Slavs’ stalling on peace deal brings prospect of civil war back to Macedonia

For anyone who wants to know how Balkan powder-kegs form, the latest developments in the Macedonian peace process are enlightening. After collecting and destroying almost 4,000 weapons from the fighters of the National Liberation Army (NLA), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has wrapped up its mission to Macedonia. But the peace process is far from complete, and the country continues to teeter on the edge of civil war.

NATO figures show that the NLA handed over four armoured vehicles, 17 air-defence weapons-systems, 161 mortars and anti-tank weapons, 483 machine-guns and 3,210 assault rifles, and a total of 397,625 pieces of ammunition. The one-month operation, codenamed “Essential Harvest,” was set up in accordance with an agreement signed on August 13. The Macedonian government agreed to grant the country’s Albanian minority, which comprises nearly a third of the country’s 2 million people, greater political and cultural rights in exchange for an end to the NLA’s insurgency. Yet the political reforms necessary for this have yet to be ratified by the Macedonian parliament, where ultranationalist Slav deputies have repeatedly delayed the debate on reforms. So far parliament has passed only tentative drafts of 15 constitutional amendments by a narrow majority, after nearly a month of stalling and arduous debate. The ratification of the amendments requires a two-thirds majority, however, and the Slavic politicians’ stalling tactics are jeopardising the entire process. Parliamentary ratification of the reforms was supposed to have been completed by early October.

With parliamentary elections due in December, jingoistic Macedonian politicians are trying to outdo each other in their appeal to the sentiments of a largely ultranationalist public. Following minor clashes in late September between Albanian fighters and government troops near Tetovo, the second-largest city, leaders of the powerful Social Democratic Party (SDP) threatened to withdraw support for the reforms unless “ceasefire violations” stop. Several government officials have also warned that treaty provisions deleting references to Macedonia as the country of “the Macedonian people”, in favour of “citizens”, from the constitution’s preamble cannot survive parliamentary scrutiny. It is also difficult to see how the required majority can be secured for amendments stripping the Orthodox Christian Church of the privileged position it has hitherto had in the country.

Prime minister Ljubco Georgievski’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and the New Democracy Party (NDP), whose vice-president Slobodan Casule has described voting for the changes as “political suicide”, have even suggested putting the constitutional reforms to a referendum. The World Macedonian Congress (WMC), a group representing Macedonian immigrants, is collecting signatures to secure a referendum. If the WMC petition gets 150,000 signatures (by no means a difficult task), a referendum will be required by law. But it would inevitably torpedo the deal, because the Slavic majority is certain to vote against the reforms.

Nor has the promise of an amnesty for NLA fighters not involved in war crimes been followed by any formal procedure. Instead, the Macedonian government has issued arrest warrants for several NLA leaders, including Ali Ahmeti, its political leader. The government has also not yet demobilised its paramilitary police force, known as the Tigers. Armed by interior minister Ljube Boskovski in June, the Tigers have been involved in several attacks in which Albanian homes and businesses were looted and burned.

The success of NATO’s arms-collecting operation was not the end of its mission in Macedonia. A smaller “light force” of about 1,000 soldiers replaced the British-led contingent of 4,500. The task of the new German-led mission, codenamed “Operation Amber Fox,” is to protect some 120 civilian monitors from OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the EU who will be supervising the implementation of the peace deal.

Operation Amber Fox, with an mandate of three months (expected to be extended to nine) was set up as a compromise arrangement after hard bargaining between the two sides. The Macedonian government is wary of any foreign military mission, for fear that it might effectively end up policing a de facto partition of Macedonia. Ethnic Albanians see in NATO’s military presence an assurance against retaliations and reprisals by the Macedonians. For now, the task of the military mission is limited to protecting the civilian observers. But the possibility of “mission creep”, the expansion of NATO’s mission to include other activities, looms large.

