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issue 60, October 2001

Macedonia's uneasy truce

A MEDIA campaign by Nato forces in Macedonia features a picture of a soldier holding a sign that reads, 'weapons collection'. Behind him billboards claim that only Nato's Operation Essential Harvest can show a way forward.

Despite the boastful propaganda, however, Macedonia has never been more dangerously divided. Most Macedonians suspect Western troops will partition the country and so fiercely oppose their presence. The minority ethnic Albanians fear that a departing Nato will leave them at the mercy of government forces.

Following six months of bitter fighting, which has left 200 dead and threatened all-out civil and regional wars, the Western-imposed 'Ohrid agreement' was signed in August. This stipulated that the rebel Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) would give up arms and, in return, the Macedonian parliament would enact constitutional changes granting Albanians greater political and language rights. Other reforms include allowing Albanians more public-sector jobs and posts in the police force commensurate with their numbers, anywhere between a third to one-half of Macedonia's population. The first 500 officers are due to be trained by July 2002.

The 'cease-fire' and 'peace process' was something of a fiction from day one. Thirty people died in fighting around the time the agreement was signed and in early September rebels and government forces exchanged fire in western Tetevo. Although Nato has collected in arms, they are generally in poor condition and the rebels have easy access to weapons from neighbouring Kosova/Kosovo and Albania.


After a week of fierce debate the Macedonian parliament voted by 91 to 19 to 'embark' on constitutional change. Operation Essential Harvest was only due to last until 26 September, but Western forces now face the prospect of a much longer stay. While Macedonian political parties and ethnic Albanian rebels have followed some of the formal requirements of the treaty, Nato chiefs realise that both parties have been positioning themselves for renewed hostilities.

The Western powers have little choice but to remain and try to prevent the conflict turning into a general conflagration throughout the region. This could involve neighbouring states such as Bulgaria and Romania, and even Nato 'allies' Greece and Turkey. Furthermore, a widening of the conflict would threaten to re-ignite Kosova, southern Serbia and Bosnia.

There are divisions amongst the powers on how to proceed, reflecting their own strategic and economic interests in the region. A proposal by the EU Special Envoy to Macedonia, François Léotard, that the EU lead a force after 26 September to protect monitors assisting returning refugees, was torpedoed following pressure from the US, which wants a Nato-led force. This is anathema to Macedonians who view Nato, and especially the US, as pro-Albanian. Attempting to make the plan more palatable, some EU states raised the idea of seeking UN consent. The US and Britain (alone amongst EU states), have argued against seeking UN backing. The US wants to avoid the direct influence, through the UN Security Council, of China and especially Russia, which has ties to fellow 'Slav nations' in the Balkans. Reduced Russian involvement, as part of a Nato-led force, may be considered in an attempt to assuage Macedonian opinion.


This jostling for influence reflects the desire of the US to attempt to enforce its dominance throughout the region. The 1999 Nato war against Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Serbia marked a new departure - a deliberate bypassing of the UN.

So far, the US has allowed other Nato states to go into the frontline in Macedonia. The superpower's policy in the region will now be conditioned to some degree by the needs of its self-declared 'war on terrorism' following the devastating 11 September attacks in the US.

All the powers want to establish points of support amongst local regimes and have their eyes on the rich natural resources of the region. A scramble is taking place over who will benefit from plans to establish an oil pipeline stretching from the Caucuses to the Adriatic Sea. In all this, the welfare of the long-suffering Balkan peoples is merely small change.

The Macedonian ruling elite is under enormous pressure from their nationalist power base to oppose an extension of the Nato mandate. Politicians from the main Macedonian party, VMRO-DPMNE, say it will lead to the partition of the country along ethnic lines or the de facto creation of a Western protectorate. "If Nato stays the country will become a second Cyprus... which is exactly what the Albanians have always wanted", a senior interior ministry official told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting Journal (11 September). Hard-line prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, has called for a UN mission to patrol Macedonia's porous borders and for Macedonian forces to retake Western areas of the country occupied by the NLA.


