Balkan flashpoints

Macedonia: a powderkeg waiting to erupt

Nowhere are the dangers of war spreading across the Balkans more immediate than in the state of Macedonia. This state has been the crossing point for many of the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo and also one of the main staging points for the Nato assault on Serbia. Furthermore, were a Nato invasion of Kosovo to be staged, the corridor running from Thessaloniki in Greece and through the Macedonian capital of Skopje is regarded by many as the only viable route. Yet the state of Macedonia on which the western leaders might have to so heavily rely is at once a reminder of those leaders' hypocrisy and the Balkan powderkeg which could overshadow all others.

This situation was borne out in its starkest form on the night of 6 April, when up to 30,000 ethnic Albanian refugees 'went missing' from camps on the Macedonian border with Kosovo. In a logistical operation by which all Nato 'relief efforts' pale in comparison the camps were forcibly emptied and the refugees bussed over the border into Albania. A swathe of northern Macedonia was ethnically cleansed at a stroke.

The propagandists have since repackaged this outrage as a benevolent gesture, but the events demonstrated that the Serbian leaders are not the sole practitioners of Albanian persecution.

Macedonia originated as a fragment of the collapsing Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. The region was split between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, each of which claimed an extended chunk of the area as their own. The Serbian authorities claimed that the Macedonians had no separate existence and were in fact 'south Serbs'. Against this background the majority of people in Macedonia favoured either incorporation into Bulgaria, or were in favour of a separate, unified Macedonian state. The language of the majority of Macedonians is in fact a dialect closely related to Bulgarian. In the eastern part of the area it is regarded as virtually indistinguishable from Bulgaria.

In the aftermath of Ottoman retreat from the region Macedonia was favoured for punishment by the medium sized powers in the region. As the territorial ambitions of each were constrained by larger forces such as the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia all pressed in against each other to contest the Macedonian lands.

The area currently referred to as the state of Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia, was incorporated into the Serbian dominated Yugoslavian state after the First World War and the Serbian language became the compulsory language of education and public life. During the Second World War Vardar Macedonia was put under the control of the German ally, Bulgaria, and resentment at the earlier Serb rule initially weakened the position of the partisans in that area. This did not last long, however, and at the war's end Vardar Macedonia took its place alongside the other constituent nationalities and republics in a new Yugoslavia based more or less upon national equality, equality, that is, for all nationalities, bar one-the ethnic Albanians who make up about a fifth of the population of Macedonia.

Nevertheless, the postwar settlement was stable enough to relegate the question of the redrawing of Macedonian borders for over 40 years. Fittingly the first major figure to raise the possibility of a new set up was none other than Vuk Draskovic, the ultra-nationalist turned Milosevic deputy. Then the leader of the opposition, Draskovic suggested in 1990 that the republic of Macedonia be partitioned between Serbia and Bulgaria. At almost exactly the same time the future Croatian president Franjo Tudjman met Bulgarian representatives to discuss an almost identical plan.

The ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, have been regarded throughout Yugoslav history as potentially dangerous interlopers whose 'real' home is in the Albanian state-this despite the fact that in substantial parts of western Macedonia, most notably the city of Tetovo, the Albanians make up a majority of the population. Albanians in Macedonia have suffered the same discrimination as in Kosovo and a near hysterical fear of Albanian nationalism has existed in the province since the 1960s.

The Macedonian schools authority noted in 1981, for example, that publishers of textbooks have been 'insufficiently vigilant in preventing the penetration of Albanian nationalistic, irredentist and counter-revolutionary tendencies'. At the same time several people were given lengthy jail terms for belonging to Albanian political groupings. In 1986 the births registrar of Tetovo was sacked for registering babies with such names as Alban or Albana.

In 1989 the 'ethnic inferiority' of the Albanians was made official when the Republic of Macedonia was redefined as the 'nation state of Macedonian people' from the old designation of 'a state of the Macedonian people and the Albanian and Turkish minorities'.

