Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANA Fails to Stir Albanian Passions

Albanian guerrilla army claims to be a major force in the southern Balkans - but enjoys little local support.
By Jeta Xharra

The Albanian National Army, ANA, has in recent weeks made the headlines as police in Macedonia mounted their biggest operation against armed militants since 2001. The group also operates in Kosovo and southern Serbia, but IWPR has discovered that it enjoys little support in these territories, suggesting that it is not a potent a force as either it or its enemies make out.


IWPR spoke to ordinary Albanians in areas where the ANA claims to exert influence, as well as political groups that represent the same constituencies. Even though some of these Albanian nationalist parties are themselves the heirs to guerrilla cells, they disown the ANA's violent methods and in most cases its aspirations for a Greater Albania which would incorporate Kosovo, parts of Macedonia and the Presevo valley - the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac districts of Serbia.


The ANA emerged during the conflict between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and security forces in Macedonia during 2001. Since then it has established a publicity machine - via websites abroad - and claims to be active in three areas - south Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo. It has carried out a number of hit-and-run raids, although in some cases it may have laid claim to attacks it did not carry out. The ANA presence is most apparent in adjoining territories of south Serbia and Macedonia where policing is inadequate and there is little love for the state's security forces.


The group has been carving out a niche as the only active Albanian guerrilla force in Macedonia, Kosovo and southern Serbia. It is the successor to three forces which have been subsumed into the political process: the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, the National Liberation Army, NLA, in Macedonia, and in Serbia the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB. It portrays itself as fighting for a Greater Albania, a goal which its predecessors have abandoned now that they have become mainstream political parties. This clearly annoys the legitimate Albanian parties. It also helps boost the ANA's reputation - albeit negatively - among Serbian and Macedonian nationalist politicians fearful of Albanian expansionism.


Yet there are doubts whether it lives up to its name - a coordinated armed force pursuing the grand political aim of a Greater Albania. It is difficult to assess its strength because of its secretive nature, but it appears to be strongest - or at least most active - in northeast Macedonia. It has claimed responsibility for attacks here, as well as in Presevo and in Kosovo, but none has been large-scale and there does not appear to be a coordinated campaign.


The number of men it can call on is unclear - estimates vary widely but the best estimate seems to be around 200. More importantly, it is uncertain how cohesive and permanent a force this is. There are persistent reports that some members are heavily involved in smuggling, leading to allegations that the group's political stance is no more than a convenient cover for crime.


Nor does the ANA enjoy solid support from Albanian communities on the ground. In interviews with IWPR, political leaders, local officials, ordinary civilians and even former members of other groups questioned its legitimacy.


"It is very unclear who stands behind the ANA, and whose interests they represent. I am suspicious of their intentions," said a former guerrilla with the UCPMB in Serbia - who might have been expected to show some sympathy for the group. "Who are these people who all of a sudden have started asking for the unification of Albanian lands? We don't know them - and this is a small place."


Kosovo's United Nations administrator Michael Steiner designated the group as an illegal terrorist organisation in April this year after it claimed responsibility for a failed bomb attack. But most of the international community seem to agree that the organisation is not a real threat to regional stability, and that it does not have deep roots. In September, NATO spokesman Mark Laity told Radio Free Europe that "they are not large, they are not substantial, they have no support, they are certainly not an army".


In each place the potential appeal of the ANA is slightly different: in Macedonia, dissatisfaction with unfulfilled pledges made in the 2001 Ohrid agreement that ended a six-month Albanian insurgency; in the Presevo valley, hopes that a final settlement for Kosovo could allow southern Serbia to be annexed to an independent Albanian state. The ANA has least to offer the Albanians of Kosovo, where the political space has already been filled by the drive for sovereignty.


UNWELCOME IN MACEDONIA


Three weeks since Macedonian security forces were withdrawn from Albanian areas north of the capital Skopje, villagers are still suspicious of strangers. There are extra police checkpoints around the triangle of villages Aracinovo, Lipkovo and Tanusevci, there are few people on the streets and the atmosphere is tense.


