April 2002 - Last year's hard-won Macedonian peace agreement is in danger of being sabotaged by a small, shadowy—but probably growing—extremist group known as the Albanian National Army (ANA), which is beginning a campaign aimed at returning the region to ethnic conflict.
This time last year, F.Y.R. Macedonia was on the verge of being torn apart along ethnic lines and was sliding into a civil war. As spring progressed into summer, the country's one-third ethnic Albanian minority increasingly rallied to the banner of the now, at least officially, disbanded and disarmed National Liberation Army (NLA), led by Ali Ahmeti.
In relatively short order, the NLA rebels seized control of the Albanian-majority areas in the northwestern part of the country from government forces.
The West, hoping to avoid Kosovo redux in F.Y.R. Macedonia, moved forcefully to broker a peace plan between the country's Albanian minority and its Slav majority. That plan, the August 2001 Ohrid agreement, ended the fighting with the promise that F.Y.R. Macedonia would survive as a multi-ethnic nation instead of becoming two smaller states separated along ethnic lines.
In addition to Western pressure on the Slav-dominated Macedonian government, Ahmeti's genuine desire to reach a compromise that would permit the country to continue to exist as one state was key to last year's success.
The achievement represented by the Ohrid agreement was no small feat in the troubled Balkans, where it is traditionally difficult to organize a viable, ethnically heterogeneous state. The peace process in F.Y.R. Macedonia will unravel if the ANA and hardline Macedonian officials in prominent positions, who are opposed to the Ohrid accord, have their way.
If it can be said that there is a fly in the ointment in F.Y.R. Macedonia, it is the ANA. This little-known group, which enjoys the support of equally hardline Albanians in neighboring Kosovo, is committed to destroying the gains made through the Ohrid accord and to initiating an armed campaign to separate the Albanian-dominated northwestern portion of the country from the rest of F.Y.R. Macedonia, until this portion can become part of a "Greater Albania."
In late March, the Albanian National Army proved that it is a force to be reckoned with when it engaged an NLA faction loyal to Ahmeti in a firefight in the town of Mala Recica near the northwestern city of Tetovo, resulting in the deaths of two people and the wounding of several others.
This is not the first time the ANA has demonstrated its commitment to violence in order to achieve its aims. Last summer, in the midst of the peace talks, the ANA is believed to have ambushed a government convoy and killed 10 Macedonian soldiers, the bloodiest day in the entire six-month insurrection.
The peace process underway at the time, though shaken, continued, while the NLA disavowed participation in the attack and denied any knowledge of the ANA. The Ohrid agreement was concluded a short time later.
If the ANA has no qualms about attacking fellow Albanians to advance its goals, as the events in Mala Recica suggest, then it is almost certain that it will not hesitate to attack Macedonian government forces again. And, as the ANA well understands and aptly demonstrated last year, ill-trained government forces can be easy targets.
Now is not the time for the West or the Albanian or Slav communities of F.Y.R. Macedonia to be complacent. The ANA was and remains dead-set against the Ohrid agreement. Moreover, the ANA is known to be actively seeking recruits among former NLA members dissatisfied with the promises of Ohrid.
At this time last year, the NLA insurrection did not enjoy the widespread support of the Albanian minority. This came in time as the NLA's popularity increased proportionally with its tactical victories against government forces, which were met by the government's heavy-handed responses.
In fact, each Macedonian artillery shell that landed on an Albanian village or farm house during last year's fighting advanced the alienation of the Albanian community and the cause of the NLA more than it advanced government troops on the battlefield or support for the government among the country's ethnic Albanians.
The ANA understands how to apply the tactics used by the NLA last year and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999 to generate support for its cause.
It will not take many ambushes on government police stations or troops in the field before hardliners in Skopje use the attacks as an excuse to abandon an agreement that they always felt surrendered too much to the Albanian minority and return to open warfare with, first, the ANA and, ultimately, the NLA as well.
These government hardliners believe that the Albanian rebels could have been defeated by force if the West had not pressured Skopje to accept the terms of the Ohrid agreement.
But these same hardliners fail to accept the fact that the Macedonian Army was utterly incapable of effectively engaging the rebels, leaving the government no alternative but to accept the Western-brokered plan that brought peace to the region and assured Ahmeti codification of the rights he was seeking for the Albanian minority.
Before the clash between the ANA and the NLA in March, the situation in F.Y.R. Macedonia looked brighter than it had at any time since the Ohrid agreement was adopted. The parliament, much to its credit, has passed laws guaranteeing the constitutional rights of the Albanian community.
In recent weeks, the parliament has also passed a controversial amnesty law assuring that former NLA rebels will never be prosecuted by Macedonian authorities for their part in the insurrection.
Macedonian police forces are gradually returning to Albanian-dominated villages and towns to reassert government authority. The West, since last fall, has made an extensive effort to assist in the recruitment and training of ethnic Albanian police officers. With the newly trained, mixed police contingents, F.Y.R. Macedonia is beginning to look like a multi-ethnic country that guarantees the rights and opportunities of all its citizens, rather than a state dominated by its ethnic majority.
The drive to recruit ethnic Albanians as officers in the Macedonian Army, in proportion to the size of the minority, is also meeting with unexpected and encouraging success.
For these and similar efforts, an international donor conference in March rewarded F.Y.R. Macedonia with more than half a billion dollars in financial assistance and development money to revitalize its moribund economy.
But these positive trends may still prove tenuous. The progress thus far can fall apart faster than it was put together if the moderates in both communities, with the robust support of the West, do not stay the course. This progress must not be permitted to fall prey to ethnic factions that prefer different paths and a reckoning by force of arms.
Across F.Y.R. Macedonia's northern border, Kosovo, though still formally part of Serbia, is already acting like the independent nation that it will certainly become someday. Some would say that it is acting like a nation with irredentist goals.
Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's newly elected president, recently stated that the delimitation of the border between F.Y.R. Macedonia and Kosovo needs to be revisited. That Kosovo's most respected politician could speak so provocatively can only encourage the ANA and its supporters to pursue their goal of tearing up the Ohrid agreement, breaking up F.Y.R. Macedonia, and uniting the country's Albanian-dominated region with Kosovo.
The ANA must be stopped immediately before it gets any larger. Action by Ali Ahmeti is critical to making this happen. If the Macedonian Army seeks to go it alone, its brutal and ineffective tactics will once more drive ethnic Albanians into the arms of rebels.
Although the Macedonian government still refuses to officially meet with Ahmeti, it is in Skopje's interests to support him. Ahmeti and the NLA—not the ill-equipped, ill-trained Macedonian Army—are best suited to deal with the ANA. If the NLA needs to be reconstituted in some form to combat and defeat the ANA, so be it.
To date, the leadership in the Macedonian government does not seem to have understood this. The failure of the West to understand this, or to support Ahmeti against the ANA, may bring about what everyone thought had been avoided in F.Y.R. Macedonia: civil war, NATO intervention, and another violent Balkan conflict that will surely tax military resources at a time when the United States can least afford it.