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Balkan Report: March 23, 2001

23 March 2001, Volume 5, Number 22

MR. IVANOV COMES CALLING. Russian President Vladimir Putin's Cold War Revival has come to the Balkans. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has just visited Serbia, Kosova, Macedonia, and Albania in a trip that was long on rhetoric but short on substance.

This should be no surprise, because Russia does not have much to offer the countries of the region and has little influence outside Serbia. Even in Belgrade, most of the leadership is aware that their country's future lies in Euro-Atlantic integration, and that other paths -- such as an "Orthodox bloc" -- are an illusion.

All Russia has to offer are political support, arms sales, and natural gas -- and where the gas is concerned, it drives a hard bargain. Not much magnanimous Slavic solidarity here, even for Serbia. But this is what Russia's policy toward the Balkan countries has always been through the years, namely a hard-headed pursuit of Russian interests, irrespective of what sentimental orators may say about special ties.

Moreover, Russia's current Balkan policy, like former Soviet policy in the Middle East, is less than effective because it is widely seen in the region as completely partisan towards one side. This further limits Moscow's clout in the region, because Belgrade and Skopje know that Russia has virtually no influence in Tirana or Prishtina, let alone with the Macedonian Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) or the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB).

Finally, if German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had a point two decades ago when he called the Soviet Union "Upper Volta with rockets," the comment seems even more appropriate for today's Russia, which lacks much of the empire and resources that the USSR had. This point is well appreciated in the western Balkan region.

But to hear some of Ivanov's remarks in recent days, one would think that the Golden Age of Mr. Nyet, the late Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, had returned. Ivanov said in Belgrade after talks with President Vojislav Kostunica on 19 March that "the world community must state in clear terms that the developments in the south of Serbia and in Macedonia [constitute] aggression by international terrorists, who must be resolutely rebuffed if we are against destabilization and an explosion in the Balkans...The time has come for each state and for the international community to decide which side they are on: those who would like to build a peaceful, prosperous, and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, or those who are sowing the seeds of ethnic enmity and death in Yugoslavia," Interfax reported. This recalls the black-vs.-white approach of Soviet ideology, against which Mikhail Gorbachev's "New Thinking" was supposedly directed.

Another time-honored component of Soviet thought, namely the belief in the omnipresence of Western agents and conspiracies, emerged as well. Ivanov told Russian troops in Kosova on 20 March that the international community "is becoming aware of the fact that the conflict in Macedonia is not about national minority rights and has been provoked by terrorist organizations, in particular those based outside the country." He called "very important" unspecified "media reports" to the effect that "Albanian terrorists" in Macedonia are backed by the intelligence services of various Western countries. He added that such reports "require checking," Interfax reported.

And like the diplomats of Gromyko's school, Ivanov knows how to float a "proposal" for purely propaganda purposes. Speaking to reporters in Skopje on 21 March, he said that "passive reaction by the West to the spread of the Kosovo conflict to the Albanian-populated regions [of Macedonia]...only helps the separatists [to] go unpunished and be more radical in their actions," Reuters reported. He said that NATO intervention has failed to solve the region's problems. Ivanov called on the Balkan countries "to forge a pact under international auspices" that would make clear that borders cannot be changed and territorial integrity must be respected. He added that the Balkan states should pledge themselves to prevent use of their territory to prepare "terrorist or similar activity" against their neighbors.

Words like "terrorist" and "separatist" are, of course, Belgrade's code words regarding Albanians, and not necessarily only those who take up arms. Ivanov accordingly did not emphasize such rhetoric during his stop in Tirana, stressing instead that "the situation [in Macedonia] has reached the point where a great deal of caution is needed to prevent the conflict from turning into an ethnic conflict." He called on Albania to help find a peaceful solution to the crisis. But some Albanians remembered his remarks from the first stops of his trip and greeted him with protests and pro-UCK songs. (Patrick Moore)

ALBANIAN COMMENTATOR QUESTIONS IVANOV'S 'ANTI-TERRORIST PACT.' Mustafa Nano, who is a commentator for the Tirana daily "Shekulli," raised doubts on 22 March about the sincerity of Ivanov's proposal to create an 'anti-terrorist pact.' Nano observed that "the events in Macedonia have made Russian diplomacy [in the Balkans] become more active than at anytime in recent years. Already since the first shots were fired at the [border] village of Tanusevci [in February], the Russians have been showing more attention and interest than others."

He argues that while the Russians are dramatizing events, western and NATO diplomats are trying to present developments more calmly. This difference is obvious in terminology used, Nano argues. Russian, Serbian, and even Macedonian officials refer to "Albanian terrorism," while western diplomats present the situation as something that can be managed. This, Nano adds, is probably one of the reasons for Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's recent critical remarks about the alleged inactivity of NATO and KFOR towards Albanian insurgents entering Macedonia from Kosova.

Under such troubled conditions, Nano argues, Ivanov has realized that he can seize the moment to present himself as a serious actor in the Balkans and launch his tour of Belgrade, Skopje, Prishtina, and Tirana. While the details of his "anti-terrorist pact" are not clear, it consists of two key elements. The first is mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, while the second part is a proposed regional security system without the participation of NATO. Instead Ivanov intends to give the role NATO currently plays in the region to the UN.

Nano points out that like Russian diplomats in the early 1990s, Ivanov talks only about regional stability rather than about democracy, human rights, respect for national minorities, inter-ethnic tolerance, and civil coexistence. But, according to Nano, "stability that is built only on current borders and state sovereignty has no basis.... Stability is impossible when one ignores human rights, minority rights, and the desire for democracy in Balkan societies."

He concludes by saying that "such logic [as Ivanov's] may apply to Russia, where the Chechens [are being oppressed]. The Kremlin sends its troops in to show who is in charge. But this does not create stability." (Fabian Schmidt)

UCK GUERRILLAS FLEX THEIR MUSCLES. A week after fighting erupted between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, the leaders of the insurgency have begun explaining their reasons for resorting to violence. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele, just back from Tetovo, reports on the rapidly expanding National Liberation Army, or UCK, which has rejected an ultimatum by Macedonian authorities to end the fighting. Here is his report.

On 21 March, ethnic Albanian insurgents in western Macedonia rejected a Macedonian government ultimatum to surrender or withdraw from positions in the mountains overlooking the city of Tetovo.

A UCK commander told reporters by telephone that the rebels intend to advance and open new fronts. The commander, who calls himself "Sokoli," says the guerillas will not leave their positions until their demands have been met. He says they are prepared to defend themselves against any attack.

Sokoli recently spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian-language broadcasters by telephone. He said that the rebels are fighting for freedom and equality and are not demanding that Macedonia's borders be changed: "We are not attacking. We are defending. If the Macedonian government agrees to resolve the problems by political means, why are they attacking us? They are to be blamed. So far they have not shown any will to negotiate."

The UCK commander says that 80 percent of the guerillas are from Macedonia. He says the remainder are from Kosova and other regions inhabited by ethnic Albanians.

The shooting and shelling between Albanian rebels in the Sar mountains above Tetovo and Macedonian security forces first erupted on 14 March. (Tetovo is a mainly Albanian city with a population of about 70,000.) The fighting has since grown in intensity. For the period of the government's unilateral cease-fire on 20 and 21 March, the shooting died down as government forces allowed civilians to leave.

In Skopje, the government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski appears in danger of collapse. The ailing chairman of the ethnic Albanian party in the coalition, Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians, says his party will withdraw from the government if civilians are wounded or if the Macedonian government adopts what he terms "the Yugoslav way of war." By that, he means if the army begins targeting civilians and residential property.

But already on 15 March, the army deployed at least 10 152-mm howitzer cannons near Tetovo. Since then it moved in some T-55 tanks and 20 armored personnel carriers. But the Macedonian army, with just 16,000 soldiers, is poorly prepared to deal with the small but rapidly expanding guerilla force of the UCK.

The authorities say they have no intention of letting the ethnic Albanian fighters get the upper hand. In the words of Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski: "We will not lose one meter of our territory." He added that the fighting will be "harsh" and may last for months with "many casualties on both sides."

Security forces have also begun patrolling the area with helicopters. On 20 March, through an agreement with Ukraine pre-dating the fighting, Macedonia took delivery of four Mi-8 helicopters that Ukraine had deployed in Kosova for transporting troops.

The German army has some 1,200 troops deployed in and around Tetovo as part of a rear-guard logistics facility for KFOR that it shares with the Macedonian army. But after the Macedonian army deployed battle tanks on 19 March only 100 meters from the base, the Germans evacuated most of their troops to another base about 12 kilometers east of Tetovo. A base spokesman, Captain Arne Pollei, says a few soldiers remain, together with several German tanks. Previously, the German forces dismissed nearly 90 percent of their local employees in Tetovo after they allegedly caught one employee spying for the ethnic Albanian fighters.

It's not clear how many ethnic Albanian fighters the Macedonian army is facing. A member of the UCK's general staff, Sadri Ahmeti, says there are around 2,000 fighters in Tetovo and around 6,000 in the country as a whole. Other reports say there are far fewer.

Ahmeti says the guerrillas have lost one soldier so far in the Tetovo area and that seven fighters have been wounded. He says the Macedonian forces have suffered casualties, but the Macedonian authorities deny this.