In 1991 Macedonia followed Slovenia and Croatia in declaring independence. In subsequent elections there was a stark and depressing division of the vote between nationalist Macedonian and Albanian parties. International recognition was slow in coming, however, as the Greek government asserted in a ludicrous but pervasive campaign that 'Macedonia is Greek'. Hence the present state is still burdened with the strange sounding title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Only this way was it possible to achieve independence and to leave the historically generated patchwork of nationalities and states intact. It was a precarious balance that appeased Greek, and Bulgarian, chauvinism, but nevertheless postponed the kind of nationalist bloodletting witnessed in Bosnia and Croatia.

Now that pause may soon be over, called short by western intervention. As Macedonia is turned into a Nato airstrip, the western powers have put a flame under this most volatile of Balkan tinder-boxes. Now the timeless question of the Balkans presses once more: a solution from below, or disaster from above.

Throughout this century ordinary people of every nationality have worked and struggled together against the burdens placed on them by rulers big and small. Against all odds, mixed cities, workplaces and families are to be found in the region from Trieste to Thessaloniki. These facts represent the embryos of possible change in the region- the prospect of nationality not mattering against the considerations of class. On the other hand every attempt at change from above-because it can only only follow the channels of division, power politics and big business-has led to horror as the homes and bodies of people are swept back and forth in the tides of nationalism.

By Duncan Blackie

Bosnia: the great carve-up

It is nearly five years since the Dayton peace agreement was initialled by the governments of Croatia, Bosnia and rump-Yugoslavia. This brought an end to the civil war in which between 200,000 and 300,000 Bosnians lost their lives. It was hailed as a new start for Bosnia, bringing democratisation and an end to ethnic cleansing.

How successful has the peace agreement been? If it is a model of what the west can achieve by intervention, there are some salutary lessons to be learned.

Far from the Bosnians now being in collective control of their destinies, quite the opposite has occurred. Ethnic divisions are more entrenched, democracy is a hollow concept, living standards have fallen, and the west is treating the country in much the same way as the turn of the century imperial powers treated their overseas possessions.

Under Dayton, international administration was only meant to last one year. Three years on, that 'transitional' administration has been indefinitely extended. As David Chandler points out in Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton (Pluto ?14.99), huge powers now lie with the UN High Representative, currently Spanish diplomat Carlos Westerndorp, who is effectively Bosnia's foreign governor. He can 'impose legislation, veto political candidates and dismiss "uncooperative" elected members of Bosnian governing bodies'-and has done so in large measure. Internationally run elections are consequently 'little more than glorified opinion polls'.

The Wall Street Journal noted in August last year that 'there are perhaps 10,000 foreign nation builders in [the capital city] Sarajevo alone; at least 40,000 others are scattered across Bosnia, including 35,000 soldiers from around the globe.' Foreigners are in key positions, with a New Zealander as chief of the central bank, an ex-cop from Los Angeles as deputy police chief and a French born American as deputy in the Office of the High Representative (OHR)-the closest Bosnia has to a government.

So the more Dayton's 'democratisation' process unfolds, the less actual control Bosnians have over every aspect of their lives. They do not even have the freedom to negotiate disputed issues like the content of the media or housing policy. These are imposed by the external regulators.

Foreign officials find themselves in a paradoxical situation. The New York Times quoted one as confessing, 'It troubles me that the less democratically we act, the more success we have.' The OHR is worried that it will perpetuate 'Bosnia's culture of dependency'. One academic commentator has drawn the logical conclusion: 'The sad but important point is this: the meddling western "outsiders" are far better representatives of the genuine interests of the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian peoples and states than their patriotic leaders.' Could there be a purer expression of the old colonial mentality, which claimed that the natives were incapable of ruling themselves in their own best interests?

The justification for this control is that the Bosnian people are so prone to ethnic passion that they lack the necessary democratic culture for resolving conflict. Yet opinion polls in May and June 1990 and in November 1991 showed overwhelming majorities against separation from Yugoslavia and against dividing Bosnia along ethnic lines. Indeed, some six months before the elections, 74 percent of the population had been in favour of a ban on parties operating along national or religious based lines (a ban overturned by the constitutional court). Only with the collapse of Yugoslavia (in which Germany's unilateral recognition of Croatian independence played its part) was Bosnia's multi-ethnicity stretched to breaking point. The result was the rapid polarisation of voting along ethnic lines -the product of fear and despair rather than lack of education.

