bosnia report
New Series No: 21/22 January - May 2001
Nowhere near the brink
by Jonathan Steele

If war is, as Clausewitz said, the continuation of politics by other means, then a war correspondent is a political reporter in another context. The old adage needs to be remembered with special urgency when fighting breaks out in the Balkans. Precisely because they are part of Europe, the temptation for non-Balkan Europeans in the more prosperous part of the continent to demonize their southern neighbours seems to be huge.

The crisis in Macedonia is the latest case. Too many politicians, analysts and journalists are already using the apocalyptic language of ‘conflagration’, ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘regional war’; or commenting, as The Sunday Telegraph did, ‘After Bosnia, after Kosovo, one would have thought the people of the Balkans had had enough of killing each other.’

The Balkans have certainly had a miserable decade, with an appalling record of massacre and ethnic cleansing. But the latest events in Macedonia provide no reason to abandon normal political analysis in favour of a gloomy determinism which assumes that every Balkan conflict is about ethnicity, and that once tapped lightly on the shoulder the ethnic genie will always race off to mass murder. The Sunday Telegraph should note there have only been two deaths in the ‘conflagration’ around Tetovo. An army pilot died when a helicopter hit a power line. An Albanian civilian was killed by a stray bullet.

More significantly, the clashes are not just a dispute between Albanians and Macedonians. They are also a dispute among Albanians. The established Albanian politicians of Macedonia, as well as those of Kosovo and Albania itself, have all condemned the gunmen. The Macedonian government, a coalition of Macedonian and Albanian parties, has not fallen. Indeed, apart from four Albanian and two Macedonian MPs, the entire parliament condemned the ‘armed groups of extremists’ yesterday and called for foreign military help. The motion was supported not only by the Albanian party in government but also by the Albanian opposition Party of Democratic Prosperity.

So the gunmen operating in the hills above Tetovo represent a minority. That said, it does not follow that a large number of Macedonia's Albanians do not support their goals, as opposed to their violent methods. Before and since independence in 1991 Albanians have regularly criticized the lack of language rights for their community and discrimination in public-service jobs. There have been frequent outbursts of nationalism with demands for the right to fly the Albanian flag. Arben Xhaferi, now the leading Albanian moderate in Macedonia, is a jail veteran from flag protests going back as far as 1968.

Calls for federalization within Macedonia, which the gunmen seem to be making, have long been canvassed by some Albanians, though always rejected by Macedonian politicians on the grounds they would be the first step to secession.

If the gunmen are to remain isolated, a heavy responsibility now rests on the local politicians of both sides as well as, to a lesser extent, on Western governments. The Albanian leaders in Macedonia and in Kosovo must go beyond their public condemnations of the gunmen and start serious discussions with them and their leaders for a ceasefire. The gunmen have made a point but they must now leave room for political talks by elected leaders to go forward.

By the same token, the Macedonian military and police must avoid any escalation. It is clear that Nato is not going to get involved with troops, beyond a belated tightening up of security on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. It is also apparent that the Macedonian security forces do not have the men, the equipment, or the sophisticated training to take the gunmen on by themselves. Blasting mortar rounds into forested hillsides serves little purpose other than as a temporary, though spurious, morale-booster for Macedonia's Slav majority. But it carries the risk of civilian casualties which would only serve to radicalize a wider segment of the Albanian population. The Macedonian military must avoid the use of excessive force which the Serbs wielded in Kosovo in 1998, turning the whole Albanian community against them.

If a ceasefire can be achieved quickly, then all sides must be ready for wide-ranging talks and reasonable concessions. A decade after its hasty and unprepared independence, Macedonia needs to take a deep breath and work out a new dispensation. Albanian leaders must make an unequivocal declaration that they do not want to split the state. They must also renounce federalization, at least for a 10-year period, in return for progress in opening public-service jobs to Albanians. The constitution needs to enshrine multi-racialism instead of its current assumption of Slav supremacy. Albanian must be recognized as an official language for parliament, the courts and public service. A minority as large as a third of the population, as the Albanians are thought to be, deserve no less. With common sense in Macedonia, and less hysteria outside it, solutions can be found.

This article appeared in The Guardian (London) ,

19 March 2001


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