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Macedonia: High risk that
the war will continue.
An outsider's perspective


Håkan Wiberg
Director of the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, COPRI
Board member of TFF


In 1907, King Nikola of Montenegro told the Danish journalist Franz von Jessen: "The Balkans is the small change that the great powers use in their transaction". It has not become less true since then, with Macedonia as a good example.


Macedonia - a victim of Western actions

For almost ten years, Macedonia was the main unintended victim of a long series of Western actions. The (counterproductive) sanctions against Yugoslavia impoverished not only FRY but also its neighbours, Macedonia suffering worst. When Germany cheated Greece on their recognition deal from 1991, it was Macedonia rather than Germany who suffered. When NATO attacked FRY, Macedonia suffered in many ways. The destruction of the civilian infrastructure of FRY reduced that market even further. It also cut Macedonia off from the most economic export routes to Western Europe for years. Macedonia was squeezed to take in more than 300,000 refugees - while all of Western Europe offered to take 80,000. In every case, it was the innocent victim and received at most merely symbolic compensation. The 35 million Euro that the EU is now dangling as a carrot is less than one per cent of what Western gestures cost the country and thereby the great majority of all its inhabitants, whether Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish or whatever (as always, some groups - again Macedonian, Albanian, etc. - profited from this destruction by smuggling and other forms of illegal economy. The mafia loves economic sanctions.

The conflict between Macedonian and Albanian nationalism is of course much older than that. It contains elements that are familiar from ethnonational conflicts in many other states: 1) whether or not to have a privileged state religion; 2) what languages are to be official at what levels in the country; 3) whether to discriminate some groups negatively, positively or not at all in ecucation, civil service, police and military forces, etc.; 4) what balance to find between central and local decision making; 5) whether or not to move resources from richer to poorer parts of the country; and so on.


Different solutions throughout Europe

Each of these problems have been handled in different ways in different Western democracies - and new democracies after the Cold War - that have significant populations of two or more ethnonational groups, such as Finland, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, France, the USA, etc. - and the Russian Federation, Estonia, Latvia, the Slovak Republic, Ukraine, Romania, etc. Closer study reveals that these solutions have mostly been unique, having to be adapted to the history, culture, security situation, political structure, etc. of each country. Some never had a state religion (France, the USA, Germany); some had it all the time (Italy, Denmark); some eventually abolished it recently (Sweden).

Some countries have one official language at state level, but others in addition at lower levels (France, Sweden); some have more than one at state level, but only one at lower levels (Switzerland, Canada - and largely Belgium and Finland). Whereas it is difficult to find states with legal negative discrimination, some have attempted positive discrimination, whereas others forbid any discrimination before the law. There is great variety in how political decisions are distributed between national, regional and municipal assemblies. Some of these countries have considerable economic redistribution between regions (Sweden), others much less (the USA). It would therefore be silly for outsiders to try to tell Macedonia how to solve its problems.


Some important observations

Some things can be observed however. One of them is to what extent the constitutions and legislation of different countries have been deemed to satisfy or violate international or European norms of minority protection and human rights. When Macedonia was surveyed in this respect, by the Badinter Commission and other organs, it got a clean bill of health. This should be read properly however: it says that there is no violation of standards in international law; it does not say that there is no discrimination - some of the states mentioned above have considerable discrimination without their constitutions or legislation violating such standards.

Another observation is that decentralization of political decisions and regional autonomy has often been able to defuse interethnic tensions, at least for the time being. This recipe is far from infallible, however, and it sometimes requires quite a bit of trust and confidence between groups. Implementing it may involve a gamble: it may keep the state better together by removing grievances, but it may also encourage separatism and lead to more demands. In some cases, such a divorce may take, or be expected to take place in peaceful forms (Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Canada); in others, it spells a catastrophe (Former Yugoslavia and some of its successors, Cyprus).

A third general observation concerns the role of violence. Where states managed to reform themselves in ways that all major ethnonational groups could live with, this was predominantly when there was not even been a hint of using violence as a political instrument, democratic procedures being seen as the only legitimate way. The use or threat of violence is normally counterproductive, whether the repressive violence of the dominant group or the violence used by rebels against state authority (called "freedom fighters" by themselves and sometimes others, "terrorists" by that authority and sometimes others). Northern Ireland and the Basque provinces provide good examples. This is not strange. Violence leads to fear, which makes it more difficult to see the demands of the other group as legitimate or even negotiable. Violence leads to counterviolence - and once a group has taken up violence and a war has started, it is very difficult to get out of it: on both or all sides there are those who profit from the war going on, and the more the war has cost, the higher the demands "in order to make the sacrifices meaningful".

A final general observation concerns the role of outsiders in the resolution of such conflicts. Outsiders may sometimes be useful, for example by providing meeting places, carrying messages, giving advice, etc. This normally presupposes that they are NGOs, respected individuals or representatives of intergovernmental organisations that satisfy some conditions.

They have been invited by agreement between the conflict parties. They keep a low and discreet profile and do not try to push the parties; in any case they cannot do so, because they have no access to coercive power and their worst threat is to pull out of their mediation role. And they have long patience, knowing full well that the process is very difficult and that the representatives of the parties must repeatedly check back with their constituencies what they can or cannot accept.

Sometimes, however, the outsiders are great powers or organisations of them, keep high profile, try to push the parties, threaten them (or worse) with economic or even military sanctions and try to get very quick results by "high pressure diplomacy". In these cases, it is difficult to find a single example of - at least apparently - successful conflict resolution that did not involve the outsider also taking up the role as occupying power (usually under nicer-sounding names) for an indefinite future.