Ahmeti also says his fighters have repelled several attacks and still hold the old "kale," or fortress, on top of the hill overlooking Tetovo. The small fortress, which the Ottoman Turks spent 20 years building starting in 1795 -- but never completed -- has tunnels into the surrounding hills. It blocks off access from Tetovo to the Sar mountains.

The Italian daily "La Repubblica" of 20 March quoted Ahmeti as saying the rebels have been training for at least six months in areas with large Albanian populations "in [the towns and cities of] Gostivar, Skopje, Kumanovo, and Kicevo." He said others are joining their ranks following a recent appeal by the UCK for all able-bodied men to do so.

Ahmeti told the Rome daily: "This is a war that is being fought in order to win rights that have been denied for too long -- and all of us Albanians are in it." He adds that the UCK is ready at any time to take the fighting into the streets of Skopje.

Ahmeti is a veteran of the of the former UCK's [Kosova Liberation Army's] war against Serbian forces in Kosova in 1998 and 1999. He told Reuters that he favors annexing the Albanian-inhabited districts of western Macedonia to Kosova. In his words, "this is my desire and that of my soldiers, but our general staff has the last say on that issue." He denies the present UCK leadership favors introducing a federal system in Macedonia, saying no decision has yet been reached.

Ahmeti says the UCK already controls "about a dozen villages" on the heights above Tetovo. He says the rebels seized the villages to show what they are capable off. And he adds,: "If we had wanted to capture Tetovo, we would already have done so -- but we want to avoid a civil war that would turn into a bloodbath. We want only to negotiate."

The Bulgarian daily "Monitor" on 20 March carried an interview with Georgievski in which he says the Albanian fighters had organized the campaign over a long period of time. He said their logistical support, weapons, and organizers come from Kosova and that they number from 500 to 1,000.

Georgievski said: "The international community is afraid of acknowledging that the current situation in Macedonia is the result of the spread of the Kosovo crisis [because] its admission would make it clear that the NATO intervention [in Kosova two years ago] and the policies of the international community have failed to produce results."

Georgievski ruled out talks with the Albanian fighters. He said: "Nobody is considering starting such talks. Our only wish is to root out terrorism."

But Xhaferi disagrees. He told the Macedonian government news agency MIA that the crisis has what he calls an internal character. He says the Albanian fighters' key demand is to change the Macedonian constitution to give Albanians equal status with Macedonians as a "state-forming" people and to place the Albanian language on par with Macedonian as an official language. Of course, Georgievski cannot admit that the UCK has domestic roots lest he place his own government and its record in a bad light -- just as he accuses the West of doing regarding Kosova. (Jolyon Naegele)

VRANITZKY RETURNS -- FOUR YEARS AFTER. Almost four years have passed since former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky mediated a compromise between Albania's opposition and government on behalf of the OSCE. In March 1997, the country had plunged into anarchy and Vranitzky played an essential role in bringing the rival forces together to form a provisional government and hold new elections. He again visited Albania on 21 March this year with a delegation of Austrian business people to assess the political situation and perspectives for foreign direct investment.

Vranitzky told "Zeri i Popullit" that he sees significant improvements in the development of democracy and in bringing Albanian institutions into line with European standards. He stressed that the dialogue between the governing coalition and the opposition remains important if normal and peaceful parliamentary elections are to take place this June. Vranitzky suggested a regional integration initiative to speed up the process of EU integration for all countries of the region.

Referring to recent battles between ethnic Albanian insurgents and security forces in Macedonia, Vranitzky stressed the need to solve the crisis through a dialogue between the legitimate political forces. He thereby indicated that he does not expect the Macedonian government to involve the rebels in the political process.

But Vranitzky also pointed out the need to find a lasting political solution quickly in order to prevent the conflict from becoming worse and spreading. He argued that any delay will make it more difficult to start a political negotiating process. He thus warned that a continuation of the fighting will reduce the influence of the democratic forces on both sides.

According to Vranitzky, the Albanian community throughout the Balkans is in a position to play an important role in promoting regional cooperation and integration. He praised the government in Tirana for supporting the international community's policy towards Macedonia. (Fabian Schmidt)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This ultimatum will be the first and last spoken words to the terrorists, after which we will speak with them in a manner [in which] everyone speaks to terrorists." -- Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milosovski. Quoted by Reuters on 21 March.

"This is not going to end well." -- Albanian named "Beshim" in Tetovo, to the "Financial Times" of 20 March.

"I think the situation is getting better. I was here not long ago. We took some important decisions, I think. As you know, the president [of Macedonia] has been invited to the European Council on Friday, and I do think that things are getting better." -- the EU's Javier Solana, in Skopje on 22 March. Reported by RFE/RL.