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  1. Long reads
2 April 2001

Familiar mistakes in the Balkans

Memories are too short: the west should have learnt not to play with imagined ethnic spaces. Peter B

By Peter Beaumont

The Macedonian police are sniping out of the hotel in which I am staying, on the outskirts of Tetovo. They shot up a taxi full of Albanians outside my window yesterday, so we are being careful with them: we leave our car a little down the road and approach with our hands over our heads. They are terribly frightened and inexperienced. They keep coming to our rooms to borrow little bits and pieces: a medical kit when one got wounded, and binoculars. I left my door unlocked – and they cleaned me out of food and lager.

The walk to the rebel villages of Macedonia, where ethnic Albanian fighters, under the flag of the National Liberation Army, have launched their insurgency, should be a pleasant one. The route to the town of Selce – the picturesque main rebel headquarters – and the surrounding villages that cluster above Macedonia’s second city of Tetovo passes through sloping meadows blanketed by alpine flowers. Three weeks ago, this mountain was under a foot of snow.

Now it is spring, and in the Balkans that is the time for fighting. During the Macedonian offensive to drive out the Albanian fighters from their positions above the city, the path to the villages was a tense and unhappy slog under the eyes of the Macedonian forces on the mountains above us. Below us, we could see their armoured personnel carriers fighting their way slowly uphill, fires burning in the woods around them. Macedonian shells poured into the valley from three angles.

We arrive in the village of Sipkovica and are introduced to Nayo, who has come from England to fetch his daughter and his mother. Usually he works at a hotel not far from Heathrow, where he has lived for years. Now, he is trapped in his home village, and the cellar of his family home is full of terrified relatives and neighbours. We sit with him outside his house and listen to the bombardment.

“I am against the fighting,” he says. “But I will fight if I have to. But I have no weapon and I cannot fight with empty hands. I never thought that Macedonia would have a war. I always believed that both sides would sit down and talk and sort out their problems.”

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His sentiments echo those of the middle-aged Macedonian officer we first encountered outside our hotel. While his troops fanned out among the cherry trees outside in the first hour of the attack, he chirped, in perfect English: “Good morning, gentlemen . . . an exciting day!” A little later, as his men came under sniper fire among the trees, he reappeared, pale-faced and worried. He asked to accompany one of the reporters back to the hotel: “I am a married man,” he explained. “I have two children and I am frightened. I do not want to be fighting.”

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A war of sorts has come to Macedonia. It is sporadic and uncommitted on both sides, a tentative violence whose casualties so far, fortunately, have been few. The greatest tragedy is that it is happening at all. The next few days will determine whether it will simply fizzle out amid a lack of appetite for fighting on both sides, or develop rapidly into something more dangerous, a real inter-ethnic war of the kind that has torn apart the Balkans.

For the time being at least, the fighters appear to have melted away rather than risk a stand-up fight with the Macedonians. It would be an error to write them off. When the Serbs launched their first devastating attacks on the Kosovo Liberation Army’s main rebel stronghold in the Drenica mountains in the summer of 1998, I wrote the KLA off as totally defeated. Instead, the men had hidden their weapons, changed from uniforms into civilian clothes, and slipped away. By the autumn, they were back as strong as ever. And very recently, as the Macedonian government was claiming total victory, the NLA responded with its own message, attacking a police unit outside the capital itself.

Whatever the outcome, history will judge this strange Macedonian affair to be the conflict that did not need to happen. Despite the discrimination, by the Slav majority, against the Albanians, who make up almost one-third of the population, the Albanians of Macedonia were well on the road to the better rights that the “men in the woods” say they are fighting for.

Their main party – the Albanian Democratic Party, the PDS – has been a partner in the coalition government since 1998, when the ex-communists were finally pushed out of power. Led by the charismatic Arben Xhaferi, the PDS has pursued a campaign of gradual rights.

A census due to be held in April, but now cancelled indefinitely, would have established what Albanians always claimed: they number far more than the officially acknowledged 25 per cent of the population, and should be represented accordingly. The biggest sticking point has been the rewriting of the constitution – which describes Macedonia as a state “of Macedonians [Slavs] and minorities” – to a formula that would describe it as the state of the “Macedonians, Albanians and other minorities”. A sticking point, too, has been the refusal to recognise Albanian as a second official language. Yet it is hardly the stuff of popular rebellion.

