Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, May 28, 2001

Macedonia and European Security

by Nadia Alexandrova Arbatova

The problem of Macedonia can be seen and analysed from several different angles. It is part of the so-called Albanian question, it is closely related to the situation in the post-Milosevic Yugoslavia, and consequently to the problems of stability and security in the Balkans, which, in turn, are part of a broader picture of European security and Russian-Western relations. But the very core of what is going on in Macedonia now, as it is seen from Moscow, is a logical continuation of the Kosovo problem which was not resolved by NATO's military intervention. As for the latter, the Macedonian problem can be also seen as a product of miscalculations and ill-conceived decisions of the international community, and, particularly, NATO and the United States.

Against the background of the whole Yugoslav experience of the past decade, the recent developments in Macedonia are just new evidence in support of the fact that "the immediate risk to Balkan peace is not so much aggression but rather secession by minorities big enough to contemplate statehood which in turn could trigger war."[1] Like Kosovo, the Macedonian problem has three aspects – internal, regional and international.

Macedonia is part of a broad Albanian space in former Yugoslavia which includes Kosovo, Albanian enclaves in southern Serbia (Medvedja, Presevo and Bujanovic) and those in Montenegro (Gusine and Plav). The collapse of the Yugoslav empire divided this space into two main Albanian-populated areas – the Kosovo province and Macedonia. But Albanians could never reconcile themselves with this reality, and in spite of the efforts by Belgrade and Skopje, have succeeded in preserving close-ties between Albanian communities in this space. The Kosovo province where the Albanian community had enjoyed broad political and ecomomic rights under General Tito and where the Pristina University had been the main educational institution for the Albanian political elite in FY became a real centre of gravitation for all Albanian communities after the demise of Yugoslavia. The so-called Albanian question acquired a new dimension with the collapse of Yugoslavism as a ruling ideology which encouraged Albanian struggle for independence. In the mid-1990s, there emerged a network of extremist Albanian structures under the name of national liberation armies with the leading role of Kosovo Liberation Army. The Kosovo Albanians ceased to support non-violent actions against the Milosevic Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism and resorted to the Intifada-like strategy along the Palestinian pattern. This struggle was being supported by nationalist forces in neighbouring Albania who showed their propensity to expand the struggle to encompass all Albanian minorities living in the Balkan countries.

From the very beginning the internal aspect of the Kosovo problem was being seen by Russia and the West from different perspectives. For the West it was mostly the problem of securing the rights of ethnic Albanians which had been severely violated by nationalist Serb authorities. To Russia, by contrast, the Kosovo case looked like a Serbian Chechnya and the core of the Kosovo problem was being regarded by Moscow in a broader context of several interrelated issues – territorial integrity and secession, national minorities' rights and terrorism. Being a multinational state and being faced with the problem of its territorial integrity (in Chechnya and in other crisis-prone areas inside the Russian Federation), Russian leadership has always been more sensitive than other members of the Contact Group to this challenge, and better understood the vulnerabilities of the Yugoslav Republic. Although Moscow recognised that it was the biggest mistake and disservice to Yugoslav national interests to deprive Kosovo of the status it had in Former Yugoslavia, it proceeded from the understanding that state sovereignty and the continued existence of international borders should be given priority over the right to self-determination. (There may be only one exception of this rule – a policy of genocide against a national minority which is to be proved as such by independent international observers and institutions.) This is essential for understanding Russia's position on the Kosovo crisis and on the renewed attacks of Albanian extremists in Macedonia, although there exists a very strong temptation in the West to attribute it to Slavic solidarity and the Orthodox factor in line with Samuel Huntington's paradigm.

To put it simply, the Kosovo conflict had two key problems to be resolved – the Milosevic nationalist policy vis-à-vis ethnic Albanians and Albanian extremism directed at reuniting the minorities living in Kosovo, in Macedonia and Greece with their mother country. NATO's military campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia justified as humanitarian intervention has resolved only the first problem but it has not eliminated the threat of a new conflict in the Balkans having left Albanian extremism without any adequate response. Moreover the war against the Milosevic regime justified NATO's alliance with Albanian extremists who are trying now to do in Macedonia what they did to Serbian authority in Kosovo.