Dayton was meant to offer a new political structure for Bosnia with careful checks and balances to prevent any one ethnic group being in a position to ride roughshod over the wishes of any other. The hope was that, under the supervision of peacekeeping forces, voting along purely ethnic lines would gradually dissolve, allowing more 'normal' forms of electoral politics to emerge. That has been a hopeless failure. However much the OHR rewrites the rules or disallows election results there has been no real shift from voting along ethnic lines.

This is not surprising. Dayton is based on policing segregated communities. For all the west's condemnation of ethnic cleansing, particularly by the worst offenders, the Serbs, Dayton is no challenge to the idea that people can only live in their own ethnic communities (indeed, the west colluded in ethnic cleansing towards the end of the war by endorsing Croatia's recapture of Krajina and expulsion of the entire Serb population). Voters for the three member Bosnian presidency, for example, are not allowed to vote for anyone outside their community. So Bosniaks (as the Muslims are called) can only vote for one of the Bosniak presidential candidates, Croats and Serbs likewise.

This conception also explains the lack of success the UN has had in returning the total of 2.1 million refugees and internally displaced people. Only some 250,000 had returned to their pre-war homes by the end of 1996. This is often attributed to intimidation. In reality the picture is more complicated. Many refugees simply do not want to return. For instance, 540,000 Bosnian refugees abroad had been granted permanent status or new citizenship by the end of 1997. They prefer to stay in their place of displacement for both political and economic reasons.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) does not anticipate any further returns. Bosnia is not the only country affected. Of the 180,000 to 200,000 Serbs who fled Krajina only 50,000 returned to Croatia once the fighting ended, but few have gone back to Krajina.

In view of talk about turning Kosovo into an international protectorate in order to allow ethnic Albanians to return to their homes, it is instructive to consider what happened to the protectorate the UN set up in Eastern Slavonija at the end of 1995. This was a strip of Croatia along the Danube's west bank that had been ethnically cleansed by the Serbs in some of the nastiest fighting of the war. The town of Vukovar was reduced to ruins after a 90 day siege.

When the two year protectorate was set up with the most heavily armed peacekeeping force in the UN's history, the US ambassador to Croatia boasted, 'Not anywhere else has the peace process significantly reversed ethnic cleansing, but it's happening here.'

Of the 86,000 Croats driven out of Eastern Slavonija, no more than 32,000 have been persuaded to return. Again, one of the key features has been the lack of economic opportunities. There are simply not enough jobs to return to-and this is an area relatively rich compared to the impoverished Kosovo.

The 'success' in getting Croats to return to Eastern Slavonija has to be set against the exodus by Serbs. Of the 73,000 Serbs living in the region in 1991, 18,000 left during the two year protectorate. Since then they have been leaving at an official rate of 1,200 every three months-but the real figure is likely to be much higher. This doesn't sound much like a successful reversal of ethnic cleansing.

The economic factor is a significant one in explaining the failure to overcome ethnic partition. Just as the political process is controlled by the west, so too is the economy. Dayton lays down that the central bank is to be managed by a governor appointed by the International Monetary Fund who cannot be a citizen of Bosnia or any of the surrounding states. The governor is to run the bank as a currency board, forbidding it to create money by extending credit.

Dayton also created the Economic Task Force, charged with economic reconstruction, which is, according to the High Representative, 'One of the most potent instruments at our disposal to influence the reintegration of the country.' It coordinates such agencies as the World Bank, the European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Monetary Fund. Their aim is to ensure the Bosnian economy is reconstructed along market lines. Money has therefore not been allocated according to needs, but in line with political priorities decided by the 'international community'. Compliance by the elected Bosnian politicians is an absolute precondition for external financial donors.

