TOPICS > World

Balkan Troubles

March 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The latest conflict in the Balkans. We begin with three reports filed over the past week by correspondents of Independent Television News.

ROBERT MOORE: Macedonia is the one country that separated from Yugoslavia without violence. And until now, has been the model for ethnic tolerance and political stability. Now it finds itself on the brink of war. The cause is an insurrection led by militant ethnic Albanians fighting in these remote hills who say they want equality in Macedonia and claim that they’re treated at second class citizens.

But another motive is their ambition to break away from Macedonia and link up with fellow Albanians in Kosovo. Even as NATO troops watch over events, no western power will contemplate altering borders. That could trigger a major regional conflict. The fighting in the southern Balkans has suddenly intensified, threatening Macedonia’s extremely delicate balance. The insurrection has broken out in the mountainous Northwest, where the militants have taken up arms around the town of Tetevo. This is where many of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians live. Overall, they make up 25% of the population. NATO’s only action so far is to deploy more forces along the border to try to stop the supply of arms reaching the rebels. This buffer zone is proving ineffective. Men and arms continue to flow into Macedonia.

BILL NEELY: Macedonia has begun a new offensive against rebels. Machine guns, mortars, and now a tank are pounding the hills in the heaviest barrage so far. For the first time, the Macedonian army is leading the bombardment. Its troops have no combat experience, but they believe they will kill off this rebellion that threatens to cut their country in two. They’re firing at these men, Albanian rebels who control roads, villages, and the hills overlooking Macedonia’s second city. They showed ITN where the mortars are landing.

The Macedonian troops have fired continuously for days, but they haven’t hit much or dented the rebels’ determination. “We will take the city of Tetevo,” their commander tells ITN. “We want to cut it off and create a separate country.” In Tetevo, where the old men cry to see bullet holes in their mosque and mortars on their hills, the young Albanian men support the rebels and want to join the fight against their government.

MAN: If it’s necessary for that, we want to go.

BILL NEELY: You will take guns and go?

MAN: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

BILL NEELY: And fight?

MAN: Yes.

BILL NEELY: Their Slav neighbors say that makes them traitors, so they point out Albanian houses, Albanian targets to the troops. This was one. There’s no evidence rebel snipers were here, and every sign of mounting ethnic tension.

BILL NEELY: Macedonia’s army is pushing forward, pouring armor and men into land controlled until yesterday by rebels. They’ve won, but they’re still nervous. Rebels held this ground for two weeks and pinned these men down. They’re now determined to keep it. It took just one day for these troops to capture the mountain ground they’re now looking over at the key rebel villages, and they’re reinforcing this area. They have to because the rebels haven’t left this country, and they haven’t given up on their aim to cut it in two. In its wake, the army left behind broken villages and burned houses, but not a single civilian was killed. The government says the offensive has been a complete success.

These men returned home to find their farm buildings burned and their animals shot. “We didn’t deserve this,” he says, and he cursed the government and the army. These villagers returned today. They’d spent a week hiding in the basement of a house. “It’s not over,” they say. “The rebels will be back.” The rebels were driven back in a ferocious onslaught. This was the biggest battle in Europe since the Kosovo war, hundreds of troops, backed by attack helicopters. Nothing the rebels have could match this. This is one of the camouflaged gun emplacements abandoned by the rebels during this offensive. There are dozens of them dotted all over these hills with a commanding view over the city of Tetevo. When Macedonian troops reached the bunker, they spat out their contempt. 20,000 people fled this attack. The crisis may be over for now, but not for good.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the conflict in Macedonia, we turn to Ljubica Acevska, the republic of Macedonia’s first ambassador to the United States. She left her post last year and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Ilir Zherka, President of the National Albanian American Council, a U.S.-based group that advocates Albanian interests. And Charles Kupchan, director of European affairs on the National Security Council during the first Clinton term. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. Welcome to you. Madam ambassador, first of all, what would you add in terms of your assessment of the military situation on the ground now.

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, this military offensive was taken after about five weeks when this incident started. Let’s remember that the rebels are coming from Kosovo. They are not rebels from Macedonia. The government of Macedonia has been in constant contact with officials from NATO, from the European union, with the United States as to how to resolve this peacefully. And they did show restraint yesterday, and the reason they did take these steps is to prevent a bloody war, which might escalate.

