Key to Balkan peace


March 28, 2001|By Gregory Michaelidis

TO SAY THE violence in Macedonia has caught people off-guard is an understatement.

The young Macedonian republic of 2.1 million people has been touted as a model for its peaceful disengagement from Yugoslavia and has been enjoying warm relations with its neighbors and an improved economy. Yet tension between Macedonian Slavs and the estimated 400,000 ethnic Albanians have proved the biggest challenge to stability.

Ethnic Albanians, who rightfully complain of their treatment as second-class citizens, hold five ministries in Macedonia's government and will soon begin construction of a private Albanian-language university.

Macedonian Slavs on the street argue that ethnic Albanians have never had it better. But Albanians in Macedonia find this attitude paternalistic and point to their minority status in the Macedonian constitution as a source of their cultural and educational segregation.

The Albanian rebels' demand for greater Albanian rights in Macedonia, while desirable, is somewhat dubious given the Kosovar origins of many fighters and the positive trends in political life for Albanians in Macedonia. Kosovo is part of neighboring Serbia, the bigger of the two remaining Yugoslav republics.

A popular Slavic Macedonian explanation, which is not far-fetched, is that rebels are exploiting the discontent of local Albanians to cover their real intentions: to put more land under Albanian control and create instability to cloak their criminal smuggling pursuits in the region.

Moderate Albanian political leaders, such as Arben Xhaferi and his Democratic Party, have condemned the violence. But many ethnic Albanians, though alarmed by the insurrection, see it as a chance to push for the rights they say Macedonia has denied them since achieving independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

With their hands full administering Kosovo, NATO's Kosovo Force, or KFOR, can be forgiven for underestimating the ability and desire of armed Albanian rebel groups to find support in Macedonia.

United Nations and NATO administration of Kosovo began in 1999 to allow rebuilding of the ravaged province and keep Kosovar Albanians safe from Serbs.

Less than two years later, NATO's biggest concern is the violence perpetrated by radical Albanian groups that splintered from the Kosovo Liberation Army after that group disarmed. Many of the rebels and guns now threatening Macedonia have arrived from Kosovo, often on mules.

Foreign leaders have stumbled badly at articulating a plan to help Macedonia.

NATO claims no mandate to move troops out of Kosovo and has no stomach for fighting Albanians. Sadly, the Bush administration, already hemmed in by its commitment to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Balkans, filled its initial silence on Macedonia by announcing the drawing down of its Bosnia force.

Though President Bush has since expressed support for Macedonia, the administration's late and mixed message in the face of an escalating crisis is all the more tone-deaf given the high credibility the United States maintains among ethnic Albanians and the steadying effect its support can have among its allies.

Ethnic hatred and violence are not preordained in the Balkans; Macedonia can work. While the region has been particularly ravaged by war in the last century, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies and others generally have cohabited peacefully for more than a millennium.

Yet a crucial lesson from the Yugoslav wars of secession in the 1990s is that if ethnic nationalist violence does start, its power of persuasion over a frustrated citizenry seeking scapegoats demands that immediate cooperative attempts be made to stop the fighting in its tracks.

The window of opportunity for the international community to help stop the crisis is small because a radicalization of both the Slav and Albanian populations in Macedonia is well under way.

Preserving long-sought peace in the Balkans will require continued and unequivocal U.S. support for Macedonian territorial integrity, a joint NATO/Macedonian effort to end the insurgency and contain any residual violence and an honest effort by Macedonia to redress ethnically based grievances democratically and transparently.

We must not avail ourselves of another option that was used with such gruesome results in Bosnia only a decade ago: delay.

Gregory Michaelidis, a senior policy analyst with the Hatcher Group in Bethesda, is writing a doctoral dissertation on the history of Macedonian nationalism.

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