Albanian struggle in Macedonia liable to get bogged down in politics

Helena Bestakova

Jumada' al-Ula' 11, 1422 2001-08-01


by Helena Bestakova (World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1422)

After days of intense haggling, talks between Macedonian and ethnic Albanian leaders in Skopje hit an impasse because Macedonian government officials rejected a western-backed peace plan proposing that Albanian become a second official language in some regions. In reaction to this rejection, leaders of the two largest ethnic Albanian parties taking part in the negotiations, Arben Xhaferi’s Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) and Imer Imeri’s Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), stayed away from a meeting they were scheduled to hold on July 19 with Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski and the two western envoys, James Pardew of the United States and Francois Leotard of the European Union.

The Albanians, who complain bitterly of being treated as second-class citizens, had reluctantly accepted the plan, which they consider does not address some of their key demands for more equal language, educational and constitutional rights. Initial objections of the Albanian leaders centred on the fact that the plan fails to guarantee them equal status with the majority Slav Macedonians. Xhaferi explained the Albanian decision to boycott the meeting by saying: “We have already made a compromise by giving up 70 percent of our demands. I don’t think we can give up any more now.”

In rejecting the proposal, Macedonian prime minister Ljubco Georgievski lashed out at the US and EU representatives, accusing them of advancing “a document tailored to break up Macedonia,” using high-handed “cowboy style” tactics, and describing the draft as “a blatant violation of Macedonia’s internal affairs.” Georgievski is the leader of the ultra-nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski is a former member of IMRO.

Meanwhile, the streets of Skopje continued to be the scene of outrageous displays of bigotry, indicating that fascism-like nationalism is increasing among the Slavic majority. Hundreds of Slavic demonstrators, some flashing the fascist three-fingered salute, continued to stage rallies in the streets of Skopje almost daily. They have reportedly been blocking traffic, shouting slogans such as “Macedonia for the Macedonians,” “no changes to our constitution” and “this is Macedonia,” and playing Slavic nationalist songs over loudspeakers. Two explosions have damaged property and wounded a woman in suburbs of Skopje inhabited mainly by Albanians.

In an unusually sharp response, a joint statement issued by NATO secretary-general Lord George Robertson and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, both of whom postponed a trip to Skopje after news of Macedonia’s rejection of the plan, called Georgievski’s tirades “an undignified response to international efforts to assist in the search for a peaceful solution.”

Nothing but bigotry can explain the Macedonian refusal to promote the linguistic rights of the country’s Albanian minority, which comprises about one third of the population. The Macedonian government’s position indicates a complete rejection of the concept of a multicultural and pluralistic state in favour of a monolithic concept of nationalism whereby ethnic minorities are expected to shed their cultural heritage and merge into the dominant Slavic culture. The proposal retains Macedonian as the primary official language, preserves the unitary character of the country, and maintains central control of the police force. Rather than making the Albanian language an official national language on an equal footing with Macedonian, it merely proposes raising its status to that of a second official tongue in certain areas, thus making it incumbent on public officials in these areas to have the ability to communicate in Albanian.

The joint EU-US plan, based on a proposal drafted by French constitutional expert Robert Badinter with input from a bevy of local and international ‘experts’, calls for constitutional, legal and administrative changes to grant more rights and responsibilities to the country’s Albanian minority. It proposes a cessation of all hostilities between the Albanian fighters and government forces and guarantees the country’s territorial integrity. It grants ethnic Albanians proportional representation in the Constitutional Court, which has the authority to approve or repeal legislation. In addition, the central government would fund primary and secondary education in the Albanian language and an Albanian-language university in Tetovo, which is currently privately funded. Established in 1994, Tetovo University was originally deemed “illegal” by the central government, which tried to close it down. A compromise brokered by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe allowed the university to operate as a private institution.

The plan, which calls for a census to determine the country’s ethnic composition accurately, would also introduce proportional representation in the police, army, courts and local governments, whose authority would be broadened. It would allow local police chiefs to be elected, though only from a short list prepared by the interior ministry. At the moment, only 3.1 percent of the police force and military is made up of ethnic Albanians. A comparable situation prevails in other sectors of public life, including the judiciary, public service and healthcare system.

The immediate purpose of the plan is to persuade the Albanian fighters belonging to the National Liberation Army (NLA), which launched an insurgency in February to fight for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, to lay down their arms in return for an amnesty. NATO has offered to deploy about 3,000 troops to oversee the disarmament of the fighters, but only after a ceasefire is firmly in place, the political process produces positive results and the NLA fighters voluntarily agree to relinquish their weapons. The force is to be led by Britain, which is to provide the operational headquarters and a battalion of about 1,000 troops. The US will provide the operation, codenamed “Essential Harvest,” with logistical, intelligence and helicopter support.

But NATO officials have made it clear that Albanians in Macedonia entertaining the idea of another mission on the same scale as those sent earlier to Bosnia and Kosova are seriously mistaken. On July 13, British chief of defence staff admiral Sir Michael Boyce said that once deployed the NATO troops would be pulled out at the first sign of renewed fighting. He also said that the mission is not being sent to Macedonia “to be sucked into a third Balkan crisis.”

But the political process was also intended to sideline the NLA, which has been more successful than traditional political parties in ensuring that Albanian grievances and demands for equality are addressed. Leaders of Albanian political parties have publicly recognized this fact. For instance, PDP’s Imeri has candidly acknowledged: “If there was no NLA, no one would seriously get involved in dialogue with Albanians.” The NLA is not represented at the talks. This is to ensure that the NLA is not legitimized.

It is highly unlikely that the western plan for Macedonia will be sufficient to guarantee peace. Above all, the plan does not guarantee constitutional equality for ethnic Albanians. It is not clear whether local NLA commanders will agree to disarm without such guarantees. It is also doubtful that the fighters will surrender all of their weapons, many of which consist of modern equipment transferred to Macedonia from Albania in 1997 after the collapse of the communist regime in Tirana and the looting of Albanian military bases.

At the time of writing, a shaky ceasefire between NLA fighters and Macedonian security forces, which cleared the way for political dialogue, was still generally holding, despite being punctured almost daily by sporadic shooting. The ceasefire was mediated, away from the glare of publicity, by Peter Feith, special envoy of NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson, who shuttled between NLA strongholds in northwestern Macedonia, Skopje, Tetovo and Pristina in Kosova.

The agreement was signed separately on June 24 by Macedonia’s chief of staff General Pande Petrovski and police General Risto Galevski for the Skopje authorities, and by the NLA political representative Ali Ahmeti. Feith is the low-profile American diplomat who had earlier negotiated a similar ceasefire between the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (commonly known by its Albanian initials UCPMB) in southeastern Serbia and Serb government forces using carrot-and-stick tactics. In the case of the Macedonian ceasefire, the tactics included an amnesty for NLA fighters who had not been involved in acts classified as “crimes,” a promise of EU aid to Macedonia worth $50 million, and an EU and US visa ban on some 38 NLA commanders.

Both the Macedonian forces and the NLA fighters have used the ceasefire to re-supply and reposition troops. As guns cannot remain silent in the absence of a meaningful political process, the fragile ceasefire seems destined to edge towards collapse. In the end, Macedonia might present, as Xhaferi said succinctly, “the only case in history where a war will start because of linguistic disputes.”

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