bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
The point of the troops is to signal our commitment
by Martin Woollacott

After the Kosovo Liberation Army handed over a first batch of arms to Nato, General Michael Jackson inspected the haul. Asked for his judgment, he rolled a sceptical eye, then complimented the KLA on how clean and well-turned-out the surrendered weapons were. It was one way of saying that disarmament in situations such as the one that exists now in Macedonia is usually more theatre than substance. Those who have achieved a position of political leverage through the use of arms will never divest themselves entirely, if only to demonstrate that the dominance of those they have challenged can never be fully restored. The best that can happen is that over time the arms that will undoubtedly be retained become irrelevant.

Macedonia has been the strangest of the wars of the former Yugoslavia. The country seems too small, too needy and too overlooked by many interested powers to sustain a full-scale conflict. There could never be a Srebrenica in Macedonia, and even though Skopje could conceivably, and disastrously, see fighting between the two communities, it would not be war of the kind that engulfed Sarajevo. One way or another, the Nato countries, with the Europeans in the lead, would contain the trouble, as indeed they have been doing for the last six months.

But the fact that Macedonia's conflict has been slow-moving, has caused relatively few casualties and has not led, so far, to a political breakdown does not mean that it is not dangerous. The danger is that all that the outsiders will be able to do is to keep a lid on it. At its worst that would give us another Cyprus, with a green line policed by foreign troops, separating two alienated communities periodically forced to the negotiating table for talks which they then abort. Better, but still bad, would be a patched-up system in which politicians respond to international pressure and threats of withholding aid with the appearance of ethnic cooperation, while underneath the process of psychological separation deepens.

‘Two worlds divided by the Vardar’

The only truly worthwhile objective, however, is to help Macedonia become the integrated society it has never been, with group and individual rights in effective balance. Macedonia under Tito was aptly described by a Croatian observer [Darko Hudelist] as ‘two worlds divided by the Vardar’. On one side of the river that runs through the capital is an Albanian and Muslim society which, while not rural, still maintains rural and clannish characteristics. On the other is a Slav and Orthodox society, also with rural roots but more involved in Yugoslavia's urbanisation and industrialisation. The two share space but not language, religious belief, or political and national aspirations, except for the relative few who found a meeting place in a pan-Yugoslav Communist party now vanished from the scene.

What was true of Skopje was repeated elsewhere in the country. As in other ethnically divided places, Albanians and Macedonians did not live with one another, but alongside one another. Now even this limited sort of closeness is threatened. More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting, the vast majority of them fleeing from what had been mixed communities.

Serious engagement

Military deployments are dramatic or can be made to seem so and in Britain there is an emphasis on what our soldiers will be doing, since we are providing the bulk of the force. But the supervision of the handing over of arms is only a detail, even if it is an important one. Equally it is not that important if the arms problem should take longer than 30 days, as it almost certainly will. The troops are really there to signal to Macedonians of all backgrounds that Europe and Nato are seriously engaged in their affairs, that they will not go away, and that they intend to manage Macedonia out of its troubles.

Of course, European governments are sending this signal without being certain of what they can deliver, or of what their citizens would stand for if Macedonia became a more demanding sort of emergency. No doubt, too, that different countries have different levels of enthusiasm for the task.

Still, the plan is not so much to supervise disarmament as to supervise a political process for which leaders on the two sides have signed up, but which some of them will now try to bend or subvert. It is a process which could falter and which could only be deemed a success after years of effort.

All of this has to be attempted in a new and uncertain political context. To speak of two sides is even more of a simplification than before. The astonishing success of the National Liberation Army, from nothing to a leading role within less than a year, cannot but upset the Albanian side's political constellation. Who is going to take most credit for this success, the fighters themselves or the established political leaders? Will Ali Ahmeti, the NLA leader, be transformed into a "normal" politician? What rewards do NLA men expect? In Kosovo, their equivalents expected a lot, and some of them took a lot, not always in legitimate ways. Albanians may have to cope soon with the retirement of the ailing Arben Xhaferi, their most able leader.

The principal Slav Macedonian politicians, meanwhile, have to ask themselves the question of whether combining nationalist rhetoric with grudging accommodation, their usual style in recent months, will pay off in the future and, if so, in what proportion. How will they maintain their hold on voters when they have to decide, for instance, what to do about the tens of thousands of people of Albanian stock who want Macedonian citizenship, but who many Slav Macedonians claim are recent migrants from Kosovo and Albania?

Coming tests

The tactics of all groups will soon be tested as the country's parliament begins a series of meetings that should end in the ratification of the agreement signed this month under which Albanians get improved educational, language, job and other rights and the NLA gives up weapons. Difficulties over who does what first can be expected, and there is always the possibility of new violence. If ratification and arms handovers go ahead, with whatever upsets, that will be quite an achievement.

But that only takes Macedonia to the point where it can begin to learn to live as one society. Tolerant politics are based on habit, on accumulated readjustments and compromises over generations. The one-party state's legacy is not that. Apart from anything else, by both thwarting and manipulating nationalism, it prevented it from learning its limits. The tendency to ethnic absolutism and the one-party residue are perhaps connected in other ways as well. Certainly they have reinforced one another in the Yugoslav successor states. They are being overcome here and there. Macedonia, which has avoided the worst, might now aim at the best. Since it has to take this path - Nato is engaged in making it do so - why not do so with conviction?


This comment appeared in The Guardian (London), 24 August 2001




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