Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

NLA Autonomy Goal

Although so far undeclared, the NLA's ultimate goal is likely to be territorial autonomy for Albanians in Macedonia
By Laura Rozen

In a "military communiqué" issued to Deutsche Welle, the National Liberation Army set out several key conditions for ending their insurgency.

They said they wanted Albanian made an official language and their community given equal status with Macedonian Slavs in the constitution and more places in the government and police force.

These goals have wide sympathy among Albanians in Macedonia and their ethnic kin elsewhere in the region and the diaspora.

Indeed, they've long been the goals of the legitimate ethnic Albanian political parties in Macedonia; the strongest of which, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, led by Arben Xhaferi, is a member of the coalition government. The strategy of the NLA attacks appears to be to force the Skopje authorities to negotiate with their political wing - the National Democratic Party, which emerged just after the escalation in the fighting last month.

But it is increasingly clear that the rebels' real aims are more far-reaching. In fact, the NLA want ethnic Albanians to have control over areas of Macedonia they inhabit. (although they are not calling for a change to international borders).

Rebel spokesman Sadri Ahmeti told the New York Times Monday, "We want Macedonian forces to withdraw from our territories.... I am fighting for the liberation of my territory." In other words, the NLA seem to want political and territorial autonomy within Macedonia. They want the army and police to withdraw from Albanian-populated towns in the west and north of the country - in effect the federalisation of Macedonia. Such a project could lead to the break-up of the country, most analysts believe.

Many Albanians are opposed to the apparent NLA demands, most notably the DPA leader, Arben Xhaferi. "From the start my stance has been that the federalisation of Macedonia is against the interests of Albanians and I have never supported this idea," he told the BBC.

"It is in the interest of all the Albanians for Macedonia to have a consensual democracy where some of the dilemmas in the society can be solved through joint decision-making."

The Macedonian government has said that it will not negotiate with the rebels, so can it beat them militarily? Without international assistance, probably not quickly enough to avert a possible expansion of the conflict, suggests UN Balkans envoy Carl Bildt.

Skopje acknowledges its army is weak. While private overseas groups have trained interior ministry forces, the army is not considered to have the expertise, equipment, or numbers to defeat a serious insurgency. Reports suggest the rebels, who control six villages above Tetovo are well supplied and well armed.

Skopje is asking not for Western troops, but for military technical assistance. But so far, the authorities have received mostly rhetorical support from the international community. To date, NATO has refused to allow its troops, some 3,000 of whom are in Macedonia supporting the KFOR mission, to serve any sort of peacekeeping or support role to the Macedonian military forces battling the rebels.

On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson called on Alliance countries to contribute 1,000 more troops to patrol Kosovo's border with Macedonia. At best, this would only reduce the flow of weapons and fighters across the frontier, as the infiltrators tend to trek over remote mountain passes, often at night.

A former UN officer in Macedonia suggests a few NATO helicopter gun ships flying over the rebel-controlled areas would serve as a significant deterrent, but the Alliance wants to avoid becoming even that involved.

The US has suggested it will consider providing financial and even military aid to Skopje to help fight the rebels. Macedonia's neighbours - Bulgaria and Greece - have offered military assistance. Given the country's history, this is something it is unlikely to accept. Without significant, timely international military aid, Macedonia will struggle to put down the rebellion, which continues to draw new volunteers.

Meanwhile, the past few days have seen angry protests by Macedonian Slavs in front of the parliament building in Skopje, some demanding the government give them weapons to fight the rebels. At the same time, state television has started drum up war fervour.

In preoccupying itself with assessing how much support there is for the NLA among local Albanians, the West has not paid sufficient attention to the extent to which Slav Macedonians have become radicalised by recent events.

As one expert on ethnic relations in the country said Monday, a protracted war will make it harder for Macedonian Slavs and Albanians to live together again. If Skopje can't defeat the rebels quickly, will it negotiate with them? That is the question now being asked. Because of pressure from Macedonian Slavs, it now seems the government would feel unable to negotiate with the rebels, or to offer the Albanians the sort of concessions that would undercut the NLA.

The NDP is eager to negotiate with the authorities (and the international community) over its demands, and wants to do it quickly. But with the military stalemate, and an international reluctance to give the rebels' legitimacy, it is unclear what would bring either side to the negotiating table.

Laura Rozen is an IWPR contributor