UCPMB-Macedonia: the latest powder-keg in the Balkans

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Helena Bestakova

Dhu al-Hijjah 20, 1421 2001-03-16

Special Reports

by Helena Bestakova (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 2, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1421)

The west’s handling of the recent outburst of violence in south-eastern Serbia and north-western Macedonia has exposed what it stood for all along: to quash the aspirations of ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslavia for independence and freedom. Earlier this month, NATO decided to allow Yugoslav forces back into a small sliver of land in the buffer zone in the Presevo Valley, where ethnic Albanian guerrillas have been active since the end of 1999. It also colluded with Serbia and Macedonia in their efforts to crush armed insurgencies by ethnic Albanians.

The 5-kilometre-wide demilitarized buffer zone lies in Serbia and runs along the border of the Albanian-dominated province of Kosova and northwestern Macedonia. It is known as the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) and was set up by the terms of the Military Technical Agreement signed in June 1999 between Yugoslavia and the Atlantic alliance to end the conflict in Kosova. It straddles the three predominantly Albanian districts of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, where an estimated 80,000 Albanians live. The Agreement prohibits both the NATO-led Kosova Protection Force (K-For) and the Serbian army from operating in the GSZ. Only a limited number of lightly armed Serbian police are authorized to operate in the zone. The vacuum allowed the Liberation Army of the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) to operate in the zone and to establish outposts within it. The UCPMB’s strength is estimated at about 2,000 fighters.

NATO’s decision to allow the Serbs back into the GSZ came as Serb and Albanian political representatives were discussing the terms of a ceasefire agreement. The negotiations were being conducted mainly through NATO intermediaries, including Peter Feith, special envoy of the alliance’s secretary general George Robertson to the region, who shuttled between the two sides. By the time of this writing, the renewed fighting following NATO’s announcement seemed to pose a serious blow to these talks, thus threatening to engulf the area in another conflagration. Emboldened by NATO’s open support, the Serbs unleashed a barrage of artillery and mortar attacks against UCPMB positions. Ferocious clashes and shelling were reported in villages and towns throughout the zone.

Understandably, the UCPMB, which originated as a small, poorly organized band of fighters dedicated to protecting Albanians in the Presevo Valley from the brutality and harassment of the Serbian police, opposes the reintroduction of Serbian troops into the region. UCPMB commanders have repeatedly warned that reopening the zone to Serbian or Yugoslav forces will lead to moreviolence. Upon hearing of NATO’s decision to give Serbian troops a free hand in parts of the Presevo Valley, UCPMB leader Shefket Hassani Musliu, a 61-year-old local poet, told reporters that his fighters would “fight to the last man” to keep Serb troops out of the Presevo Valley. The UCPMB had earlier presented a plan outlining its terms for a ceasefire, which included demands for autonomy, the right to self-determination, as well as demilitarizing the area and placing it under international supervision. However, the Serbian government rejected these demands, instead agreeing to take unspecified measures to improve the lot of the ethnic Albanians in the region.

NATO presented its decision as an attempt to contain the “guerrilla activity” in the Presevo Valley from spilling over into neighbouring Macedonia and to stop the UCPMB from joining up with ethnic Albanians fighting Macedonian forces. In this regard, secretary general of the military alliance Robertson said: “We want to prevent what can be limited, localized skirmishes becoming bigger or spill over into the wider region.”

In addition to giving Belgrade the green light to unleash its forces on the Presevo Valley, NATO ordered its peacekeeping force in Kosova to strengthen its presence along Kosova’s southern border with Macedonia, presumably to curb weapons-smuggling and infiltration. Over the past year, K-For had been involved in a number of clashes with ethnic Albanian guerrillas. It has also blown up roads and bridges linking Kosova to the Presevo Valley, and conducted a series of arrests and incursions against UCPMB supporters, rear bases and support infrastructure inside Kosova.

On March 8, NATO shed its feigned neutrality and joined the fray against the Albanians. American contingents in K-For engaged Albanian guerrillas in the Kosovar border hamlet of Mijak. US brigadier general Kenneth Quinlan, commander of Kosova’s Multinational Brigade East, boasted to reporters in nearby Debelde: “We have just concluded a successful operation by eliminating a safe haven for armed groups here in Kosovo.” K-For troops reportedly found the fighters’ hastily abandoned headquarters in a school building well stocked with food and explosives.

Mijak lies across the border from the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, which has been the scene of clashes between Albanian fighters and Macedonian troops for the past few weeks. The attack on Mijak came after calls from Macedonian officials for NATO to intervene in the border area to quell the Albanian fighters. Fighting was also reported in other parts of northwestern Macedonia. On March 9, one Albanian fighter and one policeman were killed in an exchange of fire after rebels managed to trap a government convoy for several hours near the villages of Brest and Malino.

Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s prime minister, has also called on NATO to move to isolate Albanians in Kosova to help quell the fighting involving Albanians in Macedonia. Neighbouring Bulgaria, whose parliament urged broad international assistance to prevent what it described as the destabilization of Macedonia, also stepped in with a promise to send “hundreds of tonnes” of military materiel and supplies to help Macedonian forces crush Albanians harrying them. In a similar move that provides a further confirmation of the primacy of anti-Islamic sentiments in the west, Greece, which originally refused to recognize Macedonia when it declared its independence after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, has also sent military supplies to Macedonia.

Sporadic clashes have been reported in Tanusevci, which lies along a kilometre-wide border exclusion zone, since late February. The clashes started when the trigger-happy Macedonian police shot dead a 22-year-old Albanian farmer as he worked in his potato field. Ethnic Albanian fighters have managed to control and maintain their hold on the village despite repeated attempts by the Macedonian army to invade it. Macedonian authorities have also closed all the border-crossings with Kosova except for vehicles belonging to K-For and the United Nations civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), and returning Macedonian citizens.

Moreover, there is evidence that K-For has been sharing intelligence with Macedonian forces on the movement of Albanian fighters. On March 9, the spokesman of the Mace-donian army, Georgi Trendafilov, said that K-For provided the Macedonian army with information on the movement of groups of Albanian fighters moving from Kosova toward Macedonia or grouping near the border. He added that two of these groups were “destroyed” in clashes with an army observation-post at Kodra Fura.

Macedonia had an estimated total population of 2,040,000 in 2000. According to the census taken in 1994, Macedonian Slavs make up 67 percent of the population and ethnic Albanians make up some 23 percent. However, Albanian sources estimate that ethnic Albanians actually make up one third of the population. Macedonian Slavs are traditionally Orthodox Christians, whereas Macedonian Albanians are predominantly Muslim. Other minority groups include Turks (4 percent), Roma or Gypsies (2 percent) and Serbs (2 percent). While the overall population growth rate is 0.6 percent per annum, the ethnic Albanians are increasing substantially faster than the Macedonian Slavs. This has raised fears among the Macedonian Slavs of being outnumbered by ethnic Albanians within a couple of generations.

Albanians in Macedonia have long complained of discrimination, linguistic and otherwise. They are especially susceptible to violence at the hands of the police, as well as procedural violations. The most common forms of police brutality to Albanians are excessive use of force at time of arrest and physical mistreatment and torture of those in detention. The international community has largely turned a blind eye to violations of human rights in Macedonia. In the words of a report, Police Violence in Macedonia, published by the New York-based Human Rights Watch: “Instead of criticizing human-rights violations, the international community has rewarded the Macedonian government for being a ‘factor of stability’ in the region. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have provided $85 million and $330 million in loans and credits respectively, while the United States government, a strong supporter of the Macedonian government, has provided at least $76 million in foreign aid.”

The group operating in the northwestern parts of Macedonia is called the National Liberation Army (UCK). A cursory look at its origins and modus operandi shows many similarities with the experience of the UCPMB. Like the UCPMB, which resorted to guerrilla action to protect local residents from the Serbian forces, the UCK took up arms in response to police brutality and harassment. Moreover, the UCK models itself on the now-disbanded Kosova Liberation Army, with whom it shares the same Albanian-language initials. Its strength is currently estimated at a few hundred fighters, who until recently were organized in several independent small cells that have operated throughout Macedonia since the early 1990s.

Both the UCPMB and the UCK have tried to internationalize their plight, in the vain hope of eliciting western intervention in their favour. Their strategy envisions a Kosova-style guerrilla campaign. This is shown by the use of the Prekaz analogy to refer to the recent UCK action in Tanusevci, a mountainous hamlet with a population of about 800 ethnic Albanians. Prekaz is the name of the place where the Kosova Liberation Army started its armed insurgency. The ranks of the two groups have been expanding with fighters who had previously fought with the Kosova Liberation Army. Most of their supplies come from across the porous Kosovar border. They are also believed to be receiving financial support from Albanian communities abroad.

Much to their chagrin, the actions of the ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia and Presevo have so far attracted international condemnation. Even Albanian president Rexhep Mejdani has described their activities as “totally unacceptable.” NATO’s increasingly overt intervention against ethnic Albanians in the region highlights the west’s longstanding position on the “Albanian question”. The crux of this position is to sacrifice the independence of the Albanian Muslims and the restoration of their homeland’s political unity on the altar of the interests of the non-Muslim Slavic peoples of the Balkans. Even the NATO intervention in Kosova appears in hindsight to have been meant more to maintain Yugoslav sovereignty over the province than to assist its Albanian population to secure independence.

The overthrow of the regime of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosovic set the stage for the west to revamp its involvement in the region and show its wholehearted support for the Serbs. And ethnic Albanians in the Balkans, who were once misled into believing that they could rely on western intervention to secure their rights, now find themselves in a bind.

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