Shortages of housing and employment caused by the war remain-50-65 percent of housing stock was damaged during the Bosnian conflict. As even the OHR conceded, 'Possibilities for people to return to their homes of origin are limited not only by their concerns about the security environment, but also by the lack of available housing, employment and social services, as well as the level of infrastructure and communications.' No wonder Croat population has moved to Croatia since hostilities ceased in search of a better standard of living. According to the UN International Police Task Force, 90 percent of returnees remained unemployed two years after Dayton.

The OHR claimed in July last year that the Bosnian Federation's economy had grown by 50 percent since the war. However, this is still less than half of what it was in 1990, and growth rates are slowing. Such averages mask economic decline in the Serbian part of the federation. The Serb self governing entity of Bosnia, Republika Srpska (RS-indicated by the shaded area on the map), received less than 5 percent of international reconstruction aid. Its economy has now shrunk to less than a quarter of its pre-war level. Chandler quotes figures to indicate that in 1997 the monthly wage in the RS was around a quarter of what it is in the federation, and that unemployment is some 20 percent higher. He concludes, 'The absolute level of poverty in Bosnia and the growing economic divide between the two entities has not only discouraged return but also led to tensions, with even majority returns being seen as putting existing livelihoods under threat and returnees becoming frustrated with their poor living conditions.'

One such tension is shown in the political turmoil in the RS, with the OHR's sacking of its elected president, Nikola Poplasen, at the beginning of March. Poplasen is a hardline nationalist who wishes to see the RS integrated with Serbia proper. As the Guardian's Chris Bird pointed out, 'The Bosnian Serb entity shares trade currency, police uniforms and international telephone code with neighbouring Serbia.' The OHR's hope was that Poplasen's dismissal would strengthen the position of the RS's moderate, pro-Dayton prime minister, Milorad Dodik. But even he felt compelled to resign over the decision to keep the disputed city of Brcko under international control. Brcko is vital to the Serbs because it links the two halves of RS territory and had been under de facto Serb control.

It is not only the Serbs who want to strengthen their position. Croatia is also intent on creating its own ethnic area in the Bosnian hinterland to its Dalmatian coastline. This is at the expense of its Muslim allies. Dayton has done nothing to bring about the peace and end to ethnic partition which the west claimed was the justification for its intervention in the Balkans. If anything, we seem closer to the original carve up of Bosnia which President Tudjman of Croatia sketched on the back of a menu card in May 1995 and predicted would come true in ten years time. Perhaps he only got the date wrong.

By Gareth Jenkins

Kosovo: a history of clashing empires

The popular image of the Balkans is of a patchwork of ethnic groups who have always been at each other's throats. But there were long periods when Serbs and Albanians enjoyed comparatively good neighbourly relations. Prior to the 19th century, Serbs and Albanians had lived together in Kosovo reasonably amicably for over 1,000 years. In the modern period the Balkans became a battleground of rival imperialisms that sought to dominate the region by encouraging opposing chauvinist sentiments.

Kosovo has great symbolic significance in Serbian national mythology as it was part of Serbia's medieval kingdom and contains many important Orthodox shrines. However, it was lost to the Turkish Muslim Ottoman Empire following Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and only regained by an independent Serbia in 1912. In the 17th and early 18th centuries many Kosovan Serbs migrated north as a result of the wars between the Austrian Hapsburg Empire and the Ottomans. Before the era of modern nationalism, religion was the dividing line between Serbs and Albanians. Under the Ottomans, the majority of Albanians converted to Islam, giving them a privileged status and increased power in relation to their Christian neighbours. However, prior to the rise of 19th century nationalism, Serbs and Albanians shared many customs and traditions as well as a common history of struggle against the Ottomans.

In the course of the 19th century the three great empires of eastern, central and southern Europe, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey showed signs of increasing decay. Nationalism became the dominant ideology of the oppressed peoples they ruled. Serbian nationalism sought the removal of Ottoman power from Kosovo. In the 1870s it tried to enlist the support of Albanians against the Ottomans but this came to nothing. Indeed, Albanian Mujahidin were encouraging a policy akin to ethnic cleansing, as a result of which increasing numbers of Slavs emigrated to Serbia. For their part, Albanians migrated from an infertile northern Albania to take advantage of the fertile Kosovo.