Violence reduces the chance of sustainable political solutions

From these points of view, the prospects for the war in Macedonia (for some reason referred to as "a threatening war", rather than a war in Western mass media) are quite bleak. The ten years as victim of Western gestures led to economic losses and increasing unemployment - which tend to lead to political radicalisation and deeper cleavages. NATO´s war against FRY made the interethnic relations in Macedonia worse than ever and contributed to building up the KLA as a military threat to it. The taking up of violence as a political means made the likelihood of a lasting political solution worse, not better. Little confidence can have been created by the Western multiplicity of contradictory standpoints: "Don´t reward terrorists by negotiating with them - but accept that US diplomats and NATO military commanders give that reward", "It is OK to use military means against rebels - but only quite softly and preferably not at all", and so on. And the last few weeks of "high pressure diplomacy" is a good example of how not to produce a lasting solution.

Let me begin with the hard facts. It is easy to say that there is no military solution, but then it should be made quite clear what this means. It means that neither side in the conflict has a chance of decisively defeating the other side militarily. As France, the USA, the Soviet Union and others bitterly learnt, it takes a superiority of twenty to one or even more to defeat a guerilla movement with some support in the population it purports to fight for and some access to regrouping and rearming in friendly neighbour states. The Army of Macedonia can of course chase the KLA out of whatever town or village it occupies - but never out of all at the same time. And it will always face the dilemma of either doing it like the USA in Vietnam, creating great civilian casualties, driving that population into the arms of KLA and perhaps losing the international propaganda war - or doing it with considerable losses of soldiers and with the risk that paramilitary groups are formed to take over the job of the army. Nor, of course, does the KLA have any possibility of a decisive military victory. If any chance of this would ever seem emerge, the neighbours of Macedonia, all seeing Greater Albania as a major threat, would in all likelihood be willing to assist the armed forces of Macedonia.


So what are the chance for the Ohrid Agreement of August 13?

So what about the signed treaty? The immediate impression is that its implementation would require that large NATO, UN or whatever troops are available to go in and remain for any foreseeable future - but it is obvious that NATO is horribly scared of putting itself into yet another lifetime prison like in Bosnia and Kosovo.

At the same time, all three parties are provided with solid alibis by the text carrying heavy signs of a rushed compromise achieved by systematic ambiguity. The alibi provided for the KLA is "we will not disarm completely until the treaty is fully implemented" - and proclaiming itself the judge of when this is the case, which means - at best - a very long time: just look at the IRA or the ETA after thirty years. A second alibi may be the yet mysterious ANA, for which KLA can claim having no responsibility - and whom it is not NATO´s task to disarm.

The alibi provided for the Macedonian side of the conflict is the obverse of this: "we will do nothing decisive until they are disarmed". Let us assume that the treaty gets the required two thirds majority in Parliament after the intense propaganda campaign in Macedonian mass media that the USA is now starting (it may rather be counterproductive). Even so, there is a long way from legislation on paper and "full implementation", which requires active and positive cooperation of several levels of government bureaucracy. It calls for a lot of good will, which is less likely than ever to exist after half a year of warfare. Furthermore, most provisions are so vaguely formulated that they immediately invite new conflicts about exactly what they mean - and who is to decide that. And all the time there will be the issue as to whether the KLA (and ANA?) is really disarmed or only pretends.

This leads to the alibis of a NATO that at the same time wants to be seen as "doing something" and is horrified by the thought of being dragged into armed conflict. It has taken on the role of disarming the KLA, but with a very long list of ifs and buts. Only if there is a peace treaty. Only if the ceasefire holds. Only to receive arms from the KLA, not to search for them or take them. Only to do this and not any other mission. Only the KLA, not the ANA. Only for thirty days. Only....


It all hinges on trust - of which there is now little...

That leads to crucial issues: How does NATO know that it has disarmed KLA? And how can it convince anybody else of this? Can NATO know how many arms KLA has (except for those of NATO origin)? Can NATO know whether the arms they get are all that KLA has, or are just smuggled in from Albania or Kosovo for the purpose of being handed over? The way out of this that NATO seems to seek is the following: 1) to ask the KLA how many arms it has; 2) to ask the Macedonian government to accept this figure; 3) to collect that number of arms; 4) to proclaim that its mission is accomplished and that KLA has fulfilled the agreements and then leave Macedonia as quickly as ever possible.

So it all boils down to a matter of trust, and the ensuing dilemma: the more NATO trusts KLA, the less will the Macedonians trust NATO. But trust is just what has been more and more eroded by the use of violence, and it is difficult to see why the Macedonian government, KLA or NATO should have much reason to trust the two other parties. In situations where trust is in short supply, the tenable agreement is one that does not call for much more trust than the parties have in each other.

From this point of view, the Brioni agreement was fine (but then the Serbs and Slovenes had made the deal by themselves and just pretended that the EU was a mediator). The Vance agreement on Krajina had the major shortcoming that it called for a lot of trust, but did not provide for anything if the trust was broken (UNPROFOR was just chased aside by the Croatian army). The Dayton agreement called for a bit less trust by having IFOR/SFOR in as a guarantor against at least military violations and is therefore unlikely to be seriously and openly challenged until SFOR leaves; on the other hand, not much of it is likely to be implemented beyond the military and territorial parts. The agreement on Kosovo likewise provides for a large military presence for a very long time, and even so calls for great amounts of trust - unlikely to be there when the number of killed people and new refugees was about the same during the year after its arrival as it was during the year before the bombings.

And the Macedonian treaty calls for great amounts of trust between the two local sides without any trustworthy guarantor for either. Thus, there is a great risk that the war will continue.


© TFF & the author 2001  


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