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War and peace in Macedonia

A NATO-brokered peace deal in Macedonia is likely to lead to the further fragmentation of the country.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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As a NATO-orchestrated peace deal is signed in Macedonia, and NATO prepares to send in 3500 troops to oversee the disarmament of rebels from the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), the country has never looked further from peace.

The estimated 30 deaths last week in Macedonia made it the most violent week since the conflict started in February 2001; a few days ago Macedonians took to the streets of Skopje, shouting anti-Albanian slogans and accusing NATO of ‘protecting terrorists’, after 10 Macedonian soldiers were killed in an ambush by ethnic Albanian rebels; both Albanian and Macedonian minorities have fled from previously multiethnic areas.

Yet despite these events, US envoy James Pardew urged the parties to go ahead and sign. ‘The peace document is the best hope for peace in Macedonia. The leaders should take this opportunity and sign the document’, he said (1).

The association between a NATO-mediated peace deal and the aggravation of unrest on the ground is not accidental. It is NATO intervention, first in Kosovo since 1998, then in Macedonia over the past six months, that has caused the intensification of the Macedonian conflict.

When the NLA began fighting in Macedonia in February 2001, it looked to many like a doomed mission. Instead, they have managed to destabilise the government and gain most of their goals – the peace deal includes amending the constitution to include all ethnic groups, boosting the proportion of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia’s police force and other institutions, making Albanian into a second official language in some areas, and allowing a degree of Albanian self-rule in Albanian-dominated areas.

The secret of the NLA’s success was to internationalise the conflict. Once NATO became involved the stakes were raised and the forces at play became more complex – the NLA could make gains they could never have hoped to make on their own. NATO envoy Pieter Feith held talks with the NLA, while NATO negotiators called for restraint from the Macedonian government and cajoled politicians into accepting many of the Albanian demands. The NLA have been transformed from ‘terrorists’ into ‘equal negotiators’. A local conflict which could have been contained by Macedonians themselves is escalating into full-scale civil war.

The NLA have in effect played the Kosovo card. In Kosovo, the insurgents learned that a small badly organised force can, by appealing to NATO in the language of minority rights, make remarkable gains (despite the fact that, with an ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia’s governing coalition, the Albanians hardly fit the bill of the ‘oppressed minority’). With NATO as the adjudicator, with all its resources and political weight, the most apparently hopeless demands of particular groups can become viable projects.

Indeed, the NLA and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are virtually one and the same thing. Many NLA commanders come from the KLA, or its more official incarnation, the Kosovo Protection Corps – these forces were given official legitimacy by NATO, and nurtured and trained by the USA and the UK. On balance, the creation of these forces owes as much to NATO as to ethnic Albanians.

Despite its doubts about getting involved in Macedonia, it seems that NATO is driven by an irresistible urge to play God in the Balkans – to judge and guide the warring parties. The result is that Macedonians have been put in the position of vying with ethnic Albanians for NATO approval. In response to recent violence, Macedonian foreign minister Ilinka Mitreva made a plea for tougher action by the international community – ‘Now is the moment for the international community to act energetically’ (2). The crowds that took to the streets of Skopje complained about NATO’s apparent favouring of the Albanians: one woman said, ‘The West should realise they are making a mistake and that they should help our country’ (3).

The conflict becomes a theatrical performance staged for the benefit of the international observers, where each side tries to appear the victim in an attempt to invite intervention on their part. The obvious effect is the inflaming of hostilities.

NATO supervision of peace talks undermines the security of the Macedonian government – hardly the recipe for future stability. US envoy James Pardew and his EU counterpart Francois Leotard have, in the words of Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, been ‘controlling the agenda and proposing the compromises’ (4). Macedonian prime minister Ljubco Georgievski seems to be viewed by international mediators as a disruptive child making unreasonable demands that threaten their plans for Macedonia (demands that he is often then persuaded to drop). The fact that the elected head of state is being strong-armed by foreign officials effectively ends the existence of Macedonia as a sovereign state, with the mandate to decide its own affairs.

NATO supervision also ensures that the peace deal cannot work – a satisfactory solution to the conflict cannot be worked out in the corridors of Brussels, but can only come from the Macedonians themselves.

The irony – and tragedy – of the situation, is that Macedonia was until recently seen as a relative success story of the Balkans. In David Chandler’s 1999 book on Bosnia, he noted that Macedonia – along with Romania and Bulgaria – was one of the post-socialist states with a large ethnic minority that had managed to establish liberal democratic institutions without any ‘significant anti-system party or social movement’ emerging (5). Multiethnic communities that before lived peacefully alongside each other are now separating: the Macedonian Slav minority has fled from the majority Albanian town of Tevoto and the surrounding villages, and the Albanian minority has been forced out in Bitola and Prilep. Now observers are wondering if Albanians and Macedonians will ever be able to live together again (6).

What future for Macedonia? It looks like NATO’s apparently irresistible urge to intervene will create another cycle of conflict and intervention in the Balkans. As one Macedonian government spokesman has warned, Macedonia is being turned into an insecure ‘international protectorate’ more like Bosnia and Kosovo, compared to the relatively stable and harmonious state it once was.

Read on:

Macedonia: oh no, not NATO, by Josie Appleton

Kosovo elections: who’s failing the test of democracy?, by David Chandler

(1) Macedonia fighting mars peace hopes, BBC News Online, 13 August 2001

(2) Macedonia appeals for outside help, BBC News Online, 11 August 2001

(3) Macedonians target the West, 26 July 2001

(4) Guardian, 11 August 2001

(5) Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton, by David Chandler, Pluto Press, 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (USA)

(6) Macedonia’s torn ethnic fabric, BBC News Online, 28 July 2001

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Topics Politics

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