people—a conspiracy theory that, over a small number of weeks, was to grow into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The breach of the cease-fire by the Macedonian army on 22 May, the handing over of the middle and northern sections of Sector B of the Ground Safety Zone to Belgrade on 24 May, as well as a new Macedonian pogrom against the Albanian inhabitants of Bitola on 6 June determined the UÇK II to escalate the conflict: on 8 June, a few hundred of their fighters occupied the Skopje suburb of Aracinovo (Albanian name: Haraçin) and thus carried the war—in the first instance, on a symbolic level only—into the center of power of their opponent.

The PDP fortress Aracinovo had not been selected at random from the numerous large villages with an Albanian majority surrounding the capital: the locality lies in the immediate vicinity of not only the international road and rail link connecting Athens to Belgrade and of the only refinery in the country, recently acquired by a Greek investor, but also of the Skopje airport of Petrovec, turnstile for KFOR supplies. As a direct consequence, NATO intensified the already high pressure applied during negotiations and offered the Macedonian president an agreement regarding self-conduct in exchange for the retreat of the UÇK II from Aracinovo.

On 25 June, KFOR escorted circa 400 UÇK II uniformed and fully armed rebels out of Aracinovo and transported them by bus into the "liberated area" around Lipkovo. The increasingly large nationalistically-minded segment of the Macedonian political class, interpreted this "rescue" by NATO of their "allies" as ultimate evidence for the aforementioned conspiracy theory.

The shock of the emergence of UÇK II in the immediate vicinity of the capital as well as the renewed lack of professionalism demonstrated by the actions of their own army and special police had sunk in so deep that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Interior—all three VMRO-DPNME members—bowed once again under the pressure of the international community.

As a result, on 5 July NATO was able to mediate the first permanent cease-fire as well as to revive the "inter-ethnic dialogue" with the help of the EU and the USA. This lead to the signing, on 13 August, of the Ochrid Agreement, in the wake of which, on 26 August, operation "Essential Harvest" began.

3300 weapons were to be collected from the demobilizing UÇK II by 25 September and destroyed. The agreement also penciled in substantial changes to the Macedonian constitution. Macedonia was to be decentralized; "non-discrimination, fair representation and special parliamentary procedures" were meant to counterbalance the structural majority of the Macedonain-speaking Macedonians in Sobranje; the use of Albanian alongside the official language of the state in the regional administrative bodies with more than 20 percent Albanian-speaking Macedonians was to be introduced.

What is remarkable about this agreement mediated by the international community is that it universally uses the Macedonian self-chosen description, namely "Republic of Macedonia," sometimes in the form of just "Macedonia," and not the 1993 internationally-established official name of the country, namely "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

"Greater Kosovo"—an interim balance

The result of a year-long struggle in the name of "Greater Kosovo" looks ambivalent: "East Kossovo," (ie Sectors C East and B of the Ground Safety Zone) has been lost, as these sectors are once again under the control of Belgrade; the UÇPMB, although not completely shattered, has either been pushed into becoming an underground movement in Kosovo or into retreating into Macedonia.

Nevertheless, its aura has clearly become stronger: on the one hand, it was able to plan and prepare its actions under the very eyes of the UNMIK, to carry them out over the KFOR-patrolled border and into the Serbian safety zone, and to ultimately operate a well-ordered retreat over the same border; on the other, as a result of the Konculj cease-fire agreement with the KFOR, the UÇPMB had been recognized as combatant of equal standing and thus legitimized. The KFOR "Goliath" with its over 40,000 heavily armed hands has not succeeded, from the narrow Kosovo-Albanian, respectively Greater Albanian, perspective, to restrict the movements of the UÇPMB "David," never mind to control him.

To achieve this, it required the far superior negotiating power of NATO, which the rebels saw as equal in importance and which they had accepted for "reasons of state." "Undefeated in the field," according to this perspective, the UÇPMB has also proven itself at the political level and established itself as a rational "partner of NATO."

