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Macedonian Border Dispute Nearing End

The long-standing border dispute between Macedonia and Serbia could soon be resolved.
By Dragan Nikolic

Representatives from Balkan neighbours Macedonia and Yugoslavia began a new round of talks in Skopje on January 16 aimed at resolving a long-standing, intractable dispute over their common border - one of the most sensitive frontiers in the region.


Changed circumstances in the region have raised hopes this, the twelfth such meeting, could provide a solution.


Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim said he was hopeful an agreement would be reached by February 23, the date set for the next international Stability Pact summit on co-operation in South Eastern Europe.


When the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s, newly independent Macedonia claimed the old administrative border as its frontier. The Yugoslav government, then under president Slobodan Milosevic, refused to recognise it, laying claim to areas of strategic importance within Macedonia.


At the start of the negotiations almost all the 330 km-long border was disputed. Since then it has been reported that disagreements over half of the frontier have been resolved.


Political changes in Belgrade and continued instability in and around Kosovo appear to have engendered a new determination on both sides to come to some agreement.


Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's government is keen to use the issue to bolster Belgrade's image as a promoter of stability and co-operation in the region, not least because Skopje was among the first to recognise the democratic changes in Belgrade.


In addition, by demarcating the border with Macedonia, Belgrade would emphasise it has not relinquished its southern province of Kosovo, which accounts for two-thirds of the disputed frontier.


Another large stretch of the border, running through the Presevo valley, is also extremely unstable at the moment due to the activities of Albanian separatist guerrillas - the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - which have attacked Serbian police in their campaign to have the region annexed to Kosovo.


The on-going crisis in southern Serbia is also a great worry to Skopje, which fears the lack of a clearly delineated frontier could increase the likelihood of unrest spilling over into Macedonia.


Concern that an independent Kosovo could inspire Macedonia's large ethnic Albanian minority to push for greater autonomy has also brought Skopje closer to Belgrade.


Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski met Kostunica in Belgrade in December and says he has regular friendly phone-calls with the Yugoslav president.


An agreement would also boost Macedonia's position as an advocate of stability in the region. The country's foreign minister is the second most senior official in the Stability Pact's council, after the coordinator Bodo Hombach, and success on the border question could increase his influence in any future projects.


Indeed Albanian extremists in Kosovo and Macedonia appear to be the only group not eager to see the matter resolved. The most radical among the Albanians even dispute the administrative frontier, arguing that it should by delineated along ethnic lines - uniting Macedonia's ethnic Albanian communities with those in Kosovo.


Over the last year, Albanian guerrillas have attacked Macedonian army watchtowers and patrols along the border. In April last year, a Macedonian army patrol was abducted by masked gunmen, thought to be part of the Kosovo Protection Force - the supposedly unarmed police force created out of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.


Reports in the Macedonian media claimed the soldiers were only freed in exchange for the release of KLA commander Xhavit Hasani from a Macedonian prison. (See BCR No. 132, 11-Apr-00)


Finding a solution to the border dispute will require Belgrade and Skopje putting aside years of bitter acrimony.


When Macedonia followed Slovenia and Croatia in declaring its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992, Milosevic was outraged. He had planned to establish an "Orthodox federation" combining Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.


Milosevic accused Macedonia of "stabbing him in the back". But already committed to wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav president could do little militarily to prevent Macedonia's departure.


Instead, he came to an agreement with Skopje to "temporarily" withdraw elite Yugoslav Peoples Army units from Macedonia. These troops were sent to fight elsewhere. The security of Macedonia was meanwhile left to the new and largely unarmed Macedonian army.


The extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party and Milosevic ally, said it would take only two motorised units and two days to bring Macedonia to heel, but protracted wars elsewhere prevented Belgrade opening up a "southern front".


Although Yugoslavia officially recognised Macedonia in 1995, the Milosevic government continually sought to undermine the republic by encouraging Serb extremists. Belgrade claimed Macedonia was home to an endangered 350,000-strong Serb minority. Only 55,000 people called themselves Serb in the last census.


The Democratic Serbian Party in Macedonia, formed after the republic declared itself independent, set about trying to establish a separate "Karadag Republic" in the north of Macedonia in those areas where most Serbs live - Skopska crna gora (Skopje Black Mountain) and Kumanovska Dolina (Kumanovo Valley).


Party members boasted of meetings with Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic in Pale and of attending military training courses. But they could never rally enough support to mount an uprising.


In 1995 the then Macedonian president, Kiro Gligorov, visited Belgrade to be told the Yugoslav government would accept the administrative frontier. However, no agreement was signed.


The Yugoslav government demanded three strategically important points along the frontier:- Cupino brdo (Cupa's hill) near the Bulgarian border; the Korab mountain pastures, which sit on the junction of the Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian frontiers; and Skopska crna gora (Skopje Black Mountain), close to the Macedonian capital.


Macedonia, meanwhile, demanded special status for the Prohor Pcinjski Monastery, which is a few miles inside Serbia.


In 1944, the Anti-fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia, ASNOM, had met at the monastery and laid down the basis for the former SFRY Republic of Macedonia. The monastery had become an ASNOM museum.


In 1990, Seselj's so-called Chetniks vandalised the monastery destroying all Macedonian insignia. Priests turned the museum into a dining room. The Macedonian public were furious.


A planned return visit by Milosevic to Skopje never took place. The three strategic areas remain sticking points to this day, but the political interests of both countries are pushing them towards a solution.


However, even if an agreement is reached, the practical problems of physically demarcating the frontier are considerable. The on-going activities of Albanian guerrillas would threaten both Macedonian and Serbian security forces along the frontier.


Nevertheless an agreed border, even if only marked on a map, would earn both sides several political bonus points.


Dragan Nikolic is a regular IWPR contributor.


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