A 2001 Flashback?
After five Macedonian men were found killed near Skopje last week, the ethnic tensions in the Republic of Macedonia seem to be getting worse by the hour.
That’s why all viable solutions must be considered in order to avoid some new horror scenario for the entire Balkans. A “preemptive division” of Macedonia, bold and tough an option as it might seem, could turn out to be the one providing the most sustainable solution.
It won’t be fair to say that the recent murders near the Macedonian capital Skopje have opened the Pandora’s box of ethnic tensions between the Slavic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians because that box has been wide open since before the brief civil war in 2001.
And the civil conflict back then was terminated only after the US and the rest of theWest made it clear to the ethnic Albanian groups that the rebellion in Macedonia was way “too much” after Kosovo had just been snatched from Serbia in the 1999NATO–Serbia War.
Map of the 2001 ethnic Albanian insurgency in Macedonia. Map from Wikipedia
2 Million Dollar Questions about Today’s Macedonia
Technically, the Macedonian civil war of 2001 was ended with the so called Ohrid Accord, which was supposed to grant a number of concessions to the ethnic Albanians. Anybody with even remotely realistic understanding of Balkan affairs, however, has been aware ever since that, regardless of the inspired pronouncements of the Ohrid Accord, there are two, not one, million-dollar questions about the stability ofMacedonia (and therefore the Balkans):
1) How to guarantee that the ethnic Albanians already nearing a third of the country’s two-million population and bordering other ethnic Albanians to the westand north will be loyal citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, which itself is designed as a nation state for a different nation (i.e. the Macedonian nation invented by communist Yugoslavia in 1943-44, and considered part of the Bulgarian nation before that)?
2) Why would the ethnic Albanians whose percentage is rapidly growing want to remain loyal citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, especially given the example of the Kosovo Albanians who gained internationally recognized independence with Western support in only 9 years after staging an armed rebellion (1999-2008)?
Thus, even though an all-out civil war in Macedonia was averted in 2001, ethnic tensions have been simmering and growing slowly but steadily, with Slavic Macedonian and ethnic Albanians, who used to dislike and despise each other, now starting to really hate each other.
Although the same can probably be said of any other country in the Balkans, for strategic and historical reasons the Republic of Macedonia is crucial for the stability of the entire region; its destabilization could be the “best” way to trigger an international war which would suck in Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey within half an hour.
That is why, the best the international community (in this case still an euphemism for the West) can do is really try to find a solution that can guarantee PERMANENT stability in Macedonia, rather than employ its favorite approach in which it pressures the locals into living together regardless of their animosities until implosion becomes inevitable. Or until it becomes clear that the respective country will have be to be held together indefinitely through occupation by some Western “stability force” with a cool-sounding acronym.
(Greater) Albanian Ideas for Macedonia
The fact of the matter is that many of the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia (as well as many of those in Kosovo, Albania, and elswhere) – who for cultural reasons have a much higher population growth than the Macedonian Slavs – seem to be living with the conviction that in 20, 15, or even 10 years they will be in a position to demand the federalization of Macedonia or even their secession in more than half of the country’s (west of the Vardar River, and possibly beyond it).
This idea is reinforced not only by their high birthrate but also by the fact that the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia is geographically concentrated in the Western and Northern part of the country, and by the very close and vivid precedent of Kosovo‘s breaking away from Serbia with Western approval. Kosovo‘s independence indeed seems so inspiring to the Albanians in Macedonia that they hardly care that the Milosevic regime in Serbia back in 1999 was an enemy of theWest, and that today’s Macedonia is not.
This idea is valid even when one disregards the overly simplistic notion for a “GreaterAlbania” – a 19th-century-nationalism-inspired ethnic Albanian superstate engulfingAlbania, Kosovo, and (Western) Macedonia – that is occasionally waved around as a scarecrow in Balkan and global media.
Nobody knows exactly how many ethnic Albanians live in Macedonia today after the inter-ethnic tensions effectively ruined the planned census in the country in October 2011. The last official census in 2002 put them at 509 000 (25.2%) vs. 1.298 million (64.2%) Slavic Macedonians, up from 378 000 (19.8%) in 1981, when the Slavic Macedonians were 1.281 million (67%). Thus, in 20 years, between 1981 and 2002, the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia grew by more than 34%.
In 2011-2012, the situation in Macedonia is close to what it was in 2000-2001, except now the ethnic Albanians (that is, THOSE of them who have the political agenda stated above!) are in a stronger position because of their greater numbers and the Kosovo precedent. The past year, i.e. since the spring of 2011, has seen a growing number of violent ethnic clashes, the latest being the anti-Albanian protests in Skopje this week over the murders of the five Macedonians which are suspected to have been committed for ethnic reasons.
Meanwhile, an ethnic Albanian grouping said to be based in Kosovo‘s Mitrovica declaring itself to be an “Army for the Liberation of the Occupied Albanian Lands” (that is, in Macedonia) has threatened to attack the Macedonian army and police in two weeks unless Macedonia “vacates” its Albanian-populated regions.