The situation in Macedonia is similar; there, by May 2001 at the latest, NATO, the EU and OSCE—despite differing declarations—had also de facto accepted UÇK II as party to the negotiations and thus legitimized it, at least to some degree. Correspondingly, the prestige of this guerilla formation has also risen sharply; the prudent actions of its "Political Director" Ali Ahmeti have probably proven decisive in achieving this.

But even after the end of the armed conflict on the territory of the Macedonian Republic, however, a central question to the negotiation process, to finding a long-term workable solution, even—the question of the real aims of the UÇK II ("mere" internal self-determination or secession?)—remains unanswered.

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The crisis in Macedonia also shows that in the "civilian" sphere of both political elites—the DPA and the PDP on the one hand, the VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM on the other—the prescriptive power over their respective segments of the population has begun to slip away. This comes in use not only for the extremists in the Albanian camp, but also for the radicals in the Macedonian one.

The latter had become, through the 1998 electoral victory of the VMRO-DPME, the primary sounding board, but the plundering raids on Bitola and the attack on Skopje in May 2001 ensured that those behind populist discourses based on ethnic, cultural, religious, as well as racist arguments gained more and more support. Moreso, we have seen the emergence of a number of Greater Macedonia-oriented paramilitary groups self-styled to follow the Serbian example. Particularly alarming is the fact that Macedonian extremists find backing even among the police, who, as a rule, treat citizens of Albanian origin with suspicion—and often with excessive and illegal force as well. It is interesting to note that, in the course of the events in Aracinovo, a large number of the police reserves had also been armed.

So far, UÇPMB and UÇK II have not succeeded in winning the active support of the Albanian political class of Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, or even Albania itself. Rather, the public reaction of all political factors in the Balkans, as well as of the large majority of the media, to the guerilla strategy and the "Greater Kosovo" program has so far been negative. Not only the LDK supporters around Rugova, but also the majority of the post-UÇK sympathizers around Thaçi and Haradinaj have contributed to the general damning of the escalation in the Ground Safety Zone and have expressed their disapproval of UÇK II's strategy of violence in Macedonia. The same goes for both large political camps in Albania, who stand on the side of NATO and the EU, not on that of pan-Albanianism. The two large Albanian parties in Macedonia, in turn, have condemned on several occasions the violent conduct of UÇK II—despite the possible sympathies felt among its own members.

This, however, is merely the surface. How high the degree of consent at the level of the elite really is, one can but speculate. For the time being, one can conclude that the propagandists for the "Greater Kosovo" concept have not succeeded, in the two years that have passed since the establishment of the Protectorate, in achieving the political and military breakthrough that they had hoped for, but they have attained a notable gain in prestige. They have become the most important extra-parliamentary factor of influence among the post-Yugoslav Albanians—a factor that could become dominant in the case of renewed escalation.

From the perspective of the epigones of UÇK, the most important prerequisite for the complete polarization, radicalization and ultimate mobilization of their target groups is the unanswered question of the status of Kosovo: the longer this remains open and the greater the dissatisfaction of Kosovo Albanians becomes, the greater the potential for recruiting new supporters and for obtaining political backing for the strategist of violence, as well as the political resonance in the neighboring states. Every delay in making a decision regarding the future status of Kosovo in the framework of international law carries a serious risk to upset the 1999 attempt to stabilize southeast Europe, and can even lead to a reversal of this process.

In order to settle this matter, however, one must first build an appropriate framework in which to tackle the question of status; if successful, the road to an amicable solution may well emerge as a genuine aim in itself. The negotiation process carries within it the chance of achieving a lasting balance of interests and being more than just a confrontation between the preferred outcomes of the opposing sides. The responsibility for building the framework lies with the international community, that for the negotiation between bona fide representatives lies with the parties in conflict. If both are met, the common post-Yugoslav legacy that has distilled itself in the "Greater Kosovo" program (in ways both specific and lethal) may have positive effects for once.

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.

Read Part 1 of "Greater Kosovo," Serbia and Macedonia: The roots and implications of the concept of "Greater Kosovo"


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Moving on:


Vol 3, No 27
8 October 2001

Inga Pavlovaitė
Lithuanian Privatisation

Stefan Troebst
Battle in the Balkans

20 Years After

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

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