Unrest in Macedonia

Print edition : July 07, 2001

The majority of Macedonia's Slav population opposes President Boris Trajkovski's acquiescence to a NATO-prescribed reprieve for Albanian rebel fighters.

"PEOPLE have gone mad. Nationalistic fury has gripped both the Albanians and the Macedonians. I feel extremely insecure now. I do not know what to do. I have a visa for the Netherlands, but I cannot run away leaving my wife and parents behind. For people like me, who do not want to get involved in the conflict, who just want to get on with their lives, all hope has faded. I suppose we will just barricade ourselves inside and wait for them to come and butcher us," say 29-year-old Xhevat Haidari, an ethnic Albanian who lives in a small village 12 kilometres from the capital Skopje.

President Boris Trajkovski. He has incurred the ire of the Slav people for making peace with the rebels.-OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI/REUTERS

A month ago Xhevat did not sound so despondent. But as the tiny Balkan republic of Macedonia moves inexorably towards civil war, Xhevat's hopes for a political solution have evaporated, giving way to despair. "I think I am one of the few genuinely moderate persons left in this country. Everyone I know, Macedonian and Albanian alike, has changed into a lunatic, flag-waving nationalist," says the former ambulance driver.

Anger and hatred boiled over in Macedonia in the third week of June as rowdy demonstrators occupied the Parliament building and called for the ouster of President Boris Trajkovski. The demonstrators were furious with him for working out a deal by which Albanian fighters were allowed to leave, under the protection of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the town of Aracinovo with their weapons. Macedonian Slavs are demanding that the five-month-old Albanian uprising be crushed without further delay.

Trajkovski addressed the nation in a recorded televised statement. "You gave me a mandate for peace and tranquillity, not war. Rage on the streets is not the answer," he said, appealing for calm.

Albanians who make up a third of Macedonia's population of two million, say that they are fighting for equal status and that they do not want to break up the country. Macedonian Slavs say that changing the Constitution to redefine the Albanians as "constituent people" and not as a "minority" would mean opening the gateway to a referendum that will be inevitably be followed by secession - a repeat of what happened in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Houses burn as the Macedonian Army shells Albanian rebel posts in Aracinovo on June 24.-DARKO BANDIC/AP

The rebel Albanian campaign has put Macedonia's multi-ethnic coalition, formed in May following intense pressure from the international community, under severe strain. The national unity government spent 11 days trying to find ways to resolve the conflict. Albanians held out for official status for their language. They also wanted a rewriting of crucial parts of the 1991 Constitution, which they describe as discriminatory. The talks failed. Army units bombarded the town of Aracinovo, which was under rebel sway. Then, again under pressure from NATO, the government capitulated and allowed the withdrawal of the guerillas without a surrender of weapons.

The main Macedonian Slav Opposition parties have been criticising both Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and President Trajkovski for not doing enough to crush the guerillas. They believe already too much has been conceded to the ethnic Albanians since their former nationalistic party, the VMRO or the Macedonian Internal Revolutionary Organisation, formed a seemingly improbable marriage of convenience with Arben Xhaferi's once equally nationalist ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), two and a half years ago.

"Albanians and Macedo-nians are like oil and water, they can never mix," Professor Georgj Marionovoski, the leader of the Democratic League of Macedonia, a hardline, anti-Albanian party, told Frontline. But now the situation has been further complicated by an open power struggle between the two leaders of VMRO, Georgievski and Trajkovski.

According to the Oppo-sition Social Democratic Alliance, made up of former communists, Georgievski gave in to ethnic Albanian demands in order to stay in power. "He wanted to push through the election of his party's candidate Boris Trajkovski in the 1999 presidential election. But now the two men are locked in a power struggle of their own and it has landed us in a terrible situation," a socialist Member of Parliament confided.

Xhaveri too has not escaped criticism from hardliners in the Albanian camp. The DPA has been denounced by more militant forces for not doing enough to improve the lot of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians. The guerilla campaign has also produced a dilemma for Xhaferi's party.

"We, the party of Democratic Prosperity, like the DPA agree with many of the demands of the fighters. Albanians are discriminated against. We do not have enough public sector jobs, the Army and police are closed doors. But we also disapprove of violence," said Albanian MP Abdula Aliu.

Meanwhile, Xhaferi has come out against the federalisation of Macedonia which would establish autonomy for ethnic Albanians in the western and northern parts of the country. "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. It is in the interest of all the Albanians that Macedonia has a consensual democracy whereby some of the dilemmas in the society can be solved through consensual decisions," he said.

Although the guerillas do not explicitly say that they want a federation, they are expected to pursue that goal in the short term. However the ultimate objective is to have a separate nation by regrouping Albanians in Kosovo, Albania, parts of Serbia and Montenegro.

By pushing this agenda, which finds favour with most Albanians, the militants are putting pressure on Xhaferi's party. The DPA is thus pulled between agreeing with some of the guerillas' demands while opposing their use of force.

THE continuing violence inside Macedonia between government forces and ethnic Albanian fighters threatens to destabilise the efforts to bring a wider peace to the region, especially now that talks have broken down.

"Of course the ethnic Albanians say they are fighting for their rights. But in fact they have the same rights as everyone else. They say they do not get jobs in government. But statistics also show that when a job is advertised, there are no really good Albanian candidates. They are good at commerce, not at academics," says Dea, a 31-year-old interpreter who works at the Italian embassy in Skopje.

"The current fighting represents the greatest threat to our country since its independence some 10 years ago. What NATO is doing is absolutely wrong. NATO is helping the break-up of this country. They should allow us to deal with this on our own," says Professor Marionovski, echoing the majority Slav sentiment.

In addition to stepping up border patrols, NATO troops have improved liaison and intelligence exchanges between frontline NATO units and their Macedonian counterparts. The Alliance has also allowed Yugoslavia to deploy troops in a small part of the buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to "close the door" - as NATO puts it - on an ethnic Albanian supply route into Macedonia.

But this has had the effect of only squeezing ethnic Albanian fighters out of one area into another - and the Macedonian police and Army seem ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

"This conflict should not be over-dramatised. The number of guerillas actually fighting is very small and although they have the support of the Albanian population at large, no one wants a war. I do not think it will come to that despite the escalation in fighting,' a European Union (E.U.) official told Frontline.

BUT the potential for greater instability is clear. Indeed with the political changes in Belgrade, and NATO's growing contacts with the Yugoslav authorities, there are major new questions that affect the whole region.

The biggest of these is Kosovo's future. Most of its ethnic Albanian majority want full independence, but there are real fears that that would just encourage Albanian separatism elsewhere.

Such questions were unthinkable as long as Milosevic was in power in Belgrade. But with democracy on the march in Yugoslavia, NATO governments are going to have to start seriously thinking about how they see the future of the Balkans.

There are, in fact, two Albanian groups recruiting people for an armed struggle in Macedonia. The first is the National Liberation Army (NLA), and the second is the Albanian National Army (KLA or Armata Kometare Shqipetare, in Albanian) which is less visible and lesser known. Although they pursue the same goals, the two groups are bitter rivals.

There is no evidence that either of these two Macedonian groups is part of the same military command as the groups fighting in the Presevo valley in southern Serbia, or even that they are co-ordinating their actions in order to bring the Presevo conflict into Macedonia.

But they do have close links and the same aim, which is to see all Albanians living in the same state - of Greater Albania, which would include the predominantly Albanian regions of southern Serbia, parts of Montenegro and Macedonia, and Albania itself.

The NLA says it plans to step up its activities even further. Such a development could prove dangerous for a country with such a complex ethnic mix and troubled history and which was the cause of two Balkan wars in the last century.

Theoretically, the armed incidents of the past few months - when Albanian fighters were responsible for a rising level of violence in Serbia's Presevo valley, in northern Kosovo, and in north-western Macedonia - are unrelated. In practice, however, all these incidents are the product of the same sense of frustration among ethnic Albanians about their nebulous legal status, coupled with their growing fear that, for the third time in a century, the West is about to sacrifice their interests in order to accommodate the Serbs. Already about a hundred thousand people have fled the fighting and crossed over into the U.N.-administered province of Kosovo. Most of them are poor peasants whose homes have been destroyed in repeated attacks by the Macedonian Army. The Army's efforts to dislodge the guerillas have been unsuccessful so far.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says it requires almost $20 million to provide food and shelter to the refugees who have fled their villages.

Western diplomats are worried that the conflict may escalate and spill over to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Their worst fear is that further escalation in the fighting in Macedonia would radicalise Macedonia's large Albanian population and lead to serious inter-ethnic conflict. That, in turn, could trigger large-scale movement of refugees into Albania, Kosovo and perhaps other neighbouring countries. Besides, the armed groups operating in the Presevo valley and northern Macedonia could put a stranglehold over a section of the main land route from Turkey and part of West Asia to central Europe and onwards.

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