277. Macedonia: The Risks of Complacency

By
Edward Joseph

Edward P. Joseph is currently an EES Research Scholar. He has served in the Balkans for over ten years, the last two as Director of the Macedonia Project of the International Crisis Group. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on September 24, 2003. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 277.

With Iraq, Israel-Palestine and North Korea so prominent in the headlines these days, it is little wonder that the Balkans have received scant attention. However, substantial risks remain, and policy makers do not help matters by prematurely ‘declaring victory.'

Consider Macedonia—a country that teetered on the brink of all-out war two years ago, and now faces the challenge of implementing a peace accord, the "Ohrid Agreement," signed in August 2001. Instead of squaring up to the still-formidable challenges facing the country, the government and the international community insist on proclaiming it a "success." While there has been important progress, particularly since a moderate government took office one year ago, Macedonia remains very much a country at risk. As detailed in the latest International Crisis Group report on Macedonia, the insistence on proclaiming the country a success has introduced a dangerous complacency. Even clear examples, such as the recent furor over a police shoot out, have not shaken key diplomats from their position that all is well.

Limited Progress and Persistent Security Threats

Thankfully, the country is blessed with level-headed leaders who have shown a most un-Balkan determination to avoid nationalist demagoguery: Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, the Macedonian Social Democrat leader, and Ali Ahmeti, the Albanian who helped lead the armed insurrection two years ago and now shares governing power as head of the Democratic Union for Integration. Unlike their predecessors (Ljubco Georgievski and Arben Xhaferi), Crvenkovski and Ahmeti have toned down the rhetoric and have struck some groundbreaking agreements over sensitive issues such as language and other symbols, which grab attention in the Balkans. Other key provisions, such as amnesty for Albanian fighters, are also largely—if imperfectly—respected.

However, on many matters of substance, progress has lagged. Key provisions of the Ohrid Agreement remain unimplemented. Despite a law on local self-government agreed upon nearly two years ago, no powers have actually been transferred from the stifling central bureaucracy to the municipalities. Albanians continue to be vastly under-represented in state institutions. The economy still has not reversed the slide set off by the 2001 conflict, leaving too many young men unemployed and stoking social tensions within and between both leading communities.

Persistent corruption, along with fears of instability, helps keep critically-needed foreign investment at bay. The government embarked on a high-profile campaign of corruption arrests, but the weak court system is unable to finish the job. The sole conviction of a corruption defendant was later reversed. In another embarrassing and indicative example, the reputed kingpin in human trafficking received only a mild sentence in a trial in which the judge permitted open intimidation of witnesses and international monitors. The trafficker later escaped easily from prison (a few weeks after his cohorts had bombed part of the courthouse) and was ultimately apprehended in Montenegro.

Most seriously, criminals and extremists continue to present a direct security threat. Indeed, the distinction between the two has become increasingly irrelevant as both expose the weaknesses of the state and incite fear. The international community is justifiably proud of its efforts to recruit and train Albanians to serve in the police force, but they downplay the fact that the multiethnic police still struggle to impose law and order. Murders are up by one-third over the previous three years, giving the small country one of the highest murder rates in Europe. A series of bomb explosions, kidnappings and shootings have added to the sense of lawlessness. Poor communication on security matters has exacerbated relations and made addressing security threats all the more difficult.

These issues came to a head in early September when police launched a heavy-handed and unsuccessful operation to capture a notorious Albanian outlaw, resulting in a fatal shoot-out. The operation infuriated Ahmeti, who had put his credibility on the line once again by telling his people that the operation would be limited (as he had been informed.) The ensuing furor presented the government with its most serious internal confrontation. Moreover, it did little to increase Macedonian security. The outlaw remains at large and, despite efforts to accommodate local sensitivities, many Albanians have developed renewed suspicion towards even the multi-ethnic police.

During the same period, ugly disputes over schooling emerged in the capitol Skopje and the country's second city, Bitola. Students and parents alike have joined in angry protests sparked by decisions concerning instruction in the Albanian language. These disputes, similar to two other long-standing school confrontations that have defied mediation, are a reminder of the mistrust that dogs the two communities, especially since the events of 2001.

