Destabilised By The Stability Pact

Macedonia was lucky to escape a serious civil crisis during the Kosovo war. But the post-conflict argument over regional relations is proving just as divisive.

Destabilised By The Stability Pact

Macedonia was lucky to escape a serious civil crisis during the Kosovo war. But the post-conflict argument over regional relations is proving just as divisive.

Wednesday, 21 July, 1999

It was no small achievement to see Macedonia come out of the Kosovo crisis - literally - in one piece. After the fears of destabilisation, ethnic confrontation and economic chaos, the consequences of war over the border turned out to be strangely manageable. The dangers of peace are proving much more fraught.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees crammed over the border when the shooting started in earnest, threatening Macedonia's sensitive ethnic balance. Transport trade links with Europe worth millions were shattered and unemployment reached 40 percent. NATO forces arrived and the Kosovar Albanian forces began getting aid from Macedonian Albanians. Protests spread, terrorists attacked and the country seemed doomed to fall into war.

Except, it didn't. But ironically Europe and the US are coming up with post-conflict solutions that may be just as potentially destabilising as their wartime strategy - if not more so. The West's suggestions for regional stability are deepening the political divide in Macedonia, and ethnic divisions as well.

Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov and the opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) are on one side, and the government coalition linking the Internal Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party for National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), the Democratic Alternative (DA) and the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA), on the other. Both can call on their own media to back them up.

Gligorov and his supporters still insist on a foreign policy towards the neighbours based on 'equidistance' - to keep all Macedonia's neighbours equally near (or distant). They fear that the government is picking favourite states and alienating others, with potentially disastrous consequences to come.

The Government, however, advocates the use of what it calls 'positive energy' - improving relations with individual countries as much as possible, even if that means leaving some behind. The results have been mixed. Albanian President Rexhep Mejdani turned up during the visit of US President Bill Clinton on Jun. 22 and was promptly invited back for a formal state visit on Jul. 8.

Hopes that this would end the mutual hostility between the two were rapidly dashed. Gligorov backs a solution for Kosovo based on broad autonomy respect for the integrity of federal Yugoslavia and cooperation between Belgrade and its neighbours, not isolation.

Mejdani looks to the much-touted 'Pact for Stability' - the West's blueprint for the development of democratic systems and market economies in the Balkans, scheduled to be discussed by the involved states in Sarajevo on Jul. 30 - as the key to peace in the region.

Mejdani says such a pact would provide a pan-European cover for the breakdown traditional national borders. The solution, he argued "was an integration, in a period of five to 10 years, we may see two new units, and they could be Montenegro and Kosovo, as an integral part of the community of European countries".

His accompanying statement, that Albania was "free of the myth of 'greater Albania'" did not blunt the furore that followed in Skopje, as Gligorov and the opposition viewed all talk of border changes as proof of Tirana's alleged territorial acquisitiveness.

DPA leader Arben Xaferi, backed by the sympathetic daily 'Vecer' mocked Gligorov as "Milosevic's lawyer," recalling his supposed intention to 'save' the old federal Yugoslavia when he became president of Macedonia, and claiming that he was trying to repeat himself years later after the Kosovo crisis.

In the end, all sides accept the need for a Pact for Stability for South-Eastern Europe, but separate the method from the result. The Macedonian government believes that its efforts to open dialogue with its neighbours are in keeping with the spirit of the pact. It has opened normal relations of a sort with Albania, and it has received the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army Hashim Thaci.

Most usefully for Skopje, Macedonian Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov took part in a groundbreaking meeting on Jul. 14 with his opposite numbers from Albania and Greece, Paskal Milo and George Papandreou on the island of Agios Achillios on Prespes Lake, situated at the junction of the borders of the three countries.

They briskly moved on to the issue of the use of the name 'Macedonia', which provoked such anger in Athens in the early 1990s. Milo used the burdensome compromise title 'FYROM' before turning on Dimitrov and Papandreou and urging them to "sit down and reach an agreement about the name so that you will not put us, the third parties, in awkward situations". Milo then continued using Skopje's choice of name, 'the Republic of Macedonia', without triggering any nationalist ructions among the Greek media.

The issue has not gone away. Some Greeks still regard Skopje's use of the name as presumptive; other Macedonians demand the government stands firm on the name. A compromise is supposed to be announced at the trio's next scheduled meeting in the Macedonian lakeside town of Ochrid in six months time.

The opposition regards such steps as dangerous, and cites what it sees as the government's foreign policy failures, starting with a hasty recognition of Taiwan which turned Beijing into Skopje's implacable diplomatic foe at the United Nations.

They voice concern at the inseparability of Macedonia and Albania's Kosovo policy, the quick recognition of Thaci and the KLA and what it regards as too close relations with Bulgaria. More fantastically, they argue that the last three are steps on the path to dividing Macedonia between Tirana and Sofia.

But both sides share a common fear, that the Pact for Stability will fail to pull Macedonia out of the hole it was dropped in by the Kosovo crisis. The government fears high sounding words without commitment from the West in Sarajevo; the opposition fears that the government's tinkering with regional relations will ruin the pitch before the game.

There will be much more said on all this ahead of the Macedonian presidential elections later this year.

Iso Rusi is IWPR's correspondent in Skopje.

Support our journalists