A year ago, Macedonia was being threatened with civil war amid an insurgency by ethnic Albanian rebels demanding greater rights. Although war was averted with a peace deal signed by both sides last August, tensions are still bubbling beneath the surface and, as one leading Balkan expert warns, they could erupt into fresh violence this summer unless the international community fails to act.
Washington, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A leading American expert on Macedonia says it could be another violent summer in the Balkan nation if the international community fails to tackle growing ethnic tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Brenda Pearson has spent the last decade studying the Balkans and just returned from an extensive research trip to Macedonia. Pearson told a political forum in Washington this week that the United States and the European Union -- distracted by the war on terrorism and the Middle East crisis -- cannot afford to ignore Macedonia.
"The pre-election campaign really begins now. The elections are scheduled for 15 September. And when you have a campaign in Macedonia, it always raises interethnic tensions."
A senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Pearson is writing a book about the crisis in Macedonia, which narrowly avoided civil war last summer after the ethnic Macedonian-led government agreed to grant broader rights to the ethnic Albanian minority following an insurgency by the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) and other, smaller groups.
Pearson called on the international community to act boldly to avert violence this summer. She said the West has been lulled into thinking the crisis is over, when in reality ethnic tensions continue to fester and interethnic violence among the Albanians rages on.
"Macedonia at the moment, I note with great despair, seems ready for another round of physical contretemps, and I think it's just around the corner. And I think this is in large part resulting from the rather naive approach of the international community. All certainly is not well in Macedonia, and I suspect that conflict is probably imminent this summer -- not on a large scale, but large enough to destabilize the country."
Still, Pearson is not entirely pessimistic. She said she expects the Ohrid peace deal signed last August to hold up -- provided the international community stays committed to it.
The Ohrid peace plan ended six months of violence between rebel Albanians and Macedonian troops and is monitored by some 1,000 NATO-led peacekeepers. According to Pearson, war was averted primarily due to what she calls the "fundamental decency of both people," neither of whom wanted a war pushed by political leaders.
International donors pledged last March to provide more than $500 million to help the Balkan country balance its budget and rebuild homes, schools, power lines, and other infrastructure. Some $22 million is earmarked for implementing the peace deal, including decentralizing the government, removing land mines and promoting the use of the Albanian language.
However, Pearson said the future of Macedonia is likely to be different from that in Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Muslims have returned to reclaim their homes and, in some cases, to try to resume living among Serbs. She said that, in Macedonia, ethnic groups have given up the idea of living together and instead will try to live next to one another in separate communities.
A key issue for the region, she said, is the status of Kosovo, which technically remains part of the Yugoslav Federation despite its overwhelming Albanian majority. She said that when Kosovo's status is resolved in the next few years, it could greatly impact the security of Macedonia and perhaps even define its fate.
"I think it's very important to remember that the Kosovar Albanians remain committed to independence in everything they think, breath, and live. And anything short of this will bring us back to war."
With Albanians already living in Albania and Montenegro, Pearson said ethnic Macedonians fear that an independent Kosovo could portend the creation of a "Greater Albania" linking all of the Balkan Albanian communities. "This is very fearful for the Macedonians, who, of course, would be greatly outnumbered if that should happen."
Another issue is Belgrade. Pearson said she believes Macedonia will fare better if Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic ends up winning a power struggle with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, whom she sees as being too close to a Serbian military that could still destabilize the Balkans.
Pearson, who has worked as a consultant for the U.S. State Department and U.S. aid agencies, criticized the West's "incrementalist" policy, an approach that takes gradual steps toward a distant, final solution. She said the West must be bolder and work to bring about a regional solution.
Pearson is strongly urging the U.S. to remain committed to Macedonia, which she said could become a breeding ground for extremists. She said the U.S.-European Union relationship is likely to be shaped by what the two powers can accomplish in a region whose importance will only increase if NATO expands to include aspirant countries like Bulgaria and Romania this autumn.