MARGARET WARNER: But is the government’s view now that the threat has been neutralized or not? We heard the government saying that the operation is a complete success but we hear people right on this tape piece saying that the rebels melted away but they’re still there.

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, I think it’s still a precarious situation. I still think that the steps must be taken to finish this and, you know, for the rebels to give up their arms so that political dialogue can continue between Albania and Macedonia as it has been ever since the independence of Macedonia almost ten years. Again the Albanians have participated in all segments of society as have other ethnic groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Zherka, what’s your assessment of the situation on the ground right now? Is it precarious as the ambassador says?

ILIR ZHERKA: I think it is. I think the military attack yesterday was not needed. The NLA announced a….

MARGARET WARNER: This is the National Liberation Army.

ILIR ZHERKA: That’s right. … announced a unilateral ceasefire last week. I think the government should have taken that opportunity to bring the political parties together to enter into a dialogue to solve this problem. Instead it went ahead with this attack. Numerous homes were destroyed. Some civilians were shot. None were killed fortunately. But this sort of action I think has potential to really, really radicalize the Albanian population. That’s not what we need right now. We need for cooler heads to prevail, for people to come together and address the serious problems before the Macedonian people.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share the ambassador’s view that most of these rebels are actually Kosovo Albanians?

ILIR ZHERKA: I don’t. I don’t think the ambassador or anyone else really knows exactly who these people are or where they’re from. I know that the National Liberation Army says that the majority, vast majority, are from Macedonia, and … part of this coalition government with the Macedonians says the same. So based on what he says and what other people say I think most of this is inbred. A lot of the former KLA soldiers were from Macedonia so —

MARGARET WARNER: The Kosovar Liberation Army.

ILIR ZHERKA: To get all the acronyms right.

MARGARET WARNER: You were saying that they were Albanians from Macedonia to start with who fought in the Kosovo war and have gone back.

ILIR ZHERKA: And have gone back home.

MARGARET WARNER: What picture would you paint of how large this rebel force is and who they really are?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: The rebel force is actually relatively small. No one knows exactly who they are. I think it’s clear that some people have come across from Kosovo, former members of the KLA. Some people are from Macedonia. Some others are probably coming from abroad, members of the Albanian Diaspora. I think the real issue is is it possible for the rebels to not take territory, to conquer a chunk of Macedonia but to turn what is still a relatively amicable relationship between Macedonians and Albanians into the terror that we’ve seen in Bosnia and Kosovo? And I think that’s why it’s important to stop the military operation of the rebels. There were reports for example over the past 24 hours of Macedonian Slav paramilitaries forming. If they take matters into their own hands and people start killing each other then I think that it’s very difficult to keep Macedonia together.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go back just a little to the roots of this. Why has this erupted now?

ILIR ZHERKA: I think Albanians have been frustrated over the last decade since the independence of Macedonia. They feel like they’re second class citizens in their home, in their homeland. They don’t have the same equal opportunities when it comes to work, the use of language, use of cultural symbols. Even though Macedonians make up a little bit over 50% of the population they have over 90% of the public sector jobs. The police force is predominantly Slavic Macedonia. Even the constitution itself says Macedonia is a state of Macedonians and then others. I think there’s been an incredible amount of frustration over the last decade. Now what you’ve had in the last two years or so is I think the Albanian population has looked at the new coalition government… and also their Albanian partners and decided we’re going to give them a chance because they talked about addressing all of these fundamental inequalities. In the last two years, they really haven’t been able to do that. They’ve done it in small steps but not significant steps.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that view, Madam Ambassador, that it’s basically frustrations that just built to a tipping point?

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, no, I do not. In a statement released by the White House from President Bush, he refers to Macedonia as a successful example of a democratic multi-ethnic society in the Balkans. Ever since the independence of Macedonia, the government has tried to guarantee all of the rights and privileges for all of the citizens. The Albanians have been part of the government from the very beginning. Where there were discrepancies, steps were taken to incorporate, to make it more proportional so that there would be more Albanians in the police force, in the army. So tremendous progress has been made.

MARGARET WARNER: Is Mr. Zherka correct that still Albanians have reason to feel that they are somehow second class citizens in Macedonia, next to the Slavs?

