Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

New conflict in Macedonia

FRESH CONFLICT in Macedonia and southern Serbia is threatening to tear the Balkans apart once again. At the beginning of June, Slav-based parties in the Macedonian government were threatening to declare a state of emergency to give themselves powers to try to crush Albanian rebels. Anti-Albanian riots flared up, most intensely in the southern town of Bitola. Human rights groups reported that police had taken part in this new wave of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

For over a month government troops have pounded Albanian rebel held villages in north-east Macedonia. After spending weeks huddled in basements thousands of refugees fled the fighting. Macedonian police separated out the men who were then ‘subjected to severe beatings’. Slav civilians have also suffered. A number have been forced out of ethnically mixed areas by Albanian nationalist hard-liners.

Worsening ethnic clashes will place the very existence of the state of Macedonia in jeopardy. If civil war and the break-up of Macedonia unfold, neighbouring countries, such as Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, with historical claims to the territory, would intervene. This would also embroil Turkey. A fifth Balkans war in a decade is a real and horrifying possibility.

The roots of the recent fighting lie in the inability of capitalism to solve the national question in the Balkans. The re-introduction of the market economy saw the ruling elite of each republic of the former Yugoslavia using nationalism to carve out as much territory and resources as they could at the expense of other nationalities and ethnic groups. Macedonia managed to avoid becoming directly embroiled in the wars that afflicted the peoples of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia between 1991-1995. But since it was formed in the early 1990s, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been an extremely fragile entity. An influx of 300,000 Albanian refugees from Kosova during the 1999 conflict greatly increased the tensions between Macedonia’s Slav majority and the ethnic-Albanian minority.

The Slav elite claim that the Albanians suffer nothing like their cousins did in next-door Kosova under Milosevic and point to their official minority status. But none of this dispels the feeling of Albanians that they are a discriminated-against minority. They are massively under-represented in public sector jobs and in industry, and everyday have to contend with the bigotry of the Slav-dominated police. A mood to fight for full democratic, cultural and language rights has grown, which the right-wing Albanian guerrillas and nationalist parties play on.

Two new Albanian guerrilla movements became engaged in armed action this year: the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanonvac (UCPMB), named after the three main towns in the predominantly Albanian region in south east Serbia, and the National Liberation Army (NLA), which came into the open in Macedonia. The UCPMB occupied the demilitarised buffer zone between Kosova/Kosovo and Serbia, from which the Serb armed forces were banned after the end of the 1999 NATO bombings. Similarly, the NLA occupied a number of Albanian villages along the borders of Macedonia, Kosova and Serbia.

The Western powers oppose plans by Albanian nationalists for a ‘Greater Albania’, which they understand would provoke new larger conflicts. Therefore the containment of Albanian nationalism is one of their key aims in the region. To this end, K-For troops have attempted to stop guerrilla arms and personnel moving across the porous borders between Kosova and southern Serbia and Macedonia. Western military backup has also been given to the weak and under-resourced Macedonian armed forces.

In May, after UCPMB leaders agreed ‘to lay down arms’, a joint NATO and Serb army operation captured former rebel strongholds in the Presevo valley. The return of the hated Serb army led to an exodus of some 20,000 terrified Albanian civilians. It is scarcely believable, but only two years ago NATO member states claimed they were going to war with the Serb regime precisely to prevent such events. The reality is that the Western powers are prepared to not only tolerate, but also actually participate in a certain degree of ‘ethnic cleansing’ if they believe it can further their strategic and economic interests.

In Macedonia, despite Western backup, government forces have failed to dislodge the NLA from a number of villages. Furthermore, the guerrillas have opened up a new front and have launched attacks from around Tetovo.

Despite the fact that all the governments in the Balkans are pro-capitalist and dominated by the West, ‘stability’ in the region is proving consistently elusive for the big powers. Successive wars and the restoration of capitalism have led to a huge drop in living standards throughout the region and exacerbated the national and ethnic issues.

In recognition that there can be no long-term military solution to ethnic problems in Macedonia, the EU and US administration are pressurising the ruling Slav elite to enact ‘reforms’. They forced the governing party, the pro-Slav Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation- Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity, to form a new ‘grand coalition’ in March, which includes the main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians.

The coalition government has been under enormous strain from day one and could fall at any time. The Albanian parties feel the pressure of the minority population, which rather than see any meaningful reforms, endure pogroms and military attack. The Slav elite, however, fears that Macedonians will see any concessions made to Albanians as a ‘sell-out’. As the crisis has deepened in June, the prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, publicly reneged on his promises of constitutional reforms.

It is no surprise that politicians coming together at the ‘top’ should fail to provide a solution. The Slav and Albanian parties base themselves on continued ethnic divisions. They are all right wing, pro-capitalist parties and offer only neo-liberal policies of cuts in services, pay and jobs. Unemployment (including underemployment) amongst Albanians is around 60%. But the situation facing Macedonian workers is also bleak. Overall unemployment is officially measured at 32%. The economy contracted every year from 1990 to 1996 and then it grew only marginally. The sell-off of former state run industries has led to mass lay-offs, especially hitting Slav workers. Privatisations, unemployment and growing poverty are endemic in the market economy and in the absence of a socialist alternative these factors greatly fuel ethnic tensions and divisions.

The NLA can offer no solution either to the plight of ethnic Albanians. Their military adventure in Macedonia has only increased state repression against the minority, deepened divisions and driven sections of Macedonians into the arms of reactionaries.

The demand for a ‘Greater Albania’, like the idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’ or a ‘Greater Croatia’, is a cruel illusion for workers and the poor. It can only mean the attempted annexation of majority Albanian areas into one ‘ethnically pure state’, which entails wars, refugees and the mass slaughter of minorities.

Up until now the vast majority of Albanians in the region have shown little enthusiasm for the idea. In elections in Kosova last year the hard-line Albanian nationalist parties, which evolved from the KLA, lost out to moderates. Kosovars do not want renewed conflict and have bitter experience of the KLA, who have been heavily involved in criminal activities, attacks on ethnic minorities and oppose trade unionists organising.

Both the NLA and UCPMB have been frustrated by their limited appeal. But this can change. A surge of conflict in Macedonia and increased state repression can lead Albanians there to believe that salvation lies only by linking up with Kosova, the Presevo valley and eventually Albania. In Kosova, the head of the UN administration has enraged Albanians by blocking demands for self-determination. He announced on May 15 that a decision on genuine independence is now put off until ‘an appropriate future stage’.

Socialists support the struggle to end discrimination against all minorities in Macedonia and support the right of the ethnic Albanian population to full democratic, cultural and language rights. We stand for a socialist confederation of Balkan states, on a free and equal basis, where all minority rights are guaranteed.

Even if the Macedonian conflict is contained for the moment, the underlying social and economic problems will intensify and at some point, without a class alternative, a new all-out war will become a reality. Workers therefore urgently need to unite to oppose the bigots on both sides and to prevent a slide into civil war. This includes forming democratic cross community self-defence committees, and building a mass socialist party that can oppose the reactionary nationalists on all sides, the capitalist elites and the meddling big powers.

Niall Mulholland


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