by Stavros Lygeros
(Kathimerini, English edition, 5 February, 2001)
The western Balkans have entered another unstable phase, following the pause triggered by NATOs war on Serbia. Attacks on Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica, violent demonstrations against French peacekeepers - in which Greek soldiers were indirectly involved - mounting Albanian rebel activity in south Serbia and terrorist attacks in northwest FYROM, all present an ominous picture.
Albanian nationalists have never renounced the vision of a Greater Albania, even though Tirana avoids lending it official support. The Wests military intervention and the de facto secession of Kosovo from Yugoslavia have added an aggressiveness to the perspective of the Albanians, who believe it is time to lay claim to as much as possible. American favor allowed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to start a rebellion against the Serbs, which gave NATO the opportunity to intervene.
Pandeli Majko, then the socialist prime minister of Albania, stated that Albanians outside Albania have the right to collective self-defense. In fact he virtually described Albanian irredentism, which is at the core of all other informal discussions, but is absent from official diplomatic formulae. But just a few days ago at the Davos forum, Albanian President Rexhep Meidani refused to answer when asked if his country planned to create a “greater Albania.” He did declare that Montenegro and Kosovo must become internationally recognized states, and for this reason he called for early parliamentary elections.
It is not only the KLA which is calling for independence, scorning resolution 1244/1999, but also the Albanian authorities. Kosovo is like a pilot area, and its secession will be the first step toward a “greater Albania.” Once this link was broken, it was inevitable that Albanian nationalism would attempt to break the remaining links with precisely the same method. There are large Albanian minorities in southern Serbia (in the Presevo-Bujanovac-Medvedja triangle), Montenegro and of course in FYROM.
The conditions are different of course, and it is plain to see that the Americans are using Albanian irredentism to exert pressure on Belgrade.
Following Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunicas refusal to hand Slobodan Milosevic over to The Hague international court, Albanian attacks in southern Serbia came to a head. It goes without saying that Albanian rebels could not penetrate southern Serbia if American marines guarding the “border” didnt turn a blind eye.
The Koumanovo Agreement (June 1999) provides for the creation of a five-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone along the Serbia-Kosovo “border” and on Serbian soil. This zone guarantees protection to the KLA offshoot, since Yugoslav forces are forbidden to enter it. Some days ago Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic warned the international community that the problem of the Albanian rebels would be solved sooner or later, either through diplomatic channels or by the police and army.
This statement is indicative of the prevailing climate in Belgrade, as is the statement by Kostunica on his return from Davos that “this is a trap Albanian terrorists have set for the new democratic authorities of Yugoslavia, and we will do whatever we can to avoid it.” The Serb leader obviously fears a repetition, even in different form, of what happened in Kosovo, and is thus in favor of a political solution.
Belgrades cautious stance has won praise from the international community. On January 22, the European Union strongly condemned “the illegal and violent actions of the armed Albanian groups” in the Serb south, but the U.S. used more reserved language. It criticized the attacks on Serb soldiers and acknowledged Belgrades restraint, but avoided saying the the KLA bore the sole responsibility.
Washington is not satisfied with Kostunicas stance, which it sees as excessively independent.
But it cannot turn against him, because he is impeccably democratic and has such prestige, so it is using Albanian irredentism behind the scenes to exert pressure on him.
Although NATO threatened the Albanian extremists that it would take measures against them, it refuses to abolish the demilitarized zone. At least for the time being, it is negotiating with the Serbs for a reduction of the zones width, but no decision has yet been taken.
American policy is walking a tightrope. Officially it condemns the actions of the KLA, if not as much as it should. But in practice it seems to tolerate the terrorism which the other offshoot of the KLA in FYROM is developing. The Albanian authorities deny it, but insiders know that the two affiliated “liberation armies” were founded in early 2000 by KLA members, with whom they have close ties. This information was confirmed by Mr. Stamenkovski, who was then in charge of FYROMs secret service. Besides, the attack in Terce is not the first. It was preceded by another three, which the authorities kept quiet so as to avoid rousing feelings of insecurity. It is no secret that the Slav-Macedonians live with the persistent fear of a national conflict with neighboring Albanians, which would inevitably lead to the dissolution of their newly formed state.
At the same time, by promoting their political demands, the Albanians are carrying out armed attacks on police targets, with the aim of calling into question the sovereignty of the Slav-Macedonian state in its northeastern provinces where Albanians are in the majority. The border with Kosovo has been virtually abolished, and some border guards who attempted to resist were shot.
The Albanian leaders in Tetovo officially avoid raising the issue of secession. They know very well that the West is supporting the integrity of FYROM at this stage, and that is why they are keeping their irredentism on the back burner; and also why the leader of the Albanian Democratic Party, Arben Xhaferi, stated a few days ago that the organization which assumed responsibility for the recent attack on the police station in the village of Terce had no connection with the KLA. He believes that in about a decade the Albanians will have become the majority, by virtue of their rapidly growing population, and will assimilate the newly founded Slav-Macedonian state. Despite its difficult position, FYROM is maintaining an intractable attitude toward Greece. So far it has refused to yield an inch in order to reach a compromise solution on the unresolved problem of its name. Athens, for its part, is acting awkwardly. The dogma of Greek foreign policy is that national interests demand that FYROM survive, thus preventing the creation of a greater Albania and a greater Bulgaria on our borders. This dogma is not incorrect, but it is rigid and hence a trap for Greek diplomacy.
It is true that dividing the neighboring state up between Albania and Bulgaria would be an unpromising development, but this is most unlikely to occur. In the future FYROM may become a federation.
When tension grows and there is a threat of uncontrolled upheaval, it will be the West that moves in to calm down the situation, either offering the Albanians autonomy or imposing a federal regime.
Such a development would not only not harm Greek interests but would probably benefit them. Athens has no reason either to help or hinder this development because, apart from anything else, it doesnt have much chance of affecting matters one way or another. Hence it is wrong for Greek policy to be stuck with the dogma of FYROMs integrity. Just as it is wrong to avoid contact with the neighboring Albanian state, with whom all other Western countries have contact. Especially when our sole support for the Slav-Macedonians meets with their total indifference on the issue of their name.