NATO and Macedonia
by Noel Malcolm
Not long after the end of the war in Kosovo, I was returning from a visit there when I was stopped at Skopje airport by a Macedonian official, who recognised my name. ‘So, you are a historian?’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I said warily, sensing some hostility in his tone and bracing myself for a disquisition on mediaeval history. ‘Tell me this,’ he continued: ‘what is your historical explanation for the wicked NATO aggression in Kosovo to help Albanian bandits?’
Somehow I felt that this question was not asked in a spirit of pure historical inquiry. But I gave it the best answer I could. ‘If you want to know why the Western governments acted over Kosovo, it’s not because they cared about the Kosovars – it’s because they cared about Macedonia. They were afraid that if Milosevic’s policy were not stopped in Kosovo, it would have the effect of destabilising your country. That’s why they acted: to help you.’
‘What? What?’ He was shouting now, and his eyes were bulging; his colleagues had stopped what they were doing and were all staring at us. Suddenly I had become the focal point of a Balkan H. M. Bateman cartoon. I had a plane to catch; I made my excuses, and caught it.
As British troops moved into northern Macedonia last week, I found myself running over that conversation again in my mind. The answer I gave was, I believe, correct. Milosevic had driven more than 350,000 Albanians from their homes in the year before NATO took action over Kosovo, and his expulsion programme was accelerating. If the territory beyond Kosovo’s borders had consisted of endless expanses of vacant land, the Western powers would have done little to stop a permanent resettlement of the Kosovar population there.
Uneasy modus vivendi
But in fact that territory consisted of a small state, containing a population of two million, a fragile democracy and an uneasy modus vivendi between a Slav majority and a minority (roughly one third) of Albanians. An influx of a million Kosovo Albanians, permanently unable to return to their homes, would have strained Macedonia to breaking-point. And a complete breakdown of Macedonia, with a further bloody war, was the one thing Western governments most dreaded.
Do the events of the last six months – the gradual onset of armed conflict between Albanians and Slavs in northern Macedonia – mean that NATO got it wrong, and that its intervention over Kosovo has actually brought about the Macedonian war of its worst nightmares? Not really. Such a war has not happened yet, and there is a good chance that it can be prevented. In any case, there can be little logic in blaming that NATO intervention for destabilising Macedonia, while at the same time choosing to ignore the effects on Macedonia that Milosevic’s policies would have had, if they had continued unchecked by NATO.
Logic, unfortunately, is not the only thing that acts on people’s minds, as the case of that airport official showed. The hostility towards NATO nursed by much of the majority Slav population in Macedonia arises not only from the feeling that this small country has been pressured and arm-twisted by the West – a feeling which is understandable enough. What it is mainly based on is a deep suspicion towards, and prejudice against, the country’s Albanian minority.
The groups of Slav Macedonians who gathered in the centre of Skopje on 25 June chanting the slogan ‘Albanians to the gas chambers’ were, no doubt, an extreme case. Most Macedonians have never got worked up about Albanians in the past; they had no reason to, as the two communities led almost parallel lives, interacting hardly at all. But at the back of many Macedonian minds there was always the feeling that Albanians were alien, primitive and inferior, and could not really claim equal rights in their country.
That feeling is what gives popular support to the hard-line nationalist element in the Macedonian government – centred on the Minister of the Interior, Ljube Boskovski, who controls the special police. The same feeling, presumably, motivated the unknown person who hurled the concrete block which killed Sapper Ian Collins. When even the Macedonian government spokesman declares, ‘NATO is not our enemy, but it is the big friend of our enemies,’ we should not be surprised if teenage thugs take that argument and simplify it a little further.
There can be no doubt that the primary responsibility for these last six months of fighting lies on the Albanian side: it was Albanian rebels who took up arms. Yet the most dangerous obstacle to peace now lies on the Slav Macedonian side. The political agreement brokered by the Western powers does satisfy the main demands of the Albanians, most of whom have been fighting not for a change of borders but for an improvement of their status within Macedonia; but it leaves the Macedonian hard-liners angry and resentful.
If (and it is a big if) the agreement is passed by the Macedonian parliament and properly implemented, most of the Albanian rebels will have no further wish to fight. But implementation will take time. If NATO withdraws on the 30th day, as it has promised, Mr Boskovski will send in his special police on the 31st day – as he has promised – to reclaim ‘every last millimetre of Macedonian soil’. The fighting will restart, and we shall discover, not to our surprise, that the Albanians have kept a few weapons after all.
So there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that Armageddon has not come yet to Macedonia, and need not come at all. The political agreement can prevent it, if followed through in good faith, and neither side will start serious fighting so long as NATO troops remain as a buffer between them.
The bad news is that some NATO deployment – though not necessarily a British one – will have to stay there for many months to come. NATO did not bomb Kosovo for fun two years ago; it had strong reasons for wanting to prevent the collapse of Macedonia. Those reasons are no less strong today.
This article appeared in The Sunday Telegraph (London),
2 September 2001