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Macedonia: Security Issues Predominate

Prague, 10 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The emergence of the crisis in Kosova and the possibility that the violence could spill over into neighboring countries have drawn international attention to Macedonia and its security problems.

The country faces two sets of issues: long-term and more immediate. Regional democratization and cooperation are the keys to a secure future for the small, land-locked state.

For Macedonia, the most basic fact of life is its weakness. Its democratic institutions are new and fragile, and the fate of the country's stability seems all too bound up with that of one man, namely President Kiro Gligorov.

Politics, like society, are highly polarized by the divide between the Slavic, ethnic Macedonian majority, and the Albanian minority. The Albanians make up between 20 and 25 percent of the population and are concentrated in the western part of the country, which borders on Albania and Kosova.

The Macedonian military came into being only after independence in 1992 and is in need of extensive assistance from NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Another element of weakness is the economy in what was one of former Yugoslavia's poorest regions.

Geography also presents security problems. Macedonia's main trade route runs from north to south along the Vardar River valley. To the north is Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, which recognized Macedonia's territorial integrity only in 1996 and which as recently as April 1998 called for changes in the Serbian-Macedonian border. To the south is Greece, which conducted an economic blockade of Macedonia from 1992 to 1995 in a dispute over Macedonia's name and state symbols. Relations have subsequently improved, but memories of what is seen in Skopje as Greek hostility are fresh.

Macedonia enjoys relatively good relations with Albania to the west and especially with Bulgaria and Turkey to the east. But it will be many years before projected road and rail links connecting Durres to Istanbul via Skopje and Sofia are operational. And even though Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano recently said that his country, Macedonia, and Greece have developed a "good partnership," Macedonia's ethnic tensions remain a potential difficulty in its relations with Albania.

The most pressing problems for Macedonia's security since early 1997 have come from what might be called the "arc of crisis" running from western Macedonia into Albania, Kosova, and Serbia proper. Ethnic tensions rose in Gostivar and Tetovo in western Macedonia during 1997 in response to the Macedonian authorities' refusal to legalize the underground Albanian-language university and in response to a new law on the display of national symbols. Nano recently reminded the authorities in Skopje that Tirana is not indifferent to the situation of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians and urged Skopje to recognize the university.

The Albanian government has nonetheless repeatedly made it clear that it has no interest in destabilizing Macedonia or in conducting an irredentist policy against its neighbors. Albania did become a factor for regional instability in early 1997, however, when anarchy broke out following the collapse of a series of pyramid schemes. The June 1997 elections led to the formation of a stable government and the restoration of basic security and economic life, but the calm could prove illusory. The most pressing danger for Macedonia is the conflict in Kosova because Macedonian Albanian and Kosovar societies are closely linked following decades of common statehood in the former Yugoslavia. Many of the leaders of the two communities studied together at Prishtina's Albanian-language university.

Serbia's huge military power is the greatest direct threat to Macedonian security, especially as long as Milosevic remains in power. Persistent but unconfirmed reports, moreover, suggest some formal or informal links may exist between anti-Albanian nationalists in the Serbian and Macedonian security services, which could bode ill for regional security. Finally, Milosevic enjoys popularity among some ethnic Macedonians who feel that only "Slobo" knows how to deal with Albanians, namely through violence.

There are at least four steps that the international community might consider in order to stem the immediate threats to Macedonia's security. First, NATO could station troops on Macedonia's and Albania's frontiers with Yugoslavia as a deterrent. Second, the Atlantic alliance could consider what to do about Milosevic's capability to wage war in Kosova and potentially against his Balkan neighbors. Third, NATO could expand its Partnership for Peace program in Albania and Macedonia. And fourth, the international community could develop and implement a large and comprehensive program to promote democracy in Serbia.

In the long term, the democratization of Serbia might prove the key to regional stability. A second factor would be for Greece, as the only Balkan country that belongs both to NATO and to the EU, to take the lead in integrating its neighbors in Euro-Atlantic structures. Athens should avoid a return to the nationalist grandstanding that has often characterized its policy in the region.

Third, the international community could augment its already generous aid package to promote east-west transportation links in the Balkans and thereby reduce Macedonia's dependence on Serbia and Greece. Fourth, the international community could take further steps to promote the security and prosperity of Albania as an investment in regional stability. And fifth, all citizens of Macedonia should be given every incentive to concentrate their energies on economic development and shun ethnic conflict.