The NLA extended an olive branch at a press conference at NLA headquarters in the northwestern village of Spikovica on September 27 when Ali Ahmeti announced that his force would disband. However, because of their awareness of the political history of the Balkans as a quicksand of policy shifts, u-turns and double-crosses, NLA fighters are unlikely to have given in all their weapons. They are still believed to have arms and ammunition held back for use if the peace process collapses.

There are also plenty of weapons in the neighbouring regions that could find their way into the NLA’s hands. In 1997 arms depots were thrown open when central government collapsed in Albania. An estimated 650,000 to 1 million light weapons and 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition are believed to have gone missing.

The likelihood of all-out civil war became all too apparent on October 4, when Macedonian troops began an operation to regain control of Albanian villages. The advancing forces succeeded in taking three villages near the northwestern city of Gostivar, but were forced to retreat from several other Albanian villages west of Skopje. A police statement later said that any further efforts to retake insurgent-held areas would be carried out “in cooperation” with NATO, the EU and OSCE.

In announcing his intention on October 3 to order police forces to reoccupy parts of insurgent territory, Boskovski told a news conference: “Tomorrow is D-Day for Macedonia, when interior ministry forces will return to occupied territories with light arms and [ethnically] mixed patrols.” The resolve of hard-line nationalist politicians seems to have stiffened since the dissolution of the NLA. Macedonia has also received about 30 T-72 battle-tanks from the Ukraine, its main supporter and arms suppliers, since the ceasefire came into effect. Yhe Macedonian government justified its move to re-take areas previously controlled by the Albanians as necessary to enable displaced Macedonians to return to their homes.

A prominent NLA brigade commander known as Leka told Reuters: “I wonder how Boskovski can decide something like that, because in all the meetings we have had with NATO, European Union and OSCE representatives, it was agreed no army or police will step into these regions until the pardon is implemented.” The re-entry of the Macedonian police to insurgent-held territory set off a row between Macedonia and the western mediators. Meetings between the two sides have turned stormy, with US envoy James Pardew reportedly being thrown out of a meeting with prime minister Georgievski. Police stood idly by on October 4, when protesters pelted the cars of the EU’s external relations commissioner Chris Patten and foreign policy chief Javier Solana with stones as they arrived for a meeting with government officials, forcing them to turn back.

Patten later warned that he could not allow an aid conference that had been scheduled for mid-October unless the Macedonian government kept its part of the bargain. The conference was to raise millions of dollars for the country. “It’s absolutely inconceivable the donors’ conference can take place on October 15,” the commissioner said. “In these circumstances, I could not possibly get donors…to write large cheques…to support a political agreement that still hasn’t been endorsed and implemented.” But losing aid is not likely to influence Macedonian politicians. The Macedonian cabinet had already suggested that the donors’ conference be delayed, saying that government experts could not have safe access to insurgent-held areas to assess war damage and work out how much is needed to repair it.

Doubts about the Macedonian government’s sincerity have been mounting since September 11. On one hand, hard-line Macedonian officials seem to be calculating that western governments’ preoccupation with the “war on terrorism” will distract them from pressing for full implementation of the agreed peace. They have also been trying to paint the activities of the Albanian insurgents with the stigma of “international terrorism.” A media campaign has been painting the picture of a nation under assault by “Albanian terrorists”, and accusing the NLA of having links with Usama bin Ladin. These claims are untenable for many reasons, such as that the NLA subscribes to a nationalist rather than Islamist agenda and that 90 percent of Macedonian casualties have been soldiers and policemen.

The Macedonian hardliners are assuming that the Albanians can be crushed easily now that they have been disarmed, while the west’s attention is elsewhere. This is nonsense. The Albanians of Macedonia are not lambs waiting for slaughter, as shown by their valiant 6-month insurgency. Government troop are no more capable of emerging victorious over them now than they were when the NLA managed to reach the fringes of big cities in a short time.

All told, the situation is a shaky scenario for peace. As so often in the Balkans, a rigid notion of Slav nationalism is poised to send another Balkan country reeling into conflict when peace had seemed to be within reach.

* Helena Bestakova is in Prague, Czech Republic

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