Macedonia: On the brink

LAST WEEK the Macedonian army and police launched their biggest offensive so far against rebel Albanian forces. The horrific prospect of all-out civil war has come one step closer.

The attack – by tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships – targeted villages held by the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) for almost a month. The indiscriminate firepower led immediately to 1,000 Albanian civilians fleeing the town of Vaksince in the north east of the country. Civilian causalities and new waves of refugees are about the only sure outcome of the Macedonian action..

Western military experts believe that the Macedonian armed forces should prevail in a pitched battle with the NLA The problem is that the Albanian guerrillas can simply melt away, only to attempt to retake territory when it suits them. The Macedonian army is poorly equipped and ill-trained for this sort of warfare.

The majority Macedonians are Orthodox Slavs. The minority Albanians, who make up anything from one quarter to one third of the population, are mainly Muslim. They face widespread discrimination in education and jobs and are denied language and cultural rights.

Under enormous pressure from the big powers, who do not want another disastrous war in the region, the Slav dominated Macedonian regime was forced to negotiate a new coalition government in early May. It brings together the main parties on both sides of Macedonia’s ethnic divide (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party of National Unity, and the Democratic Party of Albanians) along with nearly four fifths of the parliament. But the fragility of the new grand coalition has been quickly revealed. A deal negotiated in secret last week between ‘moderate’ Albanian politicians, the political leader of the NLA, and a leading official of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, caused uproar from the pro-Slav parties. Macedonian ministers called for ethnic Albanians to resign their government posts.

No matter what the complexion of the Macedonian government, it cannot provide any way out for working people and oppressed nationalities. All of the main parties accept the market economy and a programme for widespread privatisations. This will only increase mass poverty and unemployment (already standing at around 40% in total and at 60% for Albanians) – fertile breeding ground for ethnic divisions. The Slav and ethnic Albanian elites cynically play on the grievances and fears of divided communities to further their own positions.

The NLA leaders say they are fighting on behalf of Macedonia’s oppressed minority. However many of the NLA leaders want a ‘Greater Albania’, which entails annexing parts of southern Serbia and Macedonia. This can only mean new bloody civil wars. The break-up of Macedonia would immediately involve neighbouring countries that lay historic claim to its territory, like Bulgaria and Greece. Nothing would be resolved for the peoples of the region.

The big powers will ‘back’ different causes in the Balkans as and when it suits their interests. During NATO’s war with Serbia, the west cried loudly about the oppression of Albanians. Today, Kfor troops are in conflict with Albanians in Macedonia and Kosova. Western and Serb armies have between them recovered parts of southern Serbia from Albanian guerrillas. Thousands of Albanian civilians have fled their advance, terrified of the Serb army units responsible for previous war crimes.

The working class of Macedonia desperately needs an independent party that represents their interests. The mass uprising that overthrew Serbian ‘strongman’ Slobodan Milosevic last year points to the way forward. A mass socialist party would support the democratic and cultural rights of the minority Albanians, and struggle for a new socialist society, as part of a socialist confederation of the region.

This article was first published in the Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party, on 30 May 2001 

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May 2001