Until a month ago it was a firm western policy to arm the Macedonian military and isolate Albanian fighters by branding them as ‘terrorists’ out to break up the country in their alleged pursuit of ‘Greater Albania’. The strategy was, and continues to be, to prevent Albanian Muslims — whether in Kosova, where they constitute the overwhelming majority, or in Macedonia, where they are a sizeable minority — from claiming their right to self-determination under the United Nations charter. Until very recently NATO and the European Union were prepared to side with the Slav Macedonians openly and massively, to the extent of denying the Macedonian Muslims the limited right to equal status within the same state — a right which they insist is behind their resort to arms six months ago. But the tenacity of the Muslims and their ability to resist military blackmail have convinced the EU and NATO that arming and training the Slavs would only lead to a long civil war, which they would not be able to avoid being heavily involved in.
Hence the change of strategy on the part of NATO and the EU, which are now determined to force both sides to accept a negotiated settlement that will give the Albanians equal rights under the law, while denying them self-determination. But the Albanian National Army (NLA) is not a party to the negotiations being brokered by US and European envoys, and any settlement reached by the Albanian political parties and the Macedonian government will have to be acceptable to the Albanian fighters if it is to succeed.
The NLA holds large swathes of territory in the northwest of the country, heavily populated by Albanians, and cannot be dislodged by government troops alone. Its gains in recent months have given the NLA greater credibility as a fighting force not only in Albanians’ eyes, but also in US and European capitals. The Albanian political leaders, who are locked in negotiations in Ohrid, in the southwest of the country, have also been strengthened by the NLA’s military gains and increased credibility, and will not be bounced easily into a deal by pressure from the West or intransigence by Macedonian negotiators, which they know that the NLA will turn down.
This explains the decision by NATO and the EU to change its policy of arming and training the Macedonian military, and to exert pressure on the Ukraine to stop supplying it. The Sukho fighter-jets regularly visible over Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and the helicopter gunships being used to attack Albanian civilians as well as fighters, were all supplied by the Ukraine. Only last month it was official EU and NATO policy to arm the Macedonians, and earlier this year the British Army offered to train Macedonian soldiers.
But there is also another reason for the western powers to pretend to be more even-handed now than they were just a month ago. Since the end of the Kosova war (1999), there have been almost 4,000 NATO troops (Kfor Rear) based in Macedonia, in addition to intelligence and training personnel stationed there since the early 1990s, when NATO signed the Partnership for Peace with Skopje. Kfor Rear provides essential military, transport and food supplies and logistical backup for the 40,000 Kfor troops in Kosova. Any outbreak of prolonged fighting in Macedonia could disrupt the supply lines to Kosova and pave the way for fresh instability there.
Western even-handedness is, however, more apparent than real, as demonstrated by EU and NATO efforts to seal the border between Kosova and Macedonia to stop any assistance from reaching Albanian Macedonians from the Muslims in Kosova. Any semblance of even-handedness was destroyed when US president George W. Bush went to Kosova on July 24 to visit US troops there, and publicly warned “ethnic Albanians” not to “forfeit western support” by fomenting violence in Macedonia. He followed up these outrageously rude remarks with a calculated snub by failing to invite Albanian leaders to his public functions. In Kosova, figures accepted by the West show that the Albanians outnumber the Serbs by far; there are 1.9 million Albanians to 100,000 ethnic Serbs.
In Macedonia, the Albanian Muslims, who constitute more than one third of the population and control their own “ethnic territories”, insist that they are fighting for their constitutional rights as citizens of the Macedonian state. These include the right to use the Albanian language at local and official levels, greater representation in the police forces, and the right to control the police in Albanian areas (at present only 5 percent of the police are Albanian). The Albanians, who want the constitution to be amended to incorporate the rights they demand, want an amnesty to be declared before they decommission their arms.
So far, the negotiations in Ohrid have cracked the two most sensitive issues: the rights to language and to enhanced representation in the police force. The Macedonians are resisting the Albanian demand for control of local police forces, but have dropped their insistence on the NLA decommissioning its arms before the conclusion of any peace agreement in the face of Albanian leaders’ obduracy and NATO’s refusal to send in troops to disarm the NLA before a peace agreement is signed and approved.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the Albanians Muslims are in a strong bargaining position, and the coordination of policy between the NLA and Albanian political leaders is sound, so far at least. But while this display of strength and self-confidence is helpful in securing their limited aim of constitutional rights within Macedonia, it is probably too much or too early to hope that it will reinforce their determination to pursue their other rights at a later and more auspicious time. The idea of the Muslim people in the Balkans being denied their right to rid themselves of their Slav tormentors permanently should be unacceptable. But non-Balkan Muslims need to do more for their European Muslim brothers than just lecture, or sit on the side-lines and watch.