Failure to accept a 'Nato-plus' plan would 'jeopardise' much needed economic aid, threaten the Western powers. Donors are due to meet in Brussels in October to discuss impoverished Macedonia's debt, and the EU and the US are delaying disbursement of $170 million in agreed aid.

Faced with such pressure, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonian (SDSM), which is in a 'coalition' government with the VMRO-DPMNE and two smaller ethnic Albanian parties, wavered in its opposition to Nato and now says the force can stay with a UN mandate. Splits could develop between President Trajkovskis, who is more pro-Western, and Georgievski. The president's security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, reportedly said that a 'light, restricted' Nato mission would be accepted. (The Guardian, 18 September)

Ethnic Albanians dread the Macedonian authorities' plan to launch a renewed offensive in the autumn should Nato depart. They point to reports that after the signing of the Ohrid agreement the government made deals with Russia and Ukraine to buy new weapons. Albanian politicians, Xhaferi and Imer Imeri, want international forces to accord Albanian areas some form of 'international protectorate' status.

It is a cruel illusion, however, to believe that the proposed 1,500 Nato force and 200 Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors will bring lasting peace. None of the fundamental problems will be resolved and the presence of Western troops will itself become a factor in the crisis, antagonising both Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.


An estimated 36,000 ethnic Albanian refugees have returned from Kosova to Macedonia. Around 45,000 remain. Virtually none of the 30,000 Macedonian refugees have returned to Albanian-dominated villages. Nato will have huge difficulty in overseeing their return to hostile areas, which will only convince Macedonians of a de facto partition.

A new Nato deployment will deepen the resentment of Macedonians and fuel support for hard-line nationalists. Macedonian youths killed a British soldier at the start of Operation Essential Harvest. Anti-Ohrid protesters also blocked the crossing into Kosova for two weeks, closing Nato's main supply road.

The ultra-nationalist interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, who has been implicated in the killing of Albanian civilians, has established a paramilitary police force, the Lions. This 800-strong force, under Boskovski's direct control, is deployed in Skopje and Northwest Macedonia. The Lions have been involved in kidnapping and intimidating the ethnic Albanian population.

The Lions are a point of conflict between Boskovski and the defence ministry, which is controlled by the SDSM. This reflects wider tensions within different sections of the state which could explode into the open. With VMRO-DPMNE heading for election defeat in January 2002, according to opinion polls, Boskovski may be tempted to use the Lions to intimidate voters and opposition party workers.

Even the call for further Nato involvement by ethnic Albanians is tempered by recent experiences in the region. The continuing denial of independence for Albanians in Kosova by occupying Western powers is a sore point. Many believe the West has abandoned the Albanians of the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, where rebels disarmed earlier this year in exchange for a commitment for more self-government, a mixed police force and other rights. Albanians believed the Western powers would act as guarantor. Despite the West portraying Presevo as a great success, however, most of the reforms have not been implemented.


Underlying scepticism has resulted in a breakaway Albanian National Army (ANA) forming in Macedonia. The ANA might use force to prevent another 'Presevo scenario'. Although lacking organisation, the ANA could grow rapidly, just as the NLA did this year, and even force the larger rebel group to follow its path or come into conflict with it.

The working people of Macedonia - Macedonians, ethnic Albanians and other minorities - want justice, civil and human rights, jobs, decent housing, education and lasting peace. It is illusory to think that the same politicians who have brought the country to the brink of civil war can provide a solution. Nor can the NLA or ANA, which are right-wing nationalist organisations that play on genuine grievances to further their own privileges and power. The NLA, like the Macedonian army and paramilitaries, have engaged in vicious 'ethnic cleansing'.

Working-class people need their own independent voice. Even in recent months strikes have taken place involving workers from both communities. Such displays of class solidarity can be the basis for campaigning for workers' unity and for the creation of a mass socialist party. To be successful such a party needs a programme that offers full democratic, cultural, religious and linguistic rights for all minorities and which champions a socialist confederation of states in the region, on a voluntary and equal basis.

Niall Muholland

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