Continuing Ethnic Mistrust

While Macedonians and Albanians have no history of mass violence (as is the case between Serbs and Albanians in neighboring Kosovo), each side harbors mistrust. Many Albanians believe that Macedonians will never accord them equal status while many Macedonians suspect their neighbors for wanting to live in a "Greater Albania." Albanians do not aid their cause by failing to respect the authority of the state—by sometimes dodging taxes and utility bills or resisting even well conducted police operations. Likewise, Macedonians drag their feet on key Ohrid Agreement obligations. Crvenkovski, for all his moderate rhetoric, has turned the negotiations on implementation of the Agreement into a zero-sum game, wresting humiliating and unnecessary concessions from his counterpart, Ahmeti.

With their (unrealistically) high hopes for a full and immediate transformation of their place in society disappointed so far, Albanians have begun to lose confidence in Ahmeti. Although still the most popular Albanian figure, his authority has slipped. Ahmeti has paid a substantial political cost for his repeated appeals for cooperation with police who are still viewed with suspicion by many Albanians. This suspicion is particularly high in regard to the heavily-armed special police, which remain Macedonian dominated.

The situation is full of risk for Macedonians as well, since most other Albanian leaders, particularly Ahmeti's chief rivals, Arben Xhaferi and Menduh Thaci, spout inflammatory rhetoric, either demanding outright ‘Greater Albania' or pushing for the federalization of Macedonia. Former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has also irresponsibly demanded the division of the country—a step that almost certainly could not be accomplished without more conflict. Although Georgievski stepped down as president of the leading Macedonian opposition party, he still wields substantial influence. Many believe he is waiting for a crisis to re-emerge on the political scene. Xhaferi, Thaci and Georgievksi capitalize on and widen the chasm of mistrust between the country's two leading ethnic communities.

However much Macedonia's citizens proclaim their willingness to co-exist with their counterparts to pollsters, each side harbors suspicions of the other. Nearly all of the country's 170,000 refugees and displaced persons have returned to their homes, but UNHCR and OSCE officials describe a pervasive unease among many Macedonians living as minorities in Albanian-dominated areas. Minorities have been subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to leave. And both Albanians and Macedonians face economic pressures that test further their ability and commitment to live together. According to a recent UNDP survey, a full two-thirds of Macedonians and Albanians expect more conflict.

Tensions have also emerged between other ethnic groups. Turks, Serbs, Vlach, Roma and Slavic Muslims also live in Macedonia, though in far smaller numbers than ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. Recently, ethnic Turks have raised concerns that Ohrid is not leading to the creation of a civic state but to a bi-national one in which Albanians and Macedonians will dominate.

The Role of International Mediators

International mediators have often encouraged the sense of complacency that dominates Macedonian reform efforts. Instead of goading the leaders to move faster on key Ohrid provisions, most diplomats have condoned a ‘go slow' approach on decentralization. The phrase "decentralization is too complex and will take years," has become a mantra peddled by expert consultants not attuned to the risks of delaying progress. The diplomats and consultants involved in the process overlook the fact that only a dozen years ago, Macedonia had a highly decentralized system in place—the remnants of constitutional change from the Tito era. And they overlook the fact that decentralization is the one element of the Ohrid Agreement that appeals equally to both leading communities. Macedonian mayors are just as fed up as their Albanian counterparts with the clumsy intrusion of the central government in what they believe to be local matters. Indeed, many blame the recent stand-offs over schooling to ham-handed interference from the Ministry of Education in Skopje. Mayors and some mediators believe that local communities could far more easily deal with sensitive schooling questions, finding solutions before the problems rise to crisis levels.

Likewise, diplomats have mostly given the irresponsible opposition led by Georgievski and Xhaferi a free pass. Instead of confronting them squarely on the fundamental question of support for the Ohrid Agreement and Macedonia's territorial integrity, diplomats have at times served as their apologists. Ohrid deadlines slip without comment, and important efforts—such as redrawing municipal boundaries, handing over powers to municipalities and the forthcoming release of census results—generally are shrugged off.

Worst of all, Americans and Europeans have imported their acrimonious disputes over Iraq and the International Criminal Court into security- and politically-challenged Macedonia. The dispute over the ICC featured competing threats of specified and unspecified "consequences" for Skopje's failure to adhere, respectively, to the European or American position. The pressures have taken their toll on the weak political system, opening up cracks between the country's strongly pro-American President Boris Trajkovski and the more middle-ground Prime Minister Crvenkovski (who must contend with an anti-American, pro-French and pro-Russian faction in his party and in Parliament.)