After the war against Yugoslavia ended, NATO and Washington closed their eyes to the fact that the remnants of the KLA and their supporters who had not been fully disarmed were taking advantage of the situation. They were driving non-Albanians from the province, murdering moderate Albanian politicians, intimidating witnesses and judges, and rebuilding and dominating activities such as drug-running, arms smuggling and human trafficking. Ironically, the recent democratic election of President Vojislav Kostunica has encouraged Albanian militants to step up their request for a permanent separation of Kosovo and adjoining Albanian enclaves, since they are fearful that the West, and namely NATO, will cut a deal with the new Yugoslav leadership and reinstate military control of Serbia.

On many occasions KFOR has showed its impotence to rein in Albanian militants in Kosovo and to guarantee provisions of the Military Technical Agreement signed in June 1999. Some of the fiercest clashes between the remnants of KLA and Serb forces have occurred in a 3-mile-wide demilitarised zone established by the Military Technical Agreement. The Albanians have turned the zone into a hotbed of resistance, founding the grandly named Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovic (three of the towns they wish to free in southern Serbia).[2] If Albanian extremists continue to target Serb forces and KFOR does little to stop them, President Kostunica will be faced with a very difficult dilemma of either stepping back which would reinforce Serb nationalists or using force against Albanian secessionists, which in turn would confront NATO with a difficult choice of siding with one of the warring parties. If the present conflict in southern Serbia continues to spread allowing ethnic Albanian militants to take their fight to Macedonia, while NATO is not prepared to assume new responsibilities on the ground, it might result in a military union between Macedonia and Yugoslavia. Despite positive changes in Belgrade, the predominant opinion in the West is that members of the Milosevic old guard still hold powerful positions in the security and army apparatus. Thus, there is a risk that KFOR will be drawn into unwanted hostilities which would threaten to undermine the KFOR solidarity and would provoke a new conflict in Russian-Western relations.

In a way the US and NATO are reaping in Macedonia what they sowed in Kosovo. "The militants' goal – supported by ordinary people, victims of Slav discrimination – is to consolidate ethnic Albanians, be it in Kosovo or in Macedonia, under Albanian rule."[3] Albanian militant groups have misread Western support in Kosovo as a carte-blanche to encroach further on FRY territory. This issue is crucial for peace in the region.[4] Ironically, Macedonia which was recently being singled out as the only case of preventive diplomacy in the Balkans and which demonstrated its full loyalty to NATO in the Kosovo crisis and hosted Albanian refugees, has been left by NATO on its own. Russia's proposal to deploy peace-keeping forces in Macedonia along the border with Kosovo didn't evoke any serious response from the West which is not ready to take new risks on the ground nor to recognise that it has made a serious mistake in Kosovo and created a kind of Frankenstein. Russia's position on the regional security in the Balkans has been formulated during the Kosovo crisis. It stemmed from Moscow's concern that Kosovo's secession might reinforce the Macedonian Albanians' demand for autonomy which would destroy the Macedonian state and trigger the chain reaction in the Southern Balkans involving all regional states, Bosnia included. Recent developments in Macedonia are the best evidence of the fact that such a threat still exists, and it would be wrong to reduce this problem to that of a Greater Albania. The establishment of a broad Albanian secessionist movement can become a catalyst for demands of other ethnic minorities in neigbouring states as well as for latent inter-state disputes.[5] Although Bulgaria and Greece have settled their quarrels with Macedonia about the wording of the Macedonian nation and the name "Macedonia", they still continue to perceive them as an irredentist threat. The respective minorities may be encouraged to cause problems between Greece and Albania. In addition, as a reaction to a broad Albanian secessionist movement, an Islamist movement could develop to form a coalition between the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sandzak and Albania. It is not a mystery why Albanian extremists are being supported by Bin Laden's Organisation.[6]

It is promising that the last meeting of the Contact Group in Paris (April 2001) reached agreement on its approach to the situation in the Former Yugoslavia after the renewed attacks of Albanian militants in Macedonia, having condemned extremism and confirmed the principle of territorial integrity of Macedonia and Yugoslavia. But we remember that the same Contact Group stressed "its condemnation of violence and acts of terrorism in pursuit of political goals, from whatever quarter"[7] But it did not prevent the Kosovo crisis which became a turning point in the post-bipolar international relations and drastically changed Europe's security landscape.

