Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Macedonia: Roots of Civil War 2001

Macedonia: Roots of Civil War

By Michael Karadjis

April 2001

In early March the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) aided the Macedonian army's crackdown on the Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (NLA). This followed the agreement between NATO and the Yugoslav regime of Vojislav Kostunica to allow Yugoslav troops into the Serbia-Kosova buffer zone to crush autonomy-seeking Albanian rebels.

These events confirm that NATO's 1999 intervention was aimed at stemming the growth of the Albanian national movement, which the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic had spectacularly failed to do. NATO regards this movement as a major threat to the stability of the region connecting western Europe to NATO allies Greece and Turkey and beyond to the Black Sea and the Middle East.

Macedonian forces stormed the remote Albanian village of Tanusevci on the Kosova-Macedonia border on March 6, driving hundreds of Albanian refugees, almost the entire population, to the village of Debeldeh on the Kosova side of the border. "Only the old and sick stayed behind," according to Qazim Jakupi, who fled with his entire family.

During the attack, an alleged Albanian "terrorist" was killed. According to terrified Albanian refugees, he was a villager killed while cutting wood in the forest. "Refugee stories resemble one another," according to journalist Besnik Bala in Dobelde. "They accuse the Macedonian forces of repression. 'If the Macedonians continue with violence then the people will have to defend themselves' says one of them."

US troops claimed to have arrested some armed Albanians who also fled, and then searched houses where locals were putting up refugees. "I want to know what's happening with my property and animals, but the Americans won't let us cross the border," claimed Jakupi.

NATO sent tanks to block the entrance to Debeldeh to prevent 'rebels' crossing the frontier, and used Apache helicopters and electronic surveillance equipment to block their ground movements. US troops on March 7 shot two rebels near the village of Mijak.
Previous to this brutal attack, the NLA had raised its head with a January attack on a Tetovo police station, killing a Macedonian policeman. This was denounced by all Albanian parties. The group appears to have been an isolated fringe group.

Yet Tanusevac was targetted as the alleged nest of the NLA, despite being nowhere near Tetovo or the main Albanian population centres to the west. The village is integrally connected to Kosovar villages across the official border.

Many refugees claimed there were no armed organisations in their village. "I have never seen the NLA, and I don't believe they exist," said Zenun Murseli from Debelde. However, its alleged connection to fighters in Kosova may derive from its uncertain status. Its inhabitants do not even have Macedonian citizenship - only the February border treaty between Yugoslavia and Macedonia clearly placed them inside Macedonia.
Till then, Macedonia had forgotten Tanusevac existed.

In attacking the village, the Macedonian government appears to have carried out a plan hatched by NATO and Yugoslavia to seal the border and root out Albanian fighters from Kosova or nearby southern Serbia. Such fighters may have been using the town as a rear base, rather than aiming to undermine Macedonia.

This has boomeranged on Macedonia. The huge over-reaction by the Macedonian police has now led to a revolt by a significant sector of the alienated Albanian population.

Aside from the military overreaction, Nasir Zyberi, leader of the Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), pointed out that "Calling the UN Security Council into emergency session, calling on NATO to discuss the situation in a village of barely 100 houses, closing the border, and ordering a mobilization - these steps did not lead to an easing of the situation, but to just the opposite."

NLA leader Fazli Veliu, in an interview with the Italian news agency, ANSA, claimed "We have chosen armed struggle since we have failed to accomplish our goals by political means." Rejecting any "Greater Albania" idea, he stated "we support the integrity of Macedonia, but want equal rights, our own national flag, language, and identity" - the demands made by all Albanian parties.

Nevertheless, the appearance of the NLA is an enigma. The Macedonian government can claim with some justice that its Albanian minority has a better position than any minority in the Balkans. Albanians are represented in parliament, and a major Albanian party has been in a coalition government with a Macedonian partner ever since independence a decade ago.

However, there remain serious grievances. As Albanians make up around a quarter of the population, all Albanian parties call for the community to be recognised as one of the two "constituent nations" that make up the state, rather than merely a minority within a Macedonian state. Macedonian parties oppose this because an Albanian state already exists, whereas a state to represent the Macedonian people came about following a century of struggle.

This may seem of little consequence given the rights the minority is accorded. However, while Albanians have the right to run Albanian language schools and use their language in municipal affairs, they further demand that Albanian be made one of the two official state languages, in parliament, courts and the public service. The government has finally allowed Albanians to open their own university, after years of struggle, but is yet to give it official recognition.

These factors are all the more relevant when hangovers from the oppressed state of Albanians in former Yugoslavia is taken into account. Despite some recent gains, only 3 per cent of military and police officers are Albanian, and the bulk of bureaucrats remain Macedonian, while Albanians face discrimination in getting public service jobs.

The attack on Tanusevac mirrors similar arbitrariness by the Macedonian-dominated police during peaceful Albanian outbreaks in 1992, 1994 and 1997, leaving a strong feeling of alienation among the Albanian masses. Whatever their leaders were doing in parliament, the divisions on the ground were becoming more entrenched.

This is still a far cry from the open repression and racism that characterise the situation of various other minorities in the region. No doubt launching an armed struggle when the political space was quite open could be highly counterproductive.

This led to the accusation that the fighters were nothing but a conspiracy by disgruntled former Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) troops who wanted to undermine the Macedonia-Yugoslavia border treaty. Kosovar and Macedonian Albanian parties denounced the treaty because it implies recognition of Yugoslav rule over Kosova.