When IWPR's team entered Lipkovo, a few men stepped out from behind a shop to ask why we had come. One of them, Duraku, looked up at a helicopter from NATO peacekeeping forces flying a routine patrol. "We don't want either the Macedonian security forces or the ANA here," he said.


Zaim, who fought the government as an NLA guerrilla until the force was disbanded in late 2001, told IWPR that the ANA was not welcome here, "There's no need for the ANA. If someone needs to be defended then we - the former NLA fighters - will take up arms again. We don't need others to fight on our behalf."


These views were echoed by local Albanian officials. "The population in Lipkovo does not support the ANA at all," said mayor Husamedin Halili. "It propagates war, and the vast majority of people are against war. They know that fighting brings only pain and suffering, and they certainly don't want to go through the same thing that happened in 2001."


But Halili pointed out that extremism could grow on the back of continuing distrust between the Macedonian and Albanian communities, as well as the latter's discontentment with their economic situation.


"Mistrust creates the space for organisations like the ANA," he said. "There are many people who didn't get a piece of the cake after the crisis [2001 conflict]. Too many people are unemployed, and that just adds to the dissatisfaction."


Many Albanians are disappointed with the failure of the Ohrid agreement to produce visible improvements in their lives, especially when it comes to the pledges of job creation that were made. Leading opposition figure Arben Xhaferi, who heads the Democratic Party of Albanians, told reporters last week that "the ANA is a metaphor for the Albanians' dissatisfaction with the outcomes they have seen so far".


As Avdi, a man from Aracinovo, told IWPR, "the ANA can get support only if the Ohrid agreement is not implemented."


The main Albanian party is the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, which was set up by former NLA members. The DUI became part of Macedonia's ruling coalition in September 2002, and is thus especially vulnerable to criticism that the government is not delivering on its promises.


When she spoke to IWPR, DUI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti was keen to dismiss any notion that the ANA could eat away at her party's constituency. "It is now clear that the ANA - or whoever is behind it - does not enjoy any political support. Their platform, their representatives and the other information we have about them are very dubious, and they do not provide grounds for believing that the ANA is a serious organisation.


"The population in Macedonia has shown that it does not support this movement because in the last elections, the majority voted for the DUI and the Ohrid agreement."


SYMPATHY FOR ALBANIAN UNIFICATION GOAL IN SOUTHERN SERBIA


Over the border in southern Serbia, the live political issue for Albanians is how to get their region included in an expanded, independent Kosovo when a final settlement is hammered out. Many of the 70,000 ethnic Albanians who form a majority in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja consider these three districts of Serbia to be "Eastern Kosovo".


Albanian politicians to whom IWPR spoke dismissed the ANA's violent methods - but not its goal of territorial unification. Ragmi Mustafa, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, would like to see a mono-ethnic Albanian homeland, "Our experience has shown that the bloody wars in the Balkans were a consequence of its multi-ethnic societies, and it is thus the last moment in history to consider peaceful solutions towards an ethnic Albania."


Some local people expressed similar views, although everyone IWPR spoke to was fearful of a resumption of the clashes that broke out between UCPMB and Serbian and NATO forces in 2000. "I think it is right to call the ANA a terrorist organisation," said Presevo shopkeeper Hysen Iljazi. "But that doesn't mean I am happy about how Albanians are treated in Serbia. We're basically treated as second-class citizens.


" I like the idea of unifying Albanian lands - but not if it has to be achieved through war and violence. It's simply the wrong century for that."


KOSOVO ALBANIANS HEAD FOR INDEPENDENCE, ALONE


In Kosovo, public support for the ANA among Albanians is limited because there is widespread support for mainstream political parties, and for the more limited, but more attainable goal of independence for the protectorate.


"I don't support the ANA because it is not actually bothered about independence for Kosovo," said primary-school teacher Ismet Gashi. "It is pushing a different agenda, whereas independence is what all we Kosovo Albanians want - much more than joining up with Albania or other ethnic lands."


Law student Qendresa Salihu said, "The ANA can't do anything good for Kosovo - their actions can only damage the reputation of institutions such as the Kosovo Protection Corps, and give Serbia ammunition to tell the world 'You see, didn't we tell you that the Albanians are all terrorists?'"


Kosovo's Albanian parties have publicly distanced themselves from the ANA. Hashim Thaci, the formerly leader of the KLA and now head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, believes "there is no need for the ANA. The time for war has passed, and it is time to achieve democratic progress in the region." And even the nationalist People's Movement of Kosovo has stopped talking about uniting all Albanian-inhabited territories, and now favours a more limited federation between Albania and an independent Kosovo.


ALLEGATIONS OF CRIMINAL LINKS


One possible reason why the ANA enjoys little support on the ground is its alleged links to organised crime. The confrontation with Macedonian police in September was sparked by kidnappings allegedly carried out by Avdil Jakupi, aka Chakala, who described himself as an ANA member even though the group disowned him as a criminal. The incident was typical of the confusion surrounding the ANA and its real motives.


"Hardly anyone trusts the ANA's political cause because of the group's links to crime. In fact, some of its members are common thieves," Adem Demaci, a former spokesperson for the KLA, told IWPR.


This would not be the first group of Albanian militants to be suspected of engaging in crime. An October 2001 report by the Centre for Geopolitical Drug Studies in France accused the KLA, the NLA and the UCPMB of exploiting the lawlessness of conflict situations to ship drugs, cigarettes and other contraband through areas under their control. It also suggested that some attacks in Macedonia and south Serbia had been launched to gain control of key smuggling routes.


The little reporting that has been done on the subject suggests that some cases membership of these guerrilla groups is fluid, with men drifting away from "official" military activities to make some money from smuggling. In the case of the ANA, though, the allegation is even more serious - critics say they are predominantly criminals, whose business activities outweigh any political motives.


An official in Kosovo's UNMIK administration told IWPR that ANA incursions in border areas were no surprise, since criminals want to protect their drugs, cigarettes and arms smuggling interests. "If you're into this type of crime, stability is not something you want," he said.


However, at least one voice on the ground warns against a one-dimensional reading of the ANA as no more than a mafia group. "I don`t know who they are, nor how serious they are," Lipkovo mayor Halili told IWPR. "But I do know that the latest events in Macedonia [the hunt for Avdi Jakupi] had nothing to do with the ANA…. It is all too easy to say that they are only criminals. I haven't seen any proof that they are."


ANA - OPPORTUNISTIC RATHER THAN AGENDA-SETTING


IWPR's discussions with Albanian communities of Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo suggest that the ANA is not seen as a credible or representative force. But while it cannot set the agenda by engaging in low-level skirmishing, there are substantial areas of discontent where it can seek to exploit apparent inaction by local, national and international authorities.


As Ahmet Mustafa, an Albanian from southern Serbia, told IWPR, "I had to leave home in 2001 because of the war and I don't want to go through that again. However, it is the Serbian and Macedonian governments that create the space for creation of illegal military organisations like the ANA, because they don't implement the agreements and promises they made about Albanian rights in these regions."


In an article in the Tirana daily Koha Jone on September 11, commentator Skender Drini said the ANA feeds off a pessimism that Albanians across the Balkans region feel because of what they see as slowness to resolve Kosovo's final status, to make arrangements for the Albanians of south Serbia, and to implement the Ohrid accord.


"What is needed is active diplomacy by the international community to influence these processes, in order to silence those voices that say 'this is how the situation looked before the war in Kosovo and Macedonia; you have to keep fanning the flames to attract the attention of the western world'," said Drini.


Belgzim Kamberi is an IWPR contributor in Presevo and Jeta Xharra is the IWPR Project Manager in Kosovo.


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