Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ending the Violence in Macedonia
The break-up of the former Yugoslavia has demonstrated that only war attracts the attention of the great powers. Only the use of violence serves as a catalyst for a political solution, compelling the West to rush in to prevent conflict spreading throughout the region.
This was the case in Kosovo. Likewise the Presevo valley, the border area of Serbia, where ethnic Albanians have endured extreme hardship at the hands of Yugoslav forces following their withdrawal from Kosovo.
Appealing to human rights organisations was one option, but only by resorting to violence were Presevo Albanians able to force international mediation.
The lessons are important for Macedonia, which has always been seen as one of the most complicated issues in the region, both because of the country's ethnic composition and the strong competing interests of all of its immediate neighbours.
Now Albanian guerrillas are organising themselves throughout the republic. Violence is being applied as a catalyst for political goals, as in the case of Presevo, which was itself taken from Kosovo.
The first imperative is to clear up the political fog being created by both parties. The Macedonian state claims that the present crisis has been exported from Kosovo - implying that conditions for armed conflict did not exist in the country.
Yet it is a matter of fact that the demands of the National Liberation Army (NLA - UCK Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare ) coincide with little more than what Albanian parties in Macedonia have been demanding for the past decade. There is a wide consensus among Albanians in Macedonia that their constitutional status must be upgraded from that of a minority to a "constitutive" nation. They want to be equal under law.
But Albanian guerrillas also cloud the issue when they talk of "Macedonian conquerors" and "Macedonian barbarism", and claim they were forced into war.
The truth is that the past ten years have produced an impressive improvement in the position of Albanians in Macedonia, including direct representation in government. Their situation is much different from the systematic repression that forced Albanians in Kosovo to launch their armed resistance against Slobodan Milosevic.
Now that parties are fighting each other, the young Macedonian state may be facing its greatest challenge. Despite many crises, it has avoided war so far because of the accommodation among its different ethnic groups, the evolution of their rights and, crucially, international strategic support.
The least important factor has been the Macedonian security forces. Anyone who thinks the country's territorial integrity can be defended through the police or Macedonian army is not serious.
Albanian guerrillas cannot afford a full-scale war, but neither can the Macedonian state eradicate them. Macedonian security forces face a potential guerrilla war around Albanian areas stretching from Kumanovo to Struga.
Every attack they make will only attract more guerrillas, and the logic of guerrilla conflict is to attack the state wherever possible to provoke a reaction. The current status quo cannot be preserved.
If fighting continues, it will completely divide the different nationalities in Macedonia, create ethnic armies, and potentially bring the drastic result of a geographical division of the main ethnic groups.
NATO military involvement is also highly unlikely, as it considers this an internal conflict. Extending K-For to cover Macedonia is out of the question under the current US administration. European states will be extremely reserved about sending troops into a situation where guerrillas and police are chasing each other around the hills.
There are two ways out: reform or revolution. Revolution would mean the partition of Macedonia along ethnic lines. If that is to be averted, serious reform will be required, addressing three main factors: internal accommodation, human rights and international support.
A new internal agreement must be based on reform of the Macedonian state. Electoral democracy has provided evident advantages, but it has not been able to move beyond voting along ethnic lines.
The immediate priority is to find the tools to achieve a political and social consensus which is not the product of ethnic voting. The most constructive mechanism would be a round table to draw up a reform agenda.
The character of these reforms must also be defined. Ethnic Macedonians need to feel that Macedonia is their national state, but Albanians and other ethnic minorities need to feel that they are constituent part of it and have equal rights.
Macedonia must find a new balance between the individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of ethnic groups.
Obviously, representatives of all political persuasions must be included in any round table process, but the position of the guerrillas complicates the equation for a country which has organised successful democratic elections.
The best approach would be to legitimise the guerrillas as a social force, and then condition their participation through existing parties or newly formed ones.
Any new internal agreements would not only provide for proportional participation of Albanians in state institutions, but would demonstrate their success in establishing the conditions for that participation.
Such an evolution would provide a positive example for all groups in the country, and for the state itself. It would demonstrate that the evolution of collective rights for the non-Macedonian population can go hand in hand with the positive development of the state itself, away from totalitarian Yugoslav models towards participatory European approaches.
International support for such a process is critical, and the US and the EU should move beyond condemning the violence and undertake active efforts to find a solution, and re-energise the ultimate strategic aim of integrating Macedonia into the European Union.
Such an initiative would also address the concerns that Macedonia's internal problems will have a domino effect on the whole region. These are old fears from the past century, and while such thinking does persist in some quarters, Macedonia has never had better neighbours.
Bulgaria's sights are firmly on the EU; Greece, already a member, is the biggest inward investor; Albania has enjoyed two years of stability; Serbia is in transition after Milosevic's departure; and Kosovo, although lacking an efficient government, has a strong NATO presence.
By the way, NATO could do more, but I don't agree that its presence in Kosovo is producing instability: imagine the consequences now in Presevo and Macedonia if it were not in the immediate vicinity.
More positively, Macedonia should be exploited as a positive factor for regional economic development. With EU support, Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria should urgently complete talks to establish a regional free-trade zone. This could draw in other neighbours and providing a fresh model for Balkan politics.
In practical terms, the only way to start is for Macedonians and Albanians to sit down together and put all their cards on the table. They must declare, once and for all, what they want. This would dispel concerns that if Albanians ask, for example, to open their own university, they are not in fact preparing the path to "Greater Albania'.
Albanians in other areas and from other political parties should also openly declare their positions before the EU. This would demonstrate that the underlying policy for which Albanians seek Western support is not the changing of existing borders but the opening of communications across those borders.
Such complex and uncertain relationships have played a part in the current crisis, and a positive solution in Macedonia would go a long way towards stabilising the region and confirming European approaches throughout the Balkans.
Veton Surroi is publisher of Koha Ditore, and has served as an independent representative of Kosovo Albanians in international negotiations.
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