This new grouping might be modeled after the Army for National Liberation that started the 2001 uprising in Macedonia, which itself was modeled after the KosovoLiberation Army from 1998-99, a paramilitary organization that enjoyed massive Western support even though it was widely rumored to be involved in international organized crime.
The ethnic map of Macedonia, according to the 1981 census, when official figures put the Slavic Macedonians at 1.281 million (67.0%), and the ethnic Albanians at 378 000 (19.8%). Map from Wikipedia
The ethnic map of Macedonia according to the 2002 censue when official figures put the Slavic Macedonians at 1.298 million (64.2%), and ethnic Albanians at 509 000 (25.2%). Map from Wikipedia
Hold’em Together till Implosion! Go West!
In this situation, the West has reacted “as usual”, with the representatives of the USA,EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urging peace and quiet in Macedonia – a truly pointless act in a seemingly divided country where ethnic hatred could spiral to horrific levels triggered by any act that either or both communities might find resentful.
Unfortunately, pressuring the Macedonians and Albanians not to assault one another openly will only work for some time, and that time might have already passed.
Granting greater concessions and more rights to the ethnic Albanians, which are still technically the minority (even though they make up more than 90% of the population in many municipalities in Western Macedonia), such as making Albanian the second official language in the entire country, will be doubly counterproductive.
First, it will whet the appetite of the more hawkish Albanian groupings and leaders for greater demands. Second, it will make the Slavic Macedonians madly resentful. From that point on, an open conflict would be only a matter of time, and Western pressure might be unable to reign it in.
For better or worse, the Balkans, or least some parts of Balkans, are no Switzerland and no United States of America where different ethnic and religious communities pledge melting-pot allegiance to the same constitution and flag. The West, the USAin particular, should have already learned this lesson the hard way in Bosnia and Herzegovina which by popular opinion has turned into a non-functioning confederation held together only from the outside.
Macedonia MUST NOT become another Bosnia or another Kosovo – which is why probably the best solution for it would be if the Macedonian Slavs and the ethnic Albanians sat down peacefully and agreed on a fair settlement for parting with one another.
The Dangerous Nationality Principle. Apply with Care!
Everybody has been extremely scared of redrawing borders and dividing countries along ethnic lines anywhere in the world. And rightfully so! Every single act of such nature has the potential to destabilize the international political order by the simple virtue of creating precedents. However, this does not mean that the principle cannot be applied in selected cases where it might be the one sustainable solution that can prevent a violent conflict.
In fact, the West has already employed the “nationality principle” with the recognition of Kosovo but in an “openly covert” way. It has let the 2 two million ethnic Albanians secede from Serbia but within the borders of the historic province ofKosovo.
These borders also include several other ethnic groups in digestively small numbers, allowing the proponents of the Kosovo Republic to claim legitimacy of a multiethnic liberal democracy with equal rights for all when in fact a state where the majority ethnicity makes up more than 90% of the population can hardly be considered multiethnic.
At the same time, the USA and most of the EU have no intention of letting the 100 000 Kosovo Serbs, who live in extreme misery, secede from Kosovo. Nor do the they have the intention of letting the ethnic Albanians in Eastern Serbia outsideKosovo (the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medveda) try to rebel and secede because that would mean an all-out, open application of the “nationality principle”, which is when the real trouble would begin with minorities in any single Balkan state demanding the same.
In Macedonia‘s case, however, where the majority-minority balance is quickly being shifted, a new “openly covert” application of the nationality principle could be the best option because the peaceful division of the country will be a much, much, much smaller tragedy than a civil war, or an international war! Or becoming an international protectorate such as Bosnia or parts of Kosovo, for that matter.
As the Kosovo situation demonstrated, the nationality principle of border redrawing could be applied selectively. No chain reaction of seceding minorities followed if you don’t count South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia but this scenario there was not unavoidable. So if Macedonia gets devided through a negotiated settlement, the Western powers can manage to keep it “ad hoc.”
Map of Greater Albania as claimed by Albanian nationalists. The claims based on ethnicity are obviously exaggerated, including regions with even a tiny percentage of ethnic Albanian population. Map from WIkipedia
Benefits of Parting and How-to of ‘Preemptive Division’
However unpalatable this may sound, the Slavic Macedonians will benefit from such a “preemptive division” scenario because their position is weakening as time goes by because of the higher birth rate of the ethnic Albanians.
If Macedonia gets divided in 10 or 20 years (possibly after a civil or international war, in the worst case scenario), the Albanians are likely to get a larger chunk, perhaps even half or more of the country’s territory, whereas if the “division” is today, theethnic Albanians‘ claims can be 15%-20% at most of the country’s territory.
On the other hand, the ethnic Albanians will benefit from a division of Macedonianow because even though their claims will have to be a lot more modest than in 10-20 years, they will receive unproblematic legitimacy and recognition, whereas in the event of a conflict they will be internationally discredited, not to mention the cost of human life on both sides.
