Serbia and Macedonia Partners Again

Fear of Albanian guerrillas draws Belgrade and Skopje closer together

Serbia and Macedonia Partners Again

Fear of Albanian guerrillas draws Belgrade and Skopje closer together

Relations in one part of the Balkans have entered a new and more cordial phase. The perceived threat of Albanian irredentism has brought Belgrade and Skopje closer together, even though both countries were until recently locked in a dispute. Over the past six months, ties between them have improved so much that they might be considered the closest allies in the region.

At the end of 2000, Yugoslavia's newly-elected president, Vojislav Kostunica, made his first foreign visit as head of state to Skopje, where he received a triumphal reception at the summit of Balkan leaders. He had his warmest encounter with his Macedonian counterpart, Boris Trajkovski, an old friend who had been his principal contact with the outside world during the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Belgrade. Shortly after Kostunica took power, Trajkovski visited Belgrade - the first Balkan leader to meet the new Yugoslav head of state.

Within two months of that initial meeting in Skopje, in February 2001, Macedonia and Yugoslavia had signed an agreement on demarcating the border between the two states. Skopje had discussed the border issue with the Milosevic government for 5 or 6 years and in that time had demarcated only 5 kilometres. Within two months' of Milosevic's departure, the remaining 280 km had been demarcated along the same line established between the two republics in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2001, relations on a government level continued to improve. A visit to Belgrade by the Macedonian prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, was followed by the recent trip to Skopje of his Serbian counterpart, Zoran Djindjic. This rapid development of Macedonian-Serbian relations was unexpected, after the years of Milosevic's contemptuous treatment of his southern neighbour, when there were reports that on several occasions he had suggested a partition of Macedonia between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece.

Apart from Milosevic's attitude, another obstacle to improved relations was the anti-Serbian stance of the leadership of the biggest party in the Macedonian government, VMRO-DPMNE, whose leader, Prime Minister Georgievski, began his political career by attacking Serbian influence in Macedonia and the dependency of Macedonia's former communist rulers on Belgrade.

As a result, when VMRO took power in December 1998, the authorities concentrated on developing the 'Corridor 8' highway, which runs from Bulgaria to Albania through Macedonia, a policy strongly supported by the previous US president Bill Clinton. The excellent cooperation between VMRO and the biggest ethnic Albanian party in Skopje, the DPA, encouraged the promotion of this strategy, as opposed to the development of the alternative north-south route from Belgrade via Skopje to Thessalonica.

However, the situation has now changed. The premiss behind the latest Macedonian-Yugoslav rapprochement was the fall of Milosevic, and the transfer of power in Belgrade to a new elite with a totally different approach to Serbia's neighbours. The new authorities in Serbia have made relations with Skopje a priority. There have been suggestions that Belgrade views Macedonia as a more important partner even than Montenegro, Serbia's outlet to the Adriatic Sea.

One reason for this is because the 'Corridor 10' highway, connecting Belgrade with the Aegean port of Thessalonica, passes through Macedonia. A second factor is Skopje's progress towards European integration. And with a GDP almost twice as high as that of Yugoslavia, it is economically attractive.

The Serbian and the Macedonian economies remain closely connected, owing to the old Yugoslav system of creating mutually dependent industries in all the republics. As a result, it has proved easy to renew the old business relations between the Macedonian and the Serbian enterprises.

The activities of the ethnic Albanian militants, however, are by far the most important spur to creating closer ties between Macedonia and Serbia. Both sides believe the guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, operates in both northern Macedonia and southern Serbia. They reckon the group wants to link Kosovo with other Albanian populated areas of Serbia and Macedonia, thus threatening the integrity of both countries and also their land communication routes.

Mutual fear of the Albanians is the essential reason for the newly found love between Belgrade and Skopje, and at their last meeting in Skopje, the two prime ministers agreed to set up daily military contacts and exchanges of intelligence on the movements of the Albanian fighters.

The deployment of the Yugoslav army in 'Sector C', a buffer zone on the southern Serbian border with Macedonia, has already brought it close to the theatre of Albanian guerrilla operations round Kumanovo. On 24 May, the army will enter Sector B in the Presevo valley of southern Serbia - an area in which the UCPMB, local Albanian fighters, operates.

The two states' armies are cooperating not only over information and the purchase of weaponry for the Macedonian army - from the Zastava arms complex in Kragujevac, central Serbia - but in coordinated military operations against the rebels.

Macedonia hopes that a combination of the experience of the Yugoslav army and their own forces (who were trained in Yugoslav military schools) will enable them to see off the threat posed by the military incurisions of the Albanians in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Western Macedonia.

Vladimir Jovanovski is a commentator for the Skopje magazine Forum

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