Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
West Should Step Up Macedonia Support
Prior to the recent violence around Tanusevci and the hills above Tetovo Macedonia was regarded by the international community as a unique example of conflict prevention in the Balkans.-
Not only did the country secede from the former Yugoslavia without violence, it also managed to avoid intra-state ethnic conflict, even during the peak of the Kosovo crisis in 1999 when 300,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees poured into the country threatening the ethnic balance in the republic.
On Friday March 16, United Nations Special Envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt summed up the present situation in Macedonia when he said that, "What is at stake here is not only Macedonia. What is at stake here is really everything that we have been trying to do in the Balkans: democracy, people living together, inter-ethnic cooperation.
" This is a democracy, where the Albanians and Macedonian Slavs are sitting in a coalition government. If this were to be blown up by extreme nationalists with guns in their hand it is very dangerous for all of Europe."
The Albanian extremists claim attempts during the past ten years to improve the rights of their ethnic kin in Macedonia through democratic political means have failed, and that they are now forced to fight for their political rights within Macedonia by other means.
However, although some ethnically contentious issues remain unresolved and ethnic Albanians continue to be discriminated against in the job market and allegedly by some state institutions such as the police, substantial progress has nevertheless been made.
The legal framework for ethnic Albanians to enjoy the same rights as ethnic Macedonians exists. But the two highly separated communities enjoy unequal opportunities to pursue them.
The current ethnically-mixed government has moved some way to address this inequality. Positive discrimination quotas for ethnic Albanians in the police, military, civil administration and universities have been increased.
But these policies of emancipation and integration of the ethnic Albanian community into Macedonian society cannot bear fruit over night. So long as ethnic Albanians do not participate in state institutions in substantive numbers, their loyalty is more likely to remain within their ethnic community rather than with the Macedonian state.
On the other hand, many ethnic Macedonians believe they have made enough concessions to the ethnic Albanians and now feel betrayed by those who have taken up arms against the state, especially following Macedonia's acceptance of the massive influx of Kosovo Albanian refugees during the Kosovo crisis.
Moreover, many ethnic Macedonians fear Albanians' demands go beyond the stated quest for recognition as a constituent nation. They believe the underlying agenda is federalisation or total secession of western Macedonia in pursuit of a "Greater Albania".
Hence the ethnically mixed coalition government finds itself under increasing pressure as violence escalates and anger and frustration grow within both communities.
At present, the Albanian extremists violent strategy appears to be supported by only a minority within the ethnic Albanian community, but support seems to be growing.
Likewise, ethnic Macedonian frustration over the government's reluctance to respond more forcefully is also mounting.
On the evening of Saturday March 17 some 1,000 ethnic Macedonians gathered in front of the parliament building in Skopje to demand the government take tougher action against the Albanian guerrillas or provide them with arms to take on the fighters themselves.
The following afternoon around 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside parliament voicing similar demands.
Steps taken by the Macedonian government and international community in the coming days are critical if inter-ethnic conflict in Macedonia is to be prevented. It is vital the ethnically mixed coalition government holds together and for opposition parties to avoid exploiting the situation in the hope of securing some short-sighted political advantage.
After a two-day emergency session, the parliament on March 17 reaffirmed government unity by passing a joint declaration by a majority of 97 with only six abstentions. A proposal from the opposition Social Democratic League of Macedonia (SDSM) to form an all-party inclusive government was defeated.
The declaration condemned the violence, reaffirmed respect for Macedonia's territorial integrity, called on people to remain calm and return to their homes, and appealed to the international peace-keeping force in Kosovo, K-For, to increase its presence along the Kosovo-Macedonian border.
The resolution went someway to counter rumours of tension and division within the government coalition. Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski and Interior Minister Dosta Dimovska had raised the possibility of declaring a state of emergency to allow the army to be used internally.
According to the independent daily newspaper Dnevnik, the leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Arben Xhaferi, threatened to leave the coalition if such a step was taken. Xhaferi argues a state of emergency would only fuel ethnic tension.
On the international front, the Macedonian government is seeking assurances that the West will step in if the violence escalates.
Despite repeated international condemnation of the violence, ethnic Macedonians are increasingly mistrustful of Western commitment to protecting the country's territorial integrity. This mistrust is born out of the perceived experience of Kosovo.
K-For's failure to secure the border between Macedonia and Kosovo, despite frequent appeals from Skopje for more stringent action to restrict the movement of armed groups and equipment across the frontier, has fuelled anxiety.
A request for a K-For manned buffer zone has been rejected, although more troops are being sent to the area and NATO has requested additional troops for deployment in Kosovo.
Nevertheless the international force in Kosovo appears incapable of sealing the border.
NATO has come in for criticism from international quarters too. On March 15, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Balkans Jiri Dienstbier blamed the international community for being too passive in preventing conflict in Macedonia. He accused K-For of responding too late to the crisis and called on the international community to wake up to the reality of extremism in order to stabilise the region.
If the conflict prevention efforts of the past ten years are not to unravel, the international community needs to provide more concrete support to the Macedonian government. Statements supporting the country's territorial integrity may not be enough.
A political solution is clearly preferable, but the intensified inter-ethnic dialogue favoured by the international community may not suffice. An escalation in the crisis could require other conflict prevention measures.
K-For must secure Kosovo's border with northern Macedonia and prevent further infiltration by guerrillas and supplies from the province. The March 19 beefing-up of border patrols is a step in the right direction.
But the international community needs to consider carefully the implications of its present stated position which rules out military involvement in Macedonia itself. NATO Secretary General George Robertson rightly points out no such request has come from Skopje, but the West should at least leave the option open should the Skopje government's position change.
Karina Johansen is a political science researcher based in Skopje
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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