Both groups, and everybody else in the Balkans, will benefit from averting a potentially disastrous conflict. All in all, it is much better to part without a war, rather than part with a war, not only because many may die but because the living ones will hate one another for good.
Thus, a negotiated settlement can be achieved in which the overwhelmingly Albanian municipalities of Western Macedonia can form a new state entity. Although it sounds as a ghost from the past, the shifting of population – of ethnic Macedonians from these parts switching with Albanians from minority municipalities – should be considered for the sake of creating a sustainable solution.
Once again, the rationale is simple: much better to move people than to keep them where they are in a constant risk because of the proclamation of some new meaningless accord under which they will be supposed to have rights but won’t.
The real goal should be to establish two homogenous entities of people who don’t hate each others’ guts, and who share a stable border that will then be open for cooperation and trade.
Many will be quick to argue that this approach is anachronistic but it might be the one that makes the most sense. If the “Switzerland of the Balkans” notion was working, everybody would be all up for it! But, unfortunately, it is not! After many decades, it failed in the former Yugoslavia, it failed in Bosnia, it failed in Kosovo, and it seems to be failing in Macedonia.
A milder version of the “preemptive division” of Macedonia could be the creating of a confederation along the terms of population concentration and deliniation described above, short of an outright division – but this too doesn’t solve the main problem – the fact that the ethnic Albanians don’t seem to have any allegiance to the Macedonian nation-state.
But if the two communities in Macedonia sat down and agreed to part peacefully in a settlement guaranteed by the West, with a clause prohibiting the unification of the Albanian-populated regions with either Kosovo or Albania, a recipe for stability could be achieved.
If there is one thing great power experience with the Balkans should teach the Western nations, it is that the more you put off some issue in the Balkans, the worse it gets.
The issues of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia could have been resolved in the 19th century by the European Concert of Powers but instead the Powers leased Bosnia to Austria-Hungary, returned Macedonia and Kosovo to the Ottoman Empire, and things kind-of unraveled, all the way to the wars of the 1990s. Will another war of this unfortunate heritage be allowed?
Hand to hand clashes between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians at the Fortress in Skopje,The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on 13 February, 2011. EPA/BGNES
The Bulgarian Position
The “preemptive division” idea set forth hereby will certainly be criticized for laying out this solution from the point of view of Bulgarian interests. The problem with that criticism would be that a sustainable solution that preempts a crisis in the Balkans is in everybody’s interest.
Much to the disappointment of the vocal “macedonianists” in Skopje (i.e. the proponents of the doctrine of a separate and distinct Macedonian nationa), today’s Bulgaria has no interest whatsoever in absorbing or otherwise dominating Macedoniaor parts of it. What once was an undisputed part of the Bulgarian nation is not really that today any longer.
And that is regardless of the slogans raised by the Albanians in Prishtina during the match of the handball teams of the two countries, which sought to disparage theMacedonians‘ identity by stating, “Bulgarians by God, Macedonians by Tito” (i.e. the dictator of communist Yugoslavia). In fact, there is a growing resentment Bulgaria towards the Macedonians who get Bulgarian passports by claiming Bulgarian origin, and then disrespecting Bulgaria.
Furthermore, Bulgaria has no interest in sharing a border with the ethnic Albanian states in the Balkans because that would place it in geopolitical pincers between the Albanians on the west and Turkey on the east.
Even though Bulgaria has friendly relations with Turkey, and it enjoys good relations with both Albania and Kosovo, it is well-known that in addition to Bosnia, the mostly Muslim countries of Kosovo and Albania are the spots in the Balkans where Turkey enjoys great influence.
To avoid these pincers pressuring on any issues at any time, Bulgaria does need a stable and strong Macedonian state to act as a buffer, a state that would be open to economic cooperation, but certainly not one that is about to implode, or even explode.
Hard Decisions Now vs. Catastrophe Later
A preemptive division of Macedonia will be an extremely unpopular and hard decision to make, especially for the Slavic Macedonians. But they must give it some serious thought because even though they stand a lot to lose today, they might lose a lot more in 10-20 years.
The preemptive division of Macedonia, rationally, seems to be the best of all bad choices. Unfortunately, the idea for a “Switzerland of Balkans,” which emerged as a dream with Balkan intellectuals in the 19th century, has never been realized, and it doesn’t seem to be even kind-of close, not even in light of the EU integration prospects. Until the mindset of the people gets changed and the institutions of liberal democracy start working properly in the Balkans – we are stuck with what we have.
Of course, no illusions are here harbored that a rational approach could be employed in the Macedonian case where each issue is overloaded with emotion, and which also depend on the leaders in faraway capitals such as Washington, Brussels, London, Berlin, and Paris, who have the well-being of some Balkan nations as the last thing on their minds.
The situation in Macedonia will probably be patched up once again, the West will apply more pressure for peace and quiet, and the government of Nikola Gruevski will manage to keep it together.
Unfortunately, postponing is no solution, and none of that bodes any well.