In 1877-78 Serbia and Montenegro seized the opportunity presented by the Russo-Ottoman war to invade Kosovo, sparking the first serious conflict with Albanians. Thousands of Albanians were expelled, while as many Serbs fled from mercenaries who exacted vengeance. The harsh peace conditions imposed by Russia on the Turks were designed to limit Austro-Hungarian influence and to strengthen Russia's position in the Balkans. Serbia finally gained complete independence from the Turks. Austria's fear was that Serbia, under Russian patronage, would incorporate Bosnia-Hercegovina, thus creating a Greater Serbia. To offset this danger, in 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia and sought to set up an independent Albanian state.

The First Balkan War of 1912 was sparked off in January by an Albanian revolt, with Serbian assistance, against Ottoman rule. By September all of Kosovo and central and southern Albania were in rebel hands. But the Ottoman rulers persuaded the Albanians to abandon their uprising by promising reforms. In March 1912 Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece formed an alliance-the Balkan League-partly to eject the Ottomans from Europe and divide its European empire among themselves but also to keep Austria in check. But once the Albanians had inflicted defeats on the Ottoman armies, thus securing their autonomy, they became reconciled with the Turks. The Serbian army invaded Kosovo, occupying it for the first time since 1389 and many Albanians fled.

At the London Conference of 1913 the Great Powers carved up large areas of Albanian inhabited land. Though it recognised an independent Albania, it left more than half the Albanian population outside its borders. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the former Balkan League allies turned on each other. The Second Balkan War broke out when Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria fought over Macedonia. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were a rehearsal for the Great War of 1914-18. In June 1914 a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, as a result of which Austria declared war on Serbia. There was vicious fighting between Serbs and Albanians in which atrocities were committed by both sides. The

Austro-Hungarian army forced the Serbs to retreat through Kosovo and Albania. Some 100,000 Serb soldiers and civilians died in the gruelling march. The Austro-Hungarian occupation authorities permitted some 300 Albanian language schools to open in an effort to weaken Serbian influence.

The peace treaties of 1919-20 set up the unified Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, thus defining it as a Slav state and neglecting the large ethnic minorities. The Kosovan Albanians launched a resistance movement against the Serbian authorities in an effort to persuade the international community to agree to Kosovo being annexed to Albania.

In the Second World War Yugoslavia was carved up between Germany's allies. The pro-German Ustashe fascist regime was installed in Croatia and in the course of the war murdered several hundred thousand Serbs. Kosovo was partitioned, between Germany, Bulgaria and Italian occupied Albania. The Italians courted the Kosovans and appeared to support their national aspirations by bringing the Albanian language into use in local administration and education for the first time. The Italians also armed the Albanians and returned land free of settlers. When the Germans took over Albania following Italy's surrender in 1943, they too won the support of many ethnic Albanians by appearing to back their struggle for Kosovan self determination and unity with Albania. Many Albanians collaborated with the Axis occupation forces, helping to subdue the largely Slav resistance. There were massacres of Slavs, though it seems that the Albanians only attacked recent settlers, not the established population who were regarded as neighbours. The few Albanians who fought with the Communist partisans did so in the belief that after the war Kosovo would be allowed to unite with Albania. But Kosovo was reintegrated into Serbia which became a republic within Tito's Yugoslav Communist federation.

Between 1961 and 1981 the Albanian population doubled while the Slav population declined from a quarter to one sixth. In 1974, in response to a growing Albanian mood of self assertiveness, Tito granted Kosovo autonomy. A powerful national movement developed. In 1987 Milosevic, then head of the Serbian Communist Party, made his notorious speech in which he fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism by promising to curb ethnic Albanian aspirations. In 1989 he revoked Kosovo's autonomy. As Tito's Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1990-92 in a welter of competing nationalisms, Milosevic tightened Serbia's stranglehold over Kosovo, once again banning the Albanian language from official use and sacking all Albanians employed in public institutions. The Albanians responded by setting up illegal parallel institutions covering all aspects of life including health and education. Tito's peace had crumbled into the bitter wars of the 1990s.

By Sabby Sagall

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