On the Edge: Unrest on FYROM’s Doorstep

by G. G. De Lastic

(“Kathimerini”, English edition, March 5, 2001)

Spreading clashes between ethnic Albanians and Slav-Macedonians on Skopje’s border with the province of Kosovo threaten to start another war.

Tanusevci village is at the center of armed clashes between Albanians and Slav-Macedonians in FYROM both last week and yesterday.

Real battles lasting entire days have taken place sporadically during the past week in hitherto little known Tanusevci village in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The village is occupied by Albanians and is close to the Kosovo border. Rebels pushing for Albanian autonomy and the Slav-Macedonian army have clashed in this remote area. Unconfirmed sources report that the village often changes hands. Hundreds of Albanian civilians have taken refuge in Kosovo, and FYROM President Boris Trajkovski publicly denounced their flight as stage-managed.

The political import of what is going on in this otherwise insignificant village is tremendous. The Albanian residents refuse to accept the terms of the agreement defining the Yugoslav-FYROM border, which the two countries signed last Friday in Skopje on the sidelines of the Balkan Summit, and they are demanding that their village be part of Kosovo. This indicates a desire for Albanian national completion, regardless of existing international borders.

Taking up arms in a de facto imposition of this desire and clashes with the armed forces of the country are not “acts of terrorism” as the joint communique of the Balkan summit foolishly described them, but something much more serious. Whether we like it or not, they are the beginning of an armed national liberation struggle by a certain section of the Albanians in FYROM.

As expected, the de facto consolidation of Kosovo’s independence during the NATO attack on Serbia, and the ongoing process of breaking away from Serbia by Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, also tolerated by the NATO forces, has persuaded some Albanians in FYROM that it was their turn to become independent.

Nightmarish prospect

This is an alarming prospect. The coexistence of Albanians and Slav-Macedonians is artificial, and the armed clashes at Tanusevci reduce the desire to continue this “state marriage.” If the Albanians’ desire for independence is openly expressed, then FYROM will not be able to exist as a unified state because of its large proportion of Albanian citizens (30-40 percent: The exact number is not known because both sides deliberately falsify the figures).

The worst scenario of all is not the potential breakup of FYROM as a state, but that our neighboring countries will almost certainly dismember it and and divide it up among themselves.

The Albanian areas will sooner or later attempt to become part of Albania, while matters are more complicated in the Slav-Macedonian areas. The prevailing view in Bulgaria is that the Slav-Macedonians are a Bulgarian race, so if FYROM breaks up Sofia will be very tempted by the desire to annex Slav-Macedonian territory, which would meet the approval of some Slav-Macedonians in FYROM.

There is an additional complication in the fact that similar views, though less widespread and in a milder form, are held in Serbia, where the Slav-Macedonians are seen as Southern Serbs. Within FYROM, Slav-Macedonians who oppose annexation by Bulgaria may prefer to stick with Serbia, thus bringing Belgrade into the game.

Whatever happens, it would be self-deluding to think that Greece would be unaffected and would stand by and do nothing if FYROM were partitioned by two or three of its neighbors. It would be even more naive to expect this to happen peacefully and without bloodshed.

The threat of such developments explains the full political support which Prime Minister Costas Simitis gave FYROM during his recent visit to Skopje, even though nothing happened, or is expected to happen, concerning FYROM’s name.

Everything unresolved

From the strategic point of view, the armed clashes in southern Serbia are clearly more serious than those in FYROM. “All the international observers who visited the area agree that it is only a matter of time before there is a major outbreak of violence... If there is an upheaval, it will certainly cause serious problems for the new rulers in Belgrade; it will unleash another, perhaps final, wave of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; it will spread to sensitive areas in northern Macedonia; and it will become a major challenge for the international community,” said special representative of the UN secretary-general for the Balkans, Carl Bildt, a former Swedish premier, in a dramatic letter to Kofi Annan.

In fact, while the situation in FYROM is growing more critical, matters in southern Serbia are not so alarming. The new government in Belgrade has shown that it is so closely tied to US and NATO policy that it is unlikely to react violently to any secession from Serb or Yugoslav territory.

Serb public opinion runs along the same lines, displaying indifference to Presevo or to Montenegro, which will probably announce the expected referendum on independence from Yugoslavia by summer.

In a state of collapse

Serbia has already entered a stage of political collapse, similar to that of Yeltsin’s Russia after the disintegration of the USSR. Belgrade will not be able to play a leading role in the Balkans for years, but will influence them indirectly through its own weakness, which will fuel ambitions in another Balkan states.

What is temporarily keeping the situation in the Balkans in check is the desire of all the countries in the area to join NATO and the European Union.

In essence, however, not one Balkan problem has been resolved. NATO protectorates (Bosnia, Kosovo) are multiplying, and new states are emerging, even when they are obviously not viable. The unavoidable conflicts that are looming (such as the dismemberment of Bosnia and FYROM, and union of Albania and Kosovo) are temporarily delayed, only to return in more violent form when circumstances permit.

As for Balkan leaders, they prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than solve problems, as for example with the virtual reality communique at the Skopje summit, which reflects nothing whatsoever of the critical situation and vital issues in the Balkans.

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