- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2001

For over a decade, political analysts have been warning that armed conflicts in Macedonia could rapidly precipitate a wider Balkan conflagration by drawing in several neighboring states. With Macedonia teetering on the edge of civil war, the nightmare is now perilously close.

Persistent Albanian guerrilla attacks along Macedonia´s borders are designed to precipitate a brutal government offensive against civilian targets that will permanently divide the two major ethnic communities. Extremist leaders can then pose as liberators seeking the partition of Macedonia along Bosnian lines. The Macedonian government in Skopje may be unwittingly playing into rebel hands while the European Union remains "outraged" by the spectacle but appears helpless to intervene to save the fragile state.

Albanians in Macedonia harbor some genuine grievances against the government, but a resort to arms and attacks on the security forces cannot be justified by any stretch of the human rights imagination. However, it must be remembered by those who now demonize Albanians as a collectivity, that they are a small hard-core of militants and warlords who stand behind the self-styled National Liberation Army. The vast majority of the population could simply become innocent victims of the escalating battles.

The newly forged national unity government, designed to include all major Macedonian and Albanian parties, may be the last chance for peace as its chances of survival remain fragile. Although President Boris Trajkovski has made some moves to integrate Albanians into various state institutions, the majority still feels excluded from decision-making. Many Albanians consider themselves second-class citizens, and given the large number of young Albanians with negligible economic prospects, armed insurgency can prove attractive.

On the other side, Slavic Macedonians point out that it is the generally unfavorable economic conditions that affect all citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion and that Albanians are not being singled out for discrimination. Slavic Macedonians also fear that any further concessions to the Albanian community will provoke more far-reaching demands for federalization of the state and eventual separation.

Hence, Skopje is caught in a vicious dilemma between Albanian and Macedonian nationalism. A weak response against the guerrillas could alienate it from the Slav population and lead to its downfall. But an overly strong response could alienate it from its Albanian allies in the government and also lead to its collapse.

To try and achieve a viable balance, Skopje needs to separate gunmen from bystanders and avoid targeting civilians through the indiscriminate and ultimately counterproductive shelling of villages. It urgently needs help from specialist counter-insurgency commandos supplied by its NATO friends to flush out and eliminate a few dozen hard-core radicals.

But above all, a bold initiative must be undertaken for a new national contract between Macedonian and Albanian leaders that will undercut the guerrilla´s potential support base. This must include both symbolic steps such as constitutional changes and practical measures to ensure more extensive Albanian participation in all state organs. And for such a policy to be successful, it must be undergirded by high-level American mediation as few local actors respect the EU´s resolve, stamina and capability.

If the conflict escalates, Macedonia´s neighbors are poised to be sucked into the crisis regardless of their wishes and objectives. While Greece may seek to create a buffer zone to protect its northern border, Bulgaria and Albania will be hard-pressed to prevent militias from operating across their territories. Meanwhile, the Serbian government may propose supplying military reinforcements for the Macedonians to combat the guerrillas an offer that may prove difficult to refuse if NATO fails to respond adequately.

And the biggest beneficiary from the resulting Balkan mess will be Moscow. Russia has been pushed out of the region during the past decade by the pro-Western orientation of most governments and by NATO military engagements in Kosova and Bosnia. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin is seeking to reassert its influence in the region, not by military muscle but through its oligarchic and criminal business interests and its attempts to forge a common front against the alleged Islamic, Albanian, and American threats.

Mr. Putin and company are intent on pushing NATO out of the Balkans by capitalizing on instability and chaos and disqualifying the Balkan states from any possibility of NATO membership. Balkan fatigue in Washington and Brussels play directly into Moscow´s hands as America seeks to disengage while the European Union does not possess a credible security policy that carries any weight.

The threat in Southeast Europe is not one of a "Greater Albania" as some naive pundits and short-sighted policy-makers have speculated. The real danger is greater chaos and instability that will assign the Balkans to a permanent gray zone generating serious security problems for all nearby regions.

If Macedonia is allowed to slip toward civil war and ungovernability because of a lack of Western resolve against the gunmen and because of hesitation in pushing for a new multi-ethnic contract in Skopje, then no one should be surprised if criminals and gunmen prevail and Russian nationalism triumphs. This will help set the stage for the next collision course with the principles of European security and enlargement.

Janusz Bugajski is director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide