THE ALBANIAN NATIONAL QUESTION
MACEDONIA: WHERE WE STAND IN 2002
by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi
Balkan Affairs Adviser, AACL
Since the onset of the crisis in Macedonia in March 2001, the Albanian American Civic
League has told the Bush administration and the Congress that the only way to prevent Macedonia from descending into full-scale civil war is through the immediate implementation of reforms in response to the Albanian population’s legitimate grievances about institutionalized discrimination, racism, and police brutality. The keys to avoiding further bloodshed in Macedonia have always been changing the ethnocentric concept of the state in the constitution; amending the citizenship laws so that all people who are born in Macedonia or who have longstanding residency there are counted as citizens; decentralizing the government and giving municipalities a greater share of the power and tax revenues in order to implement decisions at the local level; reforming the Macedonian police and military; making Albanian the second official language; and exchanging nationalism for democratic values.
And yet, after months of armed conflict and negotiations that finally resulted in the Macedonian parliament’s passage this winter of the Ohrid agreement, ethnic Macedonian leaders have failed to implement reforms because they insist that they would pave the way to Albanian federalism and the country’s disintegration. In reality, the opposite is true. The only way to permanently end the conflict and to prevent Macedonia’s disintegration is to grant full human and civil rights to the sizable Albanian population and to other minorities in a country where no single ethnic group has a clear majority.
Since March 2001, the official stance of the United States and Europe has been to champion the virtues of diplomacy. But because of the West’s erroneous belief that the National Liberation Army was the primary source of the instability in Macedonia, it ended up giving tacit endorsement to the Macedonian government’s military offensive against the NLA. However, this stance became insupportable once the West was forced to confront widespread atrocities against Albanian civilians at the hands of the Macedonian military and special police, culminating in the massacre at Ljuboten in August 2001, and as it watched the Macedonian government amass more and more weapons and helicopter gun ships from Russia and the Ukraine. From the fall of 2001 to the winter of 2002, with the possibility of full-scale war imminent, the West exercised its power and succeeded in pulling Macedonia back from the brink through NATO intervention and financial
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We are now in a period of relative calm in Macedonia that may be deceptive. To be
sure, the Macedonian government has taken positive steps in recent months that have stopped the country from plunging into war, but they have done so only because of intense pressure from the West. Under the watchful eyes of international observers, ethnically mixed police patrols have successfully reentered seventy-four out of one hundred villages previously under NLA control. And, rather than face the prospect of losing millions of dollars in assistance from the international community if they did not act, the Macedonian parliament signed an amnesty law for former NLA fighters in March 2002 and released NLA prisoners—just days before the scheduled donors conference that ultimately approved a $515 million aid package on March 12.
Even though the Macedonian parliament finally agreed to the package of reforms outlined in the Ohrid framework agreement of August 13, 2001, they have yet to implement the accord in any meaningful way, and the hardliners in the Macedonian government—Prime Minister Lubjco Georgievski, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, and Speaker of the Parliament Stojan Andov—have repeatedly expressed their disdain for the agreement, insisting that it rewards aggression by “terrorists.” In January 2002, hoping to incite fear in the international community, Georgievski and Boskovski began making false statements to the international press to the effect that the disbanded National Liberation Army was dissatisfied with the peace process and would resume fighting in the spring. Both former NLA political leader Ali Ahmeti and former NLA spokesman Nezmi Beqiri repudiated their statements and condemned their inflammatory tactics.
The attempt to link ethnic Albanians to terrorism—in a blatant exploitation of Western sensitivities in the wake of the September 11th catastrophe—took on new dimensions when Interior Minister Boskovski announced on March 2 that the Macedonian police had killed seven “Mujahedin terrorists,” connected to the al-Qaeda network, in a shootout near Ljuboten. Boskovski claimed that the slain men were planning to attack foreign diplomats and to blow up the British, German, and U.S. embassies in Skopje—and also that they were linked to the National Liberation Army. He said that the group was found with machine guns, hand grenades, rocket launchers, and fifteen NLA uniforms.
Boskovski’s assertions were met with skepticism by the Macedonian public, international observers, and even members of his own government. Foreign officials said that they were unaware of any threats to their diplomatic missions. Contradictory reports about how the men were killed and the failure to produce credible evidence to support Boskovski’s claims fueled the belief that the incident had been rigged and that the men had been executed. Former Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski speculated that, “Maybe those men were smugglers or refugees—I don’t think that they were terrorists.” As for the NLA connection, Ali Ahmeti and other former NLA leaders immediately denied knowledge of the group and said that the “NLA uniforms” that the police had displayed on TV were new and not the kind the NLA used. Along with
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Albanian politicians, they categorically denied any connection between Albanians and Islamic militants. Former NLA Commander Sokoli told the press that, through this incident, “it is obvious that the Macedonian officials are trying to set up something in order to denounce the NLA.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post concluded that Shkup’s revelations about Islamic terrorists “dovetail too neatly with…a desire by parts of the Macedonian government to demonize the country’s ethnic Albanian minority.”
The silence of the West about this incident in recent weeks is deafening. One can only imagine what the reaction would have been if ethnic Albanians had manufactured this kind of ruse to subvert the peace process. The silence is indicative of a problem that has plagued Western foreign policy initiatives since March 2001; namely, the refusal to confront the fact that Macedonia has never completed the transition, in political, economic, or social terms, from communism to democracy after the fall of the former Yugoslavia in 1991. When all is said and done, the United States and Europe have consistently chosen to ignore the anti-Albanian, anti-NATO, and anti-Western outlook of the ethnic Macedonian leadership and the vast majority of their constituents, largely because they subscribe to the government’s false propaganda that Albanians are not seeking equal rights in Macedonia, but a “Greater Albania” that will destabilize the Balkans.
Ironically, what kept the peace for a decade and enabled the West to call Macedonia a democratic success story in the Balkans was Albanian patience and engagement in the political process. U.S. and European officials either failed to recognize, or chose to ignore, the fact that “peace” in Macedonia was sustained only because Albanians did not rise up in opposition to a long history of oppression. Consequently they also missed the fact that once some Albanians resorted to arms because of the prolonged denial of their human and civil rights, it was their resistance that pushed Macedonia for the first time down the path to genuine democracy.
In the absence of real reform since the Ohrid agreement was signed, a new threat to the peace process has emerged in the form of the Albanian National Army (AKSH), a small radical offshoot of the National Liberation Army that has refused to disarm and has also been involved in criminal activities. The AKSH has branded Ali Ahmeti a traitor for signing onto the Ohrid agreement and disarming the Albanian fighters. On March 25, they attacked Ahmeti’s headquarters with the intent to kill him, but he was not there at the time. (Three of his aides were killed, however.) The attack came a day after Ali Ahmeti was chosen to head the Coordinating Council of Albanians in Macedonia, which has brought the three major political parties and the former NLA under one banner.
If renewed conflict in Macedonia is to be prevented, it behooves the West to show support for Ahmeti and the other Albanian political leaders, especially Arben Xhaferi, who have worked tirelessly for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Macedonia. Otherwise, the hardliners on both sides will prevail. In the long run, attempts to subvert the peace process can only be overcome by an extended and enlarged NATO presence in Macedonia
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and the active participation by the West, especially the United States, in the implementation of the Ohrid agreement. If the agreement is not fully implemented and NATO leaves Macedonia prematurely, extremists on both sides will enter into armed conflict. This will result in thousands of deaths and eventually jeopardize the integrity of the state and the stability of the already volatile region.
As Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strongly emphasized on June 13, 2001, at his hearing on “The Crisis in Macedonia and U.S. Engagement in the Balkans,” the stakes are too high for us [the United States] to take a secondary role” in Macedonia. He added that President Bush must avoid repeating the mistakes of past administrations (Croatia in 1991, Bosnia in 1992, and Kosova in 1998), when the U.S. government waited for Europe to take the lead and then did “too little too late “at a cost of more than 200,000 lives in Bosnia alone.” To prevent this outcome in Macedonia, the U.S. government must ensure that a robust, armed international presence remains in Macedonia well beyond the recent extension of the NATO mission through June 2002 and that professional managers are brought in to insure the full implementation of the Ohrid reform package.