Macedonia: Still Sliding
This ICG briefing paper continues the analysis of the Macedonian crisis begun in the ICG’s two most recent reports from Skopje: Balkans Reports No. 109, The Macedonian Question: Reform or Rebellion (5 April 2001) and No. 113, Macedonia: The Last Chance for Peace (20 June 2001). It analyses what has happened during the past five weeks, anticipates what may happen next, and describes the dilemma the international community faces if it is to improve the prospects of averting an open ethnic war.
Despite the ceasefire announced on 26 July 2001, and the promised resumption of political talks in Tetovo on 27 July, Macedonia is still locked in crisis and threatened by war. Neither ethnic Macedonian nor ethnic Albanian leaders have been converted to belief in a ‘civic’ settlement that would strengthen democracy by improving minority conditions, without weakening the integrity of the state. Ethnic Macedonians fear that civic reforms will transform the country exclusively to its, and their, detriment, while ethnic Albanians are sceptical that any reforms can really be made to work in their favour. Nor have separatists from both sides, within the country and in the diaspora, given up their conviction that security for their communities can only be achieved by demarcating – and hence competing for – ethnically “pure” territory.
To the international community, a ‘civic’ settlement is highly attractive. This would resolve the current conflict by increasing the rights of the ethnic Albanian minority in line with international standards and norms. While every country is sui generis, there are clear precedents (not least Switzerland, Canada or Belgium) for granting extensive ethnic and minority rights, including language rights, without splitting the country apart or threatening its territorial integrity. In short, this is a well trodden path; nobody is asking Macedonia to venture into the unknown.
Negotiations stalled on 18 July over the issue of the official status and use of Albanian language in Macedonia. International mediators argue that almost nothing else separates the two sides, who have agreed on “95 per cent of those things that were to be negotiated”.
Yet this is not how the matter appears inside the country. Ethnic Macedonians believe the republic-wide use of Albanian – as proposed by the international mediators – would pose a threat to their national identity that cannot be justified, given that only one third to one quarter of the population speaks the language. They are also convinced that all Albanians would refuse to communicate in Macedonian. Given that almost no ethnic Macedonians can speak Albanian, they also fear that bilingualism would become necessary for public sector employment. Hence, many ethnic Macedonians believe this measure of “language federalisation”, as they see it, would transform the country exclusively to its, and their, detriment.
Moreover, if the language issue were to be resolved, progress toward a solution could then founder on other crucial elements of a settlement, such as government decentralisation, police reform or the use of national symbols. Each of these issues throws up fundamental questions about the identity of the country and the ownership and distribution of its resources – questions that expose a gulf of contention between the ethnic groups.
The international community is right to pursue a ‘civic’ settlement, and must resist the superficial appeal of a solution that would entrench and formalise the existing ethnic division, as the Dayton Peace Agreement did in Bosnia. Yet, it must also recognise that a ‘civic’ settlement will almost certainly prove impossible to achieve or implement without a much more substantial security commitment.
It appears that European and U.S. leaders now face a choice in Macedonia that is distressingly similar to the one they confronted in Bosnia in the first half of 1992. They can sit on the sidelines, urging the parties to reach a reasonable settlement by means of compromise, while “ethnic cleansing” gathers pace and the space for moderate options disappears. Alternatively, they can assume the burden of military intervention, possibly even without a political settlement in place.
The latter strategy would entail the risk of being caught up in a war without obvious front lines or even clearly distinguishable opponents. On the other hand, there is great risk that without such a commitment there will be either no agreement – and thus all-out war – or the kind of agreement that has little chance to be implemented. That would probably condemn Macedonia to a long, slow slide into the kind of situation that would ultimately force a Western response in circumstances no more favourable than they were in Bosnia in 1995.