Washington and the EU still cooperate closely on Macedonia. Indeed, the Ohrid Agreement was largely a product of Franco-American cooperation along with active support from NATO's Lord Robertson and the EU's Javier Solana. But there is no doubt that the recent acrimony has left its mark. The fact that Macedonia was not declared off limits from trans-Atlantic competition is perhaps the best proof that policy makers do not comprehend the country's underlying instability. Beyond the wider spillover effects, more fighting in Macedonia would, at a minimum, complicate the work of the American and European troops based next door in Kosovo and could ultimately prolong their stay. Brussels and Washington have come close to discarding a fundamental lesson of the decade-long Balkan drama—that trans-Atlantic bickering vastly complicates peace and stabilization efforts. Whatever one's views on the war in Iraq or the Article 98 issue of the ICC, it is hard to see how American or European interests are served by dragging tiny, vulnerable Macedonia into the fray.

Guided by an underlying conviction about Macedonia's ‘progress,' the small contingent (350 soldier) of the EU's security mission (dubbed "Concordia") is slated to leave in mid-December. Both NATO (which maintains a security advice presence) and the EU are mindful—as they should be—of preventing Macedonia's chronic dependency on foreign security forces. Indeed, international forces should never usurp the role of capable domestic forces since Macedonian stability will be best assured when it can preserve law and order throughout its territory and control fully its borders. The problem is navigating the present, awkward situation when Macedonian capabilities are still not adequate and when the tendency to over-react imposes such tensions on Albanian and Macedonian relations.

The Macedonian government also wants Concordia out, chiefly because it considers the presence of any international peacekeeping force stigmatizing. Eager to boost their chances for NATO and EU membership, Macedonians say they will accept only an EU police assistance mission along with the existing OSCE police training and advisory mission. The EU is currently planning such a mission (to be called "Proxima") but it is not clear that it will be ready to deploy an effective mission by the time Concordia is set to leave. According to knowledgeable Europeans, Proxima lacks key elements necessary to succeed, including enough skilled police and a mandate to deal with Macedonia's woeful inability to collect and share intelligence on criminals and extremists.

Ali Ahmeti and other Albanians look to the international community as the only dependable guarantor that the Ohrid Agreement will be fully implemented. The recent furor over police activities suggests that Ahmeti's concerns are not baseless. Despite an as-good-as-can-be-expected relationship between Albanians and Macedonians in government, the challenge of conducting effective police sweeps against heavily-armed criminals and extremists simply exceeds present operational and political capabilities. To avoid tempting fate, the international community should ensure that its effective combination of trans-Atlantic mediation, limited military presence and police advice and training continues, at least until the proposed EU police mission is fully established and effective. Underscoring the need to stay focused on and in Macedonia is the still-unsolved status of neighboring Kosovo. Recent violence between Serbs and Albanians there and in South Serbia may be linked to the talks between Pristina and Belgrade. As the dialogue continues, extremists could be tempted to scuttle them with provocative acts on the ground possibly leaving Macedonia with collateral damage.

As for Macedonia's leaders, two priorities are critical. Macedonians, namely Crvenkovski and Trajkovski, must truly embrace Ohrid, taking political risks to show their constituents that the Agreement is not just a series of concessions to Albanians, but the basis for the country's existence and stability. As for Ahmeti and his fellow Albanian leaders, they must work to overcome legitimate Macedonian questions about Albanian respect for state authority—whether it be wholly legitimate police operations or the mundane obligation to pay utility bills and taxes.

Both Crvenkovski and Ahmeti must redouble their efforts to establish a clear understanding on security matters, to establish law and order in the former crisis areas, to fight corruption (even among cronies of the government) and to stimulate the economy. As is becoming increasingly evident in the so-called "transition countries" and throughout the world, corruption is an insidious force that creates opportunities for terrorists and increases security risks in the countries themselves as well as in Europe and America.

In sum, Macedonia has made important, even courageous steps towards peaceful co-existence between its two leading communities. But its leaders and the international community leave the current peace at risk by overstating the amount of progress achieved and underestimating the dangers Macedonia continues to face.

 

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