Taken at face value the reasons for the rebellion may seem trivial, but they reflect a more complex disappointment. Albanians are disillusioned with the slow progress of Xhaferi’s democratic programme. The euphoria of the 1998 elections, which saw their politicians included in the coalition, has subsided. Now the younger generation accuse the democratic parties of being patsies to the Slavs.

The discrimination that they suffer is not trivial. A young Albanian woman of my acquaintance describes trying to rent flats in Skopje. Few will rent to an Albanian. The door of her house has been daubed with graffiti, a dead rat put through the letterbox.

The radicalisation of younger Albanians in Macedonia can be traced back to the Kosovo war. Many were unhappy with the treatment that ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo received, as they attempted to flee the fighting in the days after the Nato bombing. Thousands were penned up in squalid conditions at the border crossing at Blace, because Macedonia was at first too scared to admit them. The success of the Kosovo Liberation Army in attracting Nato support also emboldened Macedonia’s own Albanians – many of whom had fought with the KLA.

Moreover, the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, far from making the countries of the former Yugoslavia more stable – as the international community had hoped – has laid bare issues that have been festering for years and which Milosevic’s oppressive presence obscured: the desire of Montenegro and Kosovo for independence; the legitimacy of the boundaries set in Bosnia by the Dayton peace deal and of borders throughout the region.

Macedonia’s Albanian guerrillas look to the ethnic Albanians just across Kosovo’s border in the Pre-evo Valley of southern Serbia: here, the villagers’ year-long uprising has forced the international community to get involved. Albanian radicals in Macedonia feared that if they did not do the same, and grab some territory as a bargaining chip, they would miss the chance of negotiating greater autonomy in majority Albanian areas. This explains the unusual nature of their rebellion: they know they cannot win a war, but hope that they can create a crisis – which will become “internationalised”.

To this end – so far, at least – Macedonian civilians in rebel villages are treated with respect, although their status is that of well-treated hostages. There have been no house burnings, disappearances or murders. And the guerrillas have limited their fire to the security forces.

If everyone is being so careful to avoid a full-scale conflict, why is this happening? Here, the US and its allies are to blame. The Balkans, as has been noted many times, is a place of imagined ethnic spaces. And where those imagined spaces are most dangerous is where they cross international boundaries. Loyalties devolve not just to ethnic origin, but also to local networks arranged around families and wider groups, between villages and cities. You play with those imagined spaces at your peril.

That is exactly what the US has done. For a decade, American policy in the Balkans focused on Yugoslavia’s ex-president Slobodan Milosevic. It was Milosevic to whom the Americans turned, to end the war in Bosnia – despite his implication in the violence there. When their patience with Milosevic finally ran out over the slaughter in Kosovo, the Americans simply added him to the ranks of the pariahs they must fight against.

Money was poured into the radical Serb opposition group Otpor. Montenegro was encouraged to secede by the same diplomats who, after Milosevic’s fall, would tell Montenegrins that they had no future outside the rump of Yugoslavia. And US officials encouraged former fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army to launch their rebellion in southern Serbia, thereby keeping up the pressure on his regime. In an instant, they created the permissive space – both physical (by allowing fighters to operate on Kosovo’s southern border in the area they controlled) and ideological – for the Macedonian rebellion that would spin off it.

The Americans deny it. But senior European officers, diplomats and Macedonian – and even some moderate Albanian – officials privately blame the US for naively encouraging fighters whose motivation they barely understood and whose actions they could not control. At the same time, the labelling of the National Liberation Army as “terrorists” by George Bush and Tony Blair, even as European ministers and officials were pooh-poohing the seriousness of the crisis, gave the Macedonian forces the green light to remove the fighters.

These are men with very short memories of the Balkans. In 1998, the US envoy Robert Gelbardt used the same language to Milosevic about the KLA, who interpreted it as US support for a war against Kosovo’s Albanians. Then, it led to a catastrophe.

Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at the Observer