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, I think every minority may have some sense that they don’t have the same rights as the larger group. By the way, the Macedonians make up 65% of the population in the Republic of Macedonia. And the Albanians in Macedonia have the minority rights, which are in Macedonia, are on par with any European state and actually we have called for a study of minority rights years back. But progress was made, and the tragedy here is that this is going to setback things if things escalate.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you mediate between these two in terms of your assessment, putting in a very difficult position.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think there’s a gap between what the numbers say and what exists beneath the surface. By that I mean if you look at the representation of Albanians in the parliament or in the cabinet, it’s quite healthy. If you scratch beneath the surface and say how many Albanians on the police force — how many in the army — what about opportunities for higher education — it’s a very different picture. I think education is in some ways the most critical issue because Albanians have not had access to universities, to higher education. There is beginning to be an opening on this front in the University of Tetovo which has been off in tiny little rooms privately funded. The government turned a blind eye, but I think the problem is that unless they do open up the opportunities for education, for social mobility, the Albanians will become a permanent underclass and they will become disaffected from the state.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that this has to happen quickly?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think to some extent this crisis is putting pressure on the government to move in the right direction. They’re giving the right soundings about the university. They’re talking about considering opening up the constitution, which does say it’s a state of the Macedonian people and then mention these other ethnic groups.

MARGARET WARNER: The things Mr. Zherka mentioned.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Right. The key is can Macedonia become a civic state that has these different national groupings inside of it? That’s I think what the mass of the Albanian people want but the rebels are causing problems by potentially turning this into a bloody revolt.


MARGARET WARNER: Let me just switch down to the western role before we run out of time completely. An advisor to the President said last week, you know, the Americans always come in too late. What is it you’re looking for from the Americans or NATO to do who have troops right on the other side of the border that could help contain this, manage this?

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Well, actually as far as Macedonia is concerned the United States has been very, very supportive from our independence from sending peacekeepers there to helping… to helping with the mediation with the conflict and peace. We would like for the Americans to be more engaged. We’re quite encouraged by the statement from President Bush of the other day, but what’s very important is for the border to be sealed so that rebels and weapons do not go from Kosovo in to Macedonia. There also has to be a larger strategy for that region as to how it will be developed.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you talking about really a military action to absolutely seal the border?

LJUBICA ACEVSKA: Actually, KFOR is already there. The are already there so just make sure you seal off the border. I think it’s also important to see a meeting between the President of Macedonia and President Bush here in the very near future. And the long-term goal is for economic assistance to be provided to Macedonia because one of the things which I mentioned is that the people are unemployed.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think the American role should be here?

ILIR ZHERKA: I think a more immediate goal is mediation. I think the United States can play a unique role here because it’s a friend both to the Macedonians and to the Albanians, especially to the Albanians. The U.S. ought to send a special envoy to the region, someone who is high profile, who has respect of both sides, who can talk this through, who can talk to all of the parties and can talk to the rebels as well and talk to the government and find a peaceful resolution of this. I think the elements are there. If you look at what the rebels are calling for, they’re calling for the same thing that the Albanian politicians have called for over the past ten years: More rights. And so the elements for change are there. Secretary Powell talked about changes to the constitution. I think that’s the first place that they ought to make those changes but that’s our role. I think our role ought to be mediation and it ought to happen very quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, give us a quick synopsis of what the U.S. role has been here. I notice that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said the U.S. has no plans to send any additional troops or get militarily involved. And what do you think it should be?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think the U.S. has had the Macedonian problem right for a long time in the sense that even in the first Bush administration, the father Bush he made a warning to Milosevic not to mess with Kosovo and he had in the back of his mind Macedonia. What I think we’re seeing now is the new Bush administration is backing off a little bit, it is more interested in reducing its commitment in the Balkans than it is stepping it up which is somewhat worrisome. And one of the things that I think has happened over the last week is that the European Union has picked up some of that slack. The EU is now becoming more of a diplomatic broker than the United States. That could potentially be increasing in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: What are the consequences if this conflict isn’t contained?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Horrible. The Macedonia question is so critical, not just because of the ethnic split but because of Macedonia’s historic, troubled relationship with Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and by association with Greece, Turkey -so if the country did begin to come apart it would be hard to I think keep these other countries out. If that happened then we’re talking about a really wide Balkan war that stretches all the way down into the southern peninsula. That’s I think one of the reasons that the United States ought to be watching this very, very carefully.

MARGARET WARNER: It sounds like the same kind of dire scenario that was painted in terms of the importance of doing something at Kosovo.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: In some ways Kosovo needed to happen because of Macedonia. So we’re now dealing with what is in some ways the prize, the lynch pin of the Balkan Peninsula.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much.