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Comment: Last Chance for Peace

Despite the new peace deal, Macedonian political and military factions are split, leaving prospects for peace as precarious as ever.
By Iso Rusi

The question of war or peace in Macedonia will be decided not by the signing of an agreement but by the reactions of the political and military factions in the coming weeks.

There are two main sources of danger. The first is Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski and his interior minister, Ljube Boskovski. While the Social Democrats have opposed military means to resolve the conflict, the premier and his party - Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity - consistently engaged in provocations. Will Georgievski realise that he has lost his struggle for a military solution and that now is the time to support the peace plan?

The second source of danger, of course, comes from the Albanian side. Ali Ahmeti and the National Liberation Army, NLA, have stated clearly that they will support the agreement. Ahmeti has a good record of standing by his word in recent months. In the agreement over the withdrawal from Aracinovo, the July 5 ceasefire and other arrangements, even Western diplomats agree that he has been reliable. NLA commander Shapti has said that the force will start cooperating with the peace process within 15 days, and there is little reason not to believe him.

But in recent days a new armed faction, the Albanian National Army has appeared. Its strength remains unclear. But from the declaration of the ceasefire, it was immediately obvious that some NLA structures were not under central control but were acting more or less independently. These may be potential components of the new grouping.

According to local press reports, Xhavid Hassani, a former NLA commander in Kosovo and Macedonia, has said that he will kill one Macedonian policeman and one Macedonian soldier for each Albanian house which has been destroyed. He also claimed responsibility for the landmine explosion which killed eight Macedonian soldiers in Skopska Crna Gora, near Ljuboten village, on August 10. This has led the Macedonian media to speculate that Hassani is a member of the Albanian National Army.

So, we do not yet know if Ahmeti and the NLA will remain in control of the situation. Will the new group win support from hardline rebels and other radical elements within Albanian society? According to an unnamed Macedonian security services official, Hassani already has around 100 soldiers under his control. Many ethnic Albanian fighters are young and highly emotional. Other Albanians have lost family members and will be angry and vengeful no matter what. So it is possible that some may be convinced to keep fighting, waging a kind of private war against Macedonia.

The situation is further complicated because it seems that the leading politicians on both sides are effectively finished. Georgievski has almost certainly lost the next election, and through his rash behaviour and irresponsible statements, he has behaved like someone who knows it. Peace will almost certainly bring a change in leadership. This would be constructive, but adds to the instability and sense of risk.

On the Albanian side, again, the situation is more complicated. It might seem like Arben Xhaferi and Imer Imeri, leaders of the two main Albanian political parties, should be the big winners of the peace deal. Xhaferi, in particular, has maintained his position between radicals, ethnic Macedonians and international mediators. He has played a role helping Macedonia avoid the worst, while signing an accord bringing important, if not perfect, benefits to Albanian people.

But, in fact, Xhaferi's career is probably finished. There was strong criticism of him before the fighting began, not only about his failure to achieve Albanian rights but also concerning corruption, organised crime and other issues. In the event, rather than moderating the rebels and winning peace, he is seen as having acted as the radicals' puppet. He was forced to support all their demands, and effectively served in the talks as their representative because they were excluded. But no Albanian doubts that positive changes in Macedonia will have been brought by the NLA, and that left on his own, Xhaferi would have accomplished nothing.

So we can expect new voices to speak up for the Albanians. But we do not know who the new leaders will be, so we cannot predict in what direction they will lead the Albanians.

In the end, as with so much in the Balkans, it probably comes down to the Western powers and NATO. So far, they have played a positive role. The efforts of the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson, have probably saved Macedonia from the worst.

But now it is a question of how quickly NATO will act. The signing of the peace agreement must be matched by a meaningful ceasefire and a technical agreement with the NLA over disarmament. Will NATO enter in the next seven days, or will it wait for ideal conditions? The longer it delays, the greater the room for frustration and provocation. NATO must act, and act soon.

Of course, NATO's role will be to disarm the rebels, but it is much more than that. NATO offers a chance to calm the chaos. So far, there has been nothing but confusion. When an incident occurred, each side would make its claim, and there was no way of knowing what actually happened. We have even had the Ministry of the Interior (Georgievski-controlled) and the Ministry of Defence (Social Democrat-controlled) contradicting each other on the same day about alleged infiltration by Albanian fighters from Kosovo.

With NATO monitors and experts, each party will have responsibilities and obligations, and everything will be watched. So it should be possible to know who is playing a double role: Arben or Ljubco? From now on, it will be clearer who is really working for peace.

Interestingly, as for the people themselves, there has been little debate in the Albanian media over the pros and cons of the agreement and what it actually delivers. Those things matter but, in the face of war and more chaos, most want to return to normal life.

Many Macedonians will, naturally, be angry and there may be more 'spontaneous' demonstrations against any peace agreement with the 'terrorists'. But much of this sentiment has been fuelled by state media under Georgievski's influence. The real lesson to be drawn from the protests, even from the dispersal of arms among civilians is just how few problems it has all caused - indicating that the potential for disruption should be even less.

But this is really the last chance. We had the start of ethnic cleansing: Macedonians fleeing Tetovo and Aracinovo; Albanians leaving Bitola and Veles. For the moment, most of these people - except those from the most tense areas - do want to return. But it shows the scale of the risk.

If the peace falls apart, then NATO could be forced to try to divide the warring 'sides'. The first step would be to divide the territory. That would signal the start of massive ethnic cleansing, which simply could not be achieved without huge bloodshed.

So each step would be worse and worse. Macedonia has been given a final opportunity to save itself from the abyss. Only the coming days will tell.

Iso Rusi is editor of the Skopje-based Albanian-language weekly Lobi.

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