However, the NLA could no longer be dismissed as a fringe group following a demonstration in Tetovo, the main center of the Albanian minority, on March 14. The rally began an hour before the outbreak of fighting around Tetovo. Macedonian police units poured fire onto guerrilla positions on the slopes of nearby mountains, while the NLA responded with fire into Tetovo.

Every time NLA mortars hit the town, the crowds chanted their name and called for an end to "Macedonian state terror against Albanians", a stunning eye-opener to the level of Albanian disenchantment. The rally was organized by groups linked to the opposition PDP and the new National Democratic Party (NDP), which recently split from the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), the Albanian partner in the oddball current ruling coalition with the right-wing Macedonian nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO).

Following this, sporadic mortar blasts or machine-gun fire continued for days, and spread across the whole northwest region, which is almost entirely populated by Albanians.

Besides the attack on Tanusevac, the other factor which has driven a sector of the Albanian population to a more radical position is the grinding poverty that the transition to capitalism has subjected the country to. Given that Albanians are poorer than Macedonians, the economic devastation of the whole population has made it difficult to promote inter-ethnic economic equality.

Some 420 thousand people, a fifth of the population, are officially poor, and their numbers rose by 10 percent in the last two years. In the last two decades the gross social product in Macedonia fell by an average of 1.7 percent annually. Privatisation and "structural reforms" created an army of 340 thousand redundant workers from bankrupt firms, out of a total population of around two million. The introduction of a value-added-tax last April further battered the population, as prices rose by 20 percent on average.

The World Bank and the IMF last year decided to lend more to "help" the situation, on condition that unemployment benefits, on which 80 thousand households live, are slashed and that budget outlays for social welfare are halved! These predatory organisations claim this will break an alleged "habit" of the unemployed to live off government funds and force them "off dependency" to find "self-employment" or open small businesses!

While most reports indicate a significant level of support for the NLA, it also seems clear that many more Albanians do not support the armed struggle but nevertheless support its goals. On the other hand, all Albanian parties, government and opposition, in Macedonia, Kosova and Albania, have officially condemned the NLA's armed actions and pledged support for Macedonia's territorial integrity. On March 15, Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said, "We support any improvement in the status and rights of Albanians (but) we condemn violence wherever it comes from." The Berisha-led opposition announced the same position.

On March 12, DPA and PDP leaders and Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta issued a statement saying "any violence goes against Albanian interests and the position adopted by their political representatives." Hashim Thaci, head of the Democratic Party in Kosova and former KLA chief, said "the use of violence to meet political goals is not only unacceptable, we denounce it."

Nevertheless, these leaders also criticised the closure of the Kosova border and NATO's invitation to Yugoslav troops into the buffer zone, while calling on Macedonia to open a dialogue with the Albanian parties about the widely held grievances and desist from launching a military ofensive.

They also denounced the offers of military aid and troops to Macedonia by the governments of Greece and Bulgaria, neither of which even recognise an ethnic Macedonian nation and whose concern is thus suspect to say the least. On March 7, Macedonian and Bulgarian leaders signed a military agreement, prompting Albanian president Meidani to refuse to meet the Bulgarian Defence Minister during a visit to Tirana. Greece offered Macedonia three helicopters and asked permission to transport them through Albanian air space, but was sharply rebuked by Tirana.

NATO leaders have unanimously condemned the Albanian insurgents in Macedonia and south Serbia. In Pristina, KFOR (NATO) commander Lieutenant General Carlo Cabigiosu, announcing the sealing of the Kosova border, warned "The Albanian extremists need to understand that their actions harm the stabilisation of the whole area."

On March 17, four German battle tanks were moved from Kosova to the German logistics base in Tetovo, where some 3,000 NATO troops are based. The garrison was visited by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who said the West would not allow Balkan borders to be altered by force. "It is very important that everybody understands that extremist ways of solving problems will not lead anywhere," he said. On March 10, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine arrived in Macedonia and said "We will not allow several small terrorist groups to jeopardize the country's stability."

The head of the US mission in Pristina, Christopher Dell, accusing Kosova of allowing the movement of rebels over the border, asked "Is giving up the hopes of self governance forever really the price you want to pay to protect thieves and murderers?"

All this aggressive rhetoric no doubt encouraged the government's large-scale military offensive out of Tetovo, against the advice of Albanian parties, including the coalition partners. Ironically, as soon as the offensive began, the same western leaders began a panicked retreat, suddenly appealing for "restraint".

Indeed, given the underlying tensions, the crude military offensive they had encouraged can only exacerbate the problem. It is far more likely to blow up the current inter-ethnic coalition government - an unlikely coalition of what until 1998 were the more hard-line nationalist groups in the two communities. Increasingly, the mood at the bottom resembles the political origins of these parties more than their recently found moderation.

Albanian opposition parties suspended their participation in parliament when the army, claiming to have driven the NLA out of the hills around Tetovo, began a new offensive on March 28 along the northern border to where the rebellion had spread. The offensive, centred around regions where Albanians make up 95 per cent of the population, met fierce resistance, and prompted Hysni Shaqiri, a local deputy of the ruling DPA, to quit and join the NLA. "I call on senior members of DPA and parliamentary deputies to join the freedom fighters," he stated.

Clearly the regime's attempt to force a military solution on a problem of ethnic inequality, encouraged by NATO, has blown up in its face.

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