The Kosovo crisis dealt a heavy blow to Russia's relations with the West, and particularly with NATO. This crisis which entailed dramatic consequences for Russia's domestic development, can be also viewed as a culmination and a logical conclusion of the over-ripe Russian-Western contradictions, and in the first place the growing gap between Russian and Western threat perceptions. Apart from that, the Kosovo crisis has virtually proven that the West does not view Russia as a full-fledged partner. This was demonstrated rather vividly by the fact that Russia was deprived of its own sector in KFOR operation. As Yeltsin's successor, President Putin has proclaimed himself a devoted partisan of Russian-Western co-operation having supported ratification of the START II Treaty, post-Kosovo dialogue between Russia and NATO and strategic partnership with EU. Russian leaders and those of leading Western countries continue to negotiate with each other, voicing all kinds of good wishes and important initiatives. However, this process tends to conceal a new trend in Russia's relations with the West. These relations quickly passed through a romantic period in the early 1990s, to expressions by the concerned parties of mutual disappointment and failure to understand each other in the late 1990s. As of today, such relations have confidently entered the pragmatic-minimalism phase, which tends to resemble the East-West peaceful co-existence to an ever greater extent. This was eventually reflected in the Russian military doctrine and NATO's new strategy. This is also proved by the fact that Putin's extremely important initiative stipulating the deployment of a tactical ABM system together with NATO hasn't evoked any serious response in Europe, Canada nor the United States.

The Kosovo crisis affected not only Russian-Western relations but the Euro-Atlantic partnership as well. The EU failure to take a lead in the Kosovo crisis dented the image of the Union as a new concept of power which resulted in new attempts to enhance the process of European integration in the field of CFSP and ESDP. The latter in its turn brought about new problems in the EU-NATO relationship. Any attempt by the EU to build European military alliance is being seen across the Atlantic as a move to undermine NATO and to marginalise the United States in European security. At the same time NATO insiders say that Americans are going to pull out anyway over the next 10 years, and the new EU military partnership will accelerate this process. They could be out in all respects but a token presence by 2003.

Thus, a new conflict in the Balkans can erupt at a time when Russian-Western relations are far from perfect, when the new US administration views the Balkans as peripheral to American national interests and when Europeans cannot cope with this problems on their own. The post-Kosovo challenges to European security can be exacerbated by new trends in Russian and American foreign policies.

What should be done to prevent unlimited conflict? The solution of the Macedonian problem lies in Kosovo. It is not enough to only recognise that territorial integrity of Yugoslavia is a key to stability in the Balkans. Territorial integrity of Yugoslavia must be a primary goal of KFOR which means that NATO should decide how to respond to Albanian extremism. It would be of utmost importance for NATO itself not to reduce its role in the region which threatens to destroy its credibility as a guarantor of regional stability. American leadership should help to re-think NATO's strategy in the Balkans to turn the KFOR mission into a real success. The United States, which is the only country with tangible leverage over moderate and militant Albanians, should use this leverage. It would be extremely important to revise the terms of Russia's participation in KFOR and to involve it as a real partner. As for the European Union, it should enhance plans for social and economic reconstruction for the region giving its full support to re-integration of Yugoslavia and Macedonia into Europe. Hopefully, all these efforts will help not only to avoid the repetition of the Kosovo scenario but to pull Russian-Western relations out of the blind alley.

  1. The Balkans Survey, The Economist, 14 January 1998, p. 5.
  2. Michael R. Gordon, "NATO Patrols Edgy Border, This Time Protecting Serbs", New York Times, 25 January 2001.
  3. Steven Erlanger, "The Balkans: A One-Time Ally Becomes the Problem", New York Times, 25 March 2001.
  4. Ljubomir Frckoski, "Macedonia and the Region", in: The Southern Balkans: Perspectives from the Region, Paris: WEU Institute for Security Studies, (Chaillot Papers 46), April 2001, p.42.
  5. See: "Potential conflicts in the southern Balkans", in: A New Ostpolitik – Strategies for a United Europe, ed. by Werner Weidenfeld, Gütersloh 1997, pp. 51-53.
  6. Alexei Krymin and Georgi Engelgardt, "The Balkan Taliban", Nezavisimaya gazeta, 27 March 2001, p. 6.
  7. Contact Group Statement, Bonn, 8 July 1998.