Prague, 6 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- This year, instability has come to characterize the region extending from Albania into western Macedonia and northward into Kosovo. The summit meeting of Balkan leaders held on Crete on November 3-4 may have only served to exacerbate an already tense situation.
When the Dayton agreement was concluded at the end of 1995, many observers thought that the worst of the Balkans' problems were over for the foreseeable future. An uneasy peace did indeed descend over Bosnia in the course of 1996, but 1997 saw a new period of instability emerge in the Albanian-speaking region of the western Balkans.
There were several reasons for this.
First, the clandestine Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) changed its tactics from launching occasional random attacks against Serbs to making more frequent and more sophisticated raids against carefully targeted Serbs, Serbian institutions, and ethnic Albanians whom the UCK regards as collaborators. The UCK captured headlines, and perhaps also the imagination of young Kosovars frustrated with the moderate leadership of Ibrahim Rugova and the failure of his policy of non-violence to achieve even the most basic of the Kosovars' goals, namely autonomy.
Second, law and order collapsed in Albania in the spring following the demise of a series of pyramid schemes into which a sizable portion of the population had put its savings and hopes. Angry citizens, perhaps incited by President Sali Berisha's political enemies, blamed him and his Democratic Party for their losses. They returned the Socialist Party -- the former Communists -- to office with a more than two-thirds majority in special elections in June.
The Socialists quickly began to restore order in some of the major cities, but gangs continue to hold sway in much of the south. Large areas of the north, moreover, remain loyal to Berisha, or at least highly suspicious of the Socialists. It cannot be said that the elections brought real peace to Albania.
Nor can it be said that Albania has reemerged as a factor of stability in the Balkans, as it appeared to be during much of Berisha's term in office. Security along Albania's borders collapsed, providing a golden opportunity for smugglers and armed gangs.
Guns stolen from armories and police stations found their way into Kosovo and into western Macedonia, where a mainly ethnic Albanian population uneasily coexists with Macedonia's 70 percent Slavic majority.
And this was the third factor of instability in this region of the Balkans, namely the continued ethnic tensions in Macedonia. In the summer, demonstrations in Gostivar and Tetovo in favor of the display of the Albanian flag -- and a subsequent violent police crackdown -- prompted even the normally soft-spoken President Kiro Gligorov to accuse the Albanians of wanting to secede.
The fourth problem was the growing political uncertainty surrounding Kosovo because of the possible changes in policy by its neighbors. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was handed two stiff electoral defeats in the early fall, one in Montenegro and the other in Serbia. Many observers wondered whether he might not try to regain some of his political standing through some new crackdown in Kosovo, where his security forces have already been carrying out a policy of repression for at least eight years. Recent press reports in Britain suggest that he has begun sending elite military forces into the area.
Across the border, moreover, Albania's new Socialist government did not quickly set down a clear Balkan policy, which led to much speculation that Prime Minister Fatos Nano might try to strike a deal with Milosevic at the Kosovars' expense. Rugova had publicly supported Berisha, who was a staunch advocate of autonomy for Kosovo. Many Albanians expected that Nano might seek to settle this election campaign score with the Kosovar leader.
Press reports from Crete seemed to bear out such an analysis. Nano met Milosevic, despite protests from the Kosovars and Berisha that Nano should not do so without a Kosovar present. News agencies reported that Milosevic agreed in the discussion to grant the Kosovars basic civil rights, in return for which Nano accepted that the Kosovo question is Serbia's internal affair.
Should these reports prove true, many Kosovars might conclude that their only hope is the UCK. Some Kosovars had earlier begun to argue that the lesson of the Bosnian war and the Dayton agreement is that oppressed groups must go to war to obtain justice and the attention of the international community.
Nor did Crete seem to lead to an easing of the Macedonian tensions. True, during the fortnight before the talks, the Macedonian and Albanian defense ministers agreed on measures to increase border security. And then Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited the two countries in a move to bolster regional stability. But on Crete, Gligorov and Nano could only agree to disagree. Gligorov reportedly refused to grant legal status to an Albanian-language university in Tetovo and added that any Albanians from Macedonia who want a higher education in their mother tongue should go to Tirana University.