Comment: New Round of Fighting Feared in Macedonia

Fresh conflict could erupt this spring if hard line Macedonian politicians unleash well-armed special forces against the country's Albanian community.

Comment: New Round of Fighting Feared in Macedonia

Fresh conflict could erupt this spring if hard line Macedonian politicians unleash well-armed special forces against the country's Albanian community.

Friday, 8 February, 2002

Unlike everywhere else in the world, people in the Balkans have many reasons not to look forward to the coming of spring. The new season brings life and flower blossoms, but here it also brings fresh eruptions of conflict.

Will spring bring a second round of violence in Macedonia, as the interior minister himself has predicted? Or will the warming weather be met finally with peace?

Both scenarios are possible. A year ago, along with the first tender shoots, spring brought the first appearance in the mountains of units of the National Liberation Army.

The forthcoming spring is now anxiously anticipated. Despite cooperating with Operation Essential Harvest by handing over some 3,800 weapons, Albanians are alleged to have engaged in recent provocations around Tetovo. At the same time, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski have sought to establish private armed units, with the zoological names, Lions and Tigers.

Created without parliamentary approval, there are fears they could be deployed in upcoming elections to intimidate voters and opponents of the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE.

Meantime, a plethora of small arms arriving from the Ukraine, Russia and Serbia has turned Macedonia into a veritable weapons depot, easily accessed by hard-liners associated with the ruling party.

Amid these developments, there are countervailing signals of some concessions to those within the establishment who prefer a more peaceful solution. For example, laws on local administration - promised under the Ohrid peace agreement and long delayed - have been passed through parliament only week ago. Preparations are apparently under way to pass the amnesty law for Albanian fighters, perceived as the prerequisite for reconciliation, though there have been countless delays in the past.

More concretely, Lions units recently withdrew from two checkpoints near Albanian-majority villages around Tetovo, despite the insistence of both Georgievski and Boskovski that they would remain in place.

These contradictory impulses suggest that the course of events this spring will not be determined by any lingering rebel units but by the authorities. Indeed, the biggest threat to Macedonia is no longer the conflict between the government and "Albanian militants" but rather one within the Macedonian elite itself.

It's true that however many arms have been handed over to NATO by the NLA, Albanians could exploit porous borders or other means to secure more weapons. And clearly Albanians do have their own radicals who would also prefer a military solution. But while they could provoke, Albanians lack a mobilising ideology, real motivation or any major sponsoring outside country.

The real determining factor for war or peace is the Macedonians. The former prime minister Branko Crvenkovski, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, is convinced the country can only be saved through inter-ethnic accommodation. But Georgievski and VMRO-DPMNE still believe it is possible to settle the conflict through military victory. How this debate is settled will determine the country's future.

Realistically speaking the prime minister has good reason to pursue a hard line approach. This coming spring may be the last chance to initiate another Albanian-Macedonian conflict. For the moment, he sees himself as the leader of a mini-regional military superpower.

With the United States distracted hunting al-Qaeda members, Georgievski may hope to deploy the Lions and Tigers to push Albanians further from Skopje. But this would not only create territorial divisions based on ethnicity within the country, it would also radicalise the population and weaken the position of Macedonians who oppose the division of the country.

This will suit those in Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE who seek a rapprochement with Bulgaria. They've long argued that Macedonians are in fact ethnic Bulgarians. The more the territory of Macedonia is ethnically divided, the more likely this old debate about identity - and the fundamental nature of the Macedonian state - is to re-emerge.

Hard-line nationalists deep within the Macedonian political underworld may thus see this spring as a last chance for opening up such a scenario by provoking a resumption of conflict with the Albanians.

Faced with such prospects, Albanians in Macedonia are concerned that they will pay the price for the internal Macedonian conflict. Indeed, along with the weakened liberal Macedonian core around Crvenkovski, who continues to lose ground to the militants, it may be that Albanians are the main constituency with a true stake in a united Macedonia.

Kim Mehmeti is a writer in Skopje.

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