Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Macedonia 2001: NATO, IMRO, NLA – A Plague On All Your Houses

Macedonia: NATO, IMRO, NLA – A Plague On All Your Houses

By Michael Karadjis

Late 2001

Former NATO spokesman Jamie Shea recently stated that “because of Afghanistan we cannot let the Balkans slip out of our hands and risk having a new Afghanistan in our front yard.”

Shea was implying support to assertions by the Serbian-Yugoslav, Croatian and Macedonian governments that “Islamic” fighters and supporters of Osama bin Laden were present in large numbers among the Bosnian Moslem and Kosovar and Macedonian Albanian populations.

In recent weeks, NATO troops in Bosnia have carried out large-scale operations against allegedly “Islamist” forces, without the involvement of Bosnian police. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav regime of Vojislav Kostunica is gradually entrenching itself as NATO’s key regional partner in the “war against (Islamic) terrorism,” with Yugoslav military personnel earmarked for training in US military academies.

The Macedonian media are imagining Bin Laden among the Albanian guerillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA), which has been fighting the Macedonian government since earlier this year. Headlines such as “Mujahedeen among the NLA” aim to show that Macedonia and the US are fighting the same “Islamic terrorists.”

However, Washington’s growing love affair with Belgrade is unlikely to be repeated with the Macedonian government.

This does not reflect western sympathy for the NLA. On the contrary, when US President Bush visited Kosova in July, he blasted former Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) leaders for allegedly aiding the NLA. The US and the European Union drew up a list of up to 38 Albanian political and military leaders in Kosova and Macedonia whose assets were frozen and were banned from entering the US or the EU.

The NLA emerged earlier this year as a tiny group of militants who carried out a few isolated attacks. They tapped into demands with wide support among Macedonia’s Albanian community, which amounts to 25-30 per cent of the population.

These demands include that the Albanian nation be made formally equal to the ethnic Macedonian majority in the country’s constitution, that the Albanian language be declared the second official language, and that the currently miniscule numbers of Albanians in the police and the military officialdom be boosted.

However, few Albanians initially showed any enthusiasm for the NLA. While years of heavy repression in neighbouring Kosova had made the KLA’s armed struggle there inevitable, this was not the case in Macedonia. With widespread local language, education and other rights, an atmosphere open to political opposition and Albanian parties in coalition with Macedonian parties in the country’s government, Macedonia appeared the last place in the Balkans that an armed struggle by a minority would be necessary.

The launching of such a struggle therefore alienated even many sympathetic Macedonians, who claim the NLA has legitimised armed struggle and hence a cycle of ethnic killing merely to change words in a constitution.

This is not entirely correct – the Macedonian dominated police and army had several times cracked down heavily on Albanian protest over the years, alienating a substantial segment of the population.

But it was true enough to mean that NLA support remained tiny until the Macedonian government launched a massive military offensive against it – and against Albanians in villages suspected of containing NLA bases. When the northern border village of Tanusevci was occupied in March and its entire several-hundred strong Albanian population forced across the Kosova border, the NLA began to recruit.

This and further bloody offensives were strongly encouraged by western powers. The head of the US mission in Kosova, Christopher Dell, accused Kosova of allowing the movement of “thieves and murderers” over the border. In March, as Germany moved four battle tanks from Kosova into Macedonia, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited and condemned the NLA’s “extremist ways of solving problems,” while French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, arriving around the same time, declared “We will not allow small terrorist groups to jeopardize the country's stability.”

However, the aggressive tactics of the right-wing nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO) government, encouraged by initial NATO support, inflamed the situation and drove far larger numbers of Albanians to the NLA than had initially shown support. People whose villages were destroyed by the Macedonian police and were driven into exile had little to lose by joining the NLA.

Similarly, Macedonians driven from their homes by NLA advances were easily organised by IMRO into paramilitary formations. The hard-line nationalist party, after taking power in 1997 from the Social Democrats (SDSM), had initially drifted towards the same moderate positions on the national question that it had long attacked the SDSM regime for – a typical pragmatic response to being in government.

