Macedonia: What lies behind NATO intervention?

NATO HAS launched ’Operation Essential Harvest’ in Macedonia, marking the fourth intervention by Western forces in the Balkans in ten years.

Why has NATO gone into this small, poor country? It is nothing to do with the "high minded rhetoric about staunching the flow of blood", as the Economist put it. The intervention is an attempt to prevent a widening of the conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian government forces.

Left unchecked, the war could risk involving neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, and even NATO members Greece and Turkey with catastrophic consequences throughout the Balkans and beyond. Of course this would be no good at all for the business of exploiting the rich natural resources and cheap human labour of the region – the real over-riding motivation for the intervention of the capitalist powers and the multinational companies behind them.

The 3,500-strong NATO force has as its stated aim the task of collecting weapons from the Albanian separatist rebels. On 13 August, representatives of the country’s main ethnic Albanian parties and those based upon the Macedonian Slav majority signed a ’Framework Agreement’, overseen by NATO.

The accord makes Albanian a second official language and guarantees the ethnic Albanian community a bigger role in the police. This is an attempt to assuage the long-discriminated against minority community.

In turn, the rebel Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) is expected to maintain its side of a ceasefire, although the guerrilla force was not present at the talks.

Underlying the fragility of the situation, 30 people were killed in fighting around the signing of the agreement. In total, 200 have died and 100,000 people have been displaced since clashes erupted earlier this year.

Around 67,000 of the refugees are Macedonians, mainly from the flashpoints of Tetovo and Kumanovo. An estimated 52,000 ethnic Albanians have fled to Kosovo.

Ethnic outrages and ’cleansing’ have taken place on both sides – at the hands of right wing NLA forces, and armed government thugs. Working class people and small farmers have again been made to pay the price for ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

Balkan quagmire

NATO IS supposedly conducting a short operation in Macedonia of around 30 days and then departing. However, in all likelihood the troops will find their stay open-ended.

There are already 80,000 NATO and UN troops in the Balkans, including in Bosnia and Kosova/Kosovo. Having committed itself to go in, to ’keep the two sides apart’, NATO will face the nightmare scenario of igniting a civil war by pulling out again.

The West is entering another Balkans quagmire fraught with huge difficulties and imponderables. Will the ’ceasefire’ hold? Will NATO troops find themselves in the firing line? – a serious worry that helps explain why the US administration is asking other NATO states to put their troops in first!

NATO will prove itself unable to make more than a token disarmament of the NLA, which anyway can always replenish stocks from Kosova or Albania. This will further enrage the Macedonians who already mistrust NATO.

Indeed, the presence of Western troops suits the NLA. They could not defeat the Macedonian army, although they seemingly could not be defeated by the poorly armed and trained state forces either. However, the guerrillas have gained control of majority Albanian-speaking Western Macedonia and hope to make permanent this arrangement under the cover of NATO.

The West could very well end up overseeing the de-facto partition of Macedonia along ethnic lines, just as they have in Kosova. This would solve nothing, and in fact would only lay the basis for more conflicts. Hardline nationalists would use the ’liberated areas’ as a launch pad to carve out a ’Greater Albania’.

The West will not stand for this because it would threaten to detonate a new regional war. Very quickly the NATO ’friends of the Albanians’ can become the opposite, and even armed clashes with ethnic Albanians can rapidly ensue.

The Macedonian population regard NATO, and especially the US, as pro-Albanian. They point to events in the town of Arachinovo, where last spring US K-For troops came from Kosova to give besieged NLA guerrillas safe passage away from the Macedonian army and allowed them to hold onto their guns. This provoked angry demonstrations by Macedonians outside the national parliament.

The leader of the main right-wing nationalist party (VMRO-DPMNE), Georgevski, only agreed to the Framework Agreement under great duress. He has previously argued for a full military crackdown against the NLA.

As Macedonians become increasingly angry over what they perceive as a sell-out to Albanians, he may come out openly against the agreement and try to champion a rise in virulent nationalism. NATO clearly will not be a long-term stabilising influence; on the contrary, the military presence will be one of the main factors leading to ethnic and social convulsions and economic disaster.

Capitalist interests

BEHIND THE Western "alliance effort" each capitalist power has its own agenda and attempts to cultivate local clients. There are rich spoils to be won in the region. All eyes are on plans to establish a major oil pipeline from the Caucasus to the Adriatic Sea.

But none of the potential huge profits from this project or any other big business exploitation of the Balkans will be used to transform the living standards of the region’s peoples.

Since the collapse of the ex-Yugoslavia and the reintroduction of the market economy, the local economies have collapsed. In Macedonia an incredible 45% of the population are unemployed or underemployed.

Poverty is the breeding ground for reactionary ethnic politics. The main Albanian and Macedonian parties base themselves on the continuing divisions of the working class. Their ’coalition government’ is a free-for-all over the proceeds from selling off state assets. The NLA demand to be incorporated into administrative structures shows they also want a piece of the cake.

As Macedonia looks set to become another Western ’protectorate’ the policies of privatisations, welfare cuts, and attacks on working conditions will all be speeded up.

Clearly, the working class needs its own independent organisations to fight for its class interests. To achieve this means, for example, building on the series of strikes that have taken place this year involving both Albanian and Macedonian workers.

Only workers’ unity and a socialist programme can cut across ethnic and national divisions and fight for full rights for all minorities. A mass movement of the working class alone can expel the big powers from the region, overthrow the local capitalist elites, and build a democratic socialist society.

This article originally appeared in The Socialist

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August 2001