The Macedonian maze

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The NATO-brokered peace deal between the Macedonian government and the Albanian rebels could lead to the fragmentation of the Balkan region on ethnic lines.

ON August 13, the government of Macedonia signed a peace agreement with the Albanian rebels who had engaged it in a civil war that was becoming increasingly brutal in the past six months. The agreement was supposed to clear the way for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops to disarm the rebels, who had put the better-armed Macedonian Army on the defensive in the last few months of fighting. But even before the ink was dry on the paper, a Macedonian policeman was killed by the rebels in the Albanian-dominated city of Tetovo, which is also the second biggest in the country.

From left, Ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and President Boris Trajkovski sign the NATO-brokered peace agreement in Skpoje on August 13.-VLATKO PERKOVSKI/AP

Two days before the agreement was initialled, the rebels had killed 18 soldiers. The rebels, who had occupied large parts of the country, also established their presence near the capital, Skopje.

Ethnic Albanians are said to constitute nearly one-third of the country's total population of around two million. The remaining two-thirds comprise mainly people of Slav origin, who profess Christianity. The overwhelming majority of Macedonia's Albanian population is Muslim.

UNDER the terms of the peace deal, Macedonian Serbs will no longer be "the only constitutional people" in the nation. The country will henceforth be described as a "civic society". Albanian will be the second official language in areas where Albanians constitute more than 20 per cent of the population. The state will also be obliged to fund higher education in the Albanian language. Until now the Albanian language was taught only upto the secondary school level.

The peace deal also guarantees Albanians proportional representation in the constitutional courts, the administration and the police force. Albanians will be appointed Police Commissioners in areas that are predominantly inhabited by their kinsmen. Some degree of self-rule will be given to ethnic Albanian areas. A census will be held later in the year on the basis of which general elections will be organised. A new Constitution will guarantee equal status for Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Muslims.

Amnesty will be granted to rebels who voluntarily surrender but who have not committed war crimes. But the Albanian guerillas want an amnesty law to be enacted before they start disarming. NATO, for its part, wants both the surrender of arms and the enactment of the amnesty law to take place simultaneously. NATO had recently changed its opinion about the guerillas fighting in Macedonia. NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who had described the rebels as "terrorists" not so long ago, today prefers to call them "insurgents". British military officials revealed recently that five years ago the National Liberation Army (NLA), as the rebels call themselves, had worked out plans to attack Macedonia.

Politicians representing the majority Slav community have been hostile to the proposals envisaged by the new peace deal, especially on the issue of grant of recognition to the Albanian language. Slav legislators will have to ratify the deal in Parliament not later than 45 days from the date of signing. Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski stated in the first week of August that "it would be shameful to sign any peace deal while our territories are being occupied by terrorists".

The Prime Minister said that the ultimate goal of the extremists was "the creation of a Greater Albania". Georgievski, who is considered a Slav nationalist, was also critical of President Boris Trajkovski. "Unfortunately today we have a strong and decisive people but an indecisive leadership," he said. At present, the majority of legislators are said to be opposed to the NATO-sponsored peace deal.

MOST observers of the Balkan scene are of the view that the prospects of a lasting peace in Macedonia are pretty bleak. The agreement, signed in Skopje, was sponsored by the United States and the European Union. The pact granted considerable concessions to the Albanian minority much to the chagrin of the Slavs. Relations between the Macedonian government and NATO had deteriorated in recent months, especially after Western pressure forced the Ukrainian government to suspend arms supplies to Macedonia. The Macedonian government, which had given unstinted support to NATO during its war against Yugoslavia, now feels short-changed by NATO, which is unwilling to deal decisively with the rebels.

Macedonian government soldiers observe Albanian rebels from the forward line in the village of Umin Dol near Skopje.-NIKOLAS GIAKOUMIDIS/AP

It is no secret that the rebels were inspired, trained and financed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Many of them earned their spurs fighting under the banner of the KLA in Kosovo. The KLA itself was nurtured and encouraged by NATO even as it implemented its game plan in the Balkans. Although the Macedonian government had closed down the country's borders with Kosovo, many armed fighters had infiltrated Macedonia from the NATO-run "protectorate" of Kosovo.

The rebels have promised to surrender their arms to the 3,500-strong British-led NATO troops that will be deployed in Macedonia. Interestingly, the U.S. is not sending any troops although it played an active role in the brokering of the truce. NATO, however, has stressed that its troops will remain in Macedonia only if the ceasefire is in place. A time-frame of one month has been set for the collection of surrendered weapons, after which the NATO disarmament mission called "Operation Just Harvest", is scheduled to leave Macedonia.

Many Macedonians on both sides of the fence have started describing the peace deal as a "farce". The time given to the NLA for disarmament is too short. This is something that the NATO leadership is no doubt aware of. But then NATO had initially perceived a short time-frame in Bosnia and Kosovo too. Today there are 20,000 NATO troops in Bosnia and 40,000 in Kosovo. A similar situation is most likely to arise in Macedonia too, given the Herculean task that the peace-keepers are faced with. Collecting arms will not be the end-all of the mission. The KLA had ostensibly given up its arms to NATO peace-keepers in Kosovo but everybody knows that it has stashed away huge caches of arms, which it has been using in other parts of the Balkans to further the dream of establishing a "greater Albania". NATO troops have made it clear that they are not going into Albania as "peace-keepers"; if there is a serious upsurge of violence, they will not intervene.

The Bush administration has a lot at stake in ensuring that the parties to the accord keep the peace. A few days after the accord was signed, the U.S. government sanctioned $250,000 ostensibly for "the launching of a media campaign" to sell the peace accord to the citizens of Macedonia. The amount allocated is significant given the small size of the country. The money, according to those conversant with the politics of the region, will be used to sway the majority of Macedonian legislators, who support the Prime Minister, to NATO's side when the vote to ratify the peace accord is held. The U.S. is confident of succeeding in Macedonia just as it did in other parts of former Yugoslavia.

The Albanian separatists, on the other hand, have reasons to be happy with the concessions they have secured and the international recognition they have gained. The leader of the NLA's political wing, Ali Ahmeti, gave an assurance of cooperation to the NATO leadership after the agreement was signed. But it is unlikely that the separatists have given up their dream of a greater Albania. The KLA was formally disbanded but it has and have been militarily active under the benign gaze of NATO. The impetus for a greater Albania now comes from Pristina and not anymore from Tirana. Albanian separatists have already announced another liberation movement, in northern Greece where around 500,000 Albanians live.

The recent problems posed by Albanian extremists were a consequence of the West's open support to the Kosovo extremists. The short-sighted policies of the West have given a fillip to forces espousing a re-division of the Balkans on ethnic lines, and have the potential to give rise to more dangerous situations. They will result in the disintegration of multi-ethnic states in the region and the creation of mono-ethnic entities - a possible eventuality that would set the region back by more than a century.

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