However, this alienated the wing of the party that remained committed to its ultra-nationalist principles, including anti-Albanian chauvinism. The rise of the NLA allowed this wing, led by prime minister Ljubco Georgievski, to reassert itself with its counterproductive military tactics.

This growing polarisation between IMRO and NLA politics re-ignited long-time fears among western leaders of Macedonia blowing apart and unleashing the “nightmare scenario” in the southern Balkans, destabilising the whole region and undermining the tenuous-at-best Greek-Turkish “southern flank” of NATO. This fear has long determined western policy in the region, including the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to the Albanian national movement. Moreover, it is feared that, if not contained, groups like the NLA have the potential to further radicalise, some perhaps even in an Islamist direction.

Once it became clear that the NLA could no longer be ruled out as a bunch of “terrorists” or “invaders” from Kosova, it became crucial for NATO to stop IMRO driving more Albanian support to the NLA. The aggressive western rhetoric against the NLA was abruptly replaced by calls on IMRO to show “restraint”, and NATO began pressuring the Macedonian government to make concessions to the demands of the Albanian masses to head off the NLA’s growth.

NATO thus drew up a reform package incorporating some Albanian demands, such as making Albanian the second official language in regions where they are over 20 per cent of the population and increasing the number of Albanians in the police and military officialdom.

In return, NATO troops entered Macedonia to oversee NLA disarmament, followed by a return of Macedonian security forces – now including more Albanians – to Albanian majority areas, most of which had become NLA territory. This package was signed by the two major Albanian parties, and by both the SDSM and IMRO.

Yet while signing the agreement, IMRO used NATO intervention as grist in the mill for its propaganda. Western intervention was held responsible for the NLA’s “victory”, as it interpreted the reforms. Georgievski accused NATO of sponsoring a “new Taliban”. In reality, after the disastrous results of IMRO’s military actions, NATO intervention had probably become the only short-term way to disarm the NLA and avoid the country being split in two.

However, NATO’s particularly arrogant approach, demanding the Macedonian government immediately implement the entire package “to the letter”, created deep resentment even among Macedonians opposed to IMRO. Attempts over the last month to discuss the detail of the agreement in parliament to gain as broad support as possible for the changes have been denounced by western leaders as “obstruction.”

The so-called “Donors’ Conference” – the gang of western loan sharks – has held up any loans to Macedonia until the package is passed in its entirety, despite the desperate economic condition the country is in. This situation can be attributed to the “donors” themselves in no small part – having requested $450 million in 1999 for sheltering hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees during NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was eventually given less than 5 per cent of this amount.

Many Macedonians were dismayed by the initially “non-negotiable” demand for the removal of the constitutional preamble which refers to the historic struggle of the Macedonian people – a standard thing in constitutions in the region.

If IMRO had accepted the initial Albanian demand that both the Macedonian and Albanian peoples be declared constituent nations, rather than only the former, then the existence and sovereignty of the Macedonian nation would still have been explicit. As it refused to budge, western negotiators came up with the idea that there should be no mention of any people in the constitution, because there are also other (tiny) minorities in Macedonia besides the Albanians. “Macedonian people” would hence be replaced by “the citizens” of Macedonia, without reference to any people.

This was simply political expediency on NATO’s part. All countries have minorities, but states are historically set up around particular nations. In their own time, the people of a country may find this less important. But when outside powers intervene, cajole and blackmail to impose this “civil” concept, it is seen by Macedonians as foreign interference aimed at dissolving their national identity. This is particularly insensitive in the case of a people such as the Macedonians, who have fought so long to be recognized, against the virulent opposition of the neighbouring Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian regimes, which had partitioned Macedonia between themselves in 1913 and still largely do not recognize a Macedonian people.

As such, parliament continued to negotiate despite NATO’s bullying, and came up with a new compromise which sees the constitution referring to both the Macedonian and the Albanian nations as well as six other “nations” which are in fact tiny minorities.

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