Macedonia: oh no, not NATO

The history of the Balkans over the past decade is a story of outside intervention igniting, intensifying and perpetuating local conflicts.

Josie Appleton

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The conflict between the Macedonian authorities and the ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA) has Newsweek worrying about NATO being ‘dragged’ into another ethnic ‘bloodbath’ in the former Yugoslavia (1).

NATO may not feel in control of current events, but it is not the victim in the Balkans. The crisis in Macedonia is the result of more than a decade of interference by the NATO allies in the affairs of the former Yugoslavia.

At every stage, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been fuelled by the intervention of NATO members, escalating from diplomatic manoeuvres through political and economic sanctions to direct military action.

Back in 1989, US foreign policy was already giving encouragement to ethnic Albanian secessionists in Kosovo. In 1991, Germany gave Croatia and Slovenia the green light to secede from the Yugoslav federation; civil war soon followed. In 1992, the US recognition of Bosnia sparked the next phase of that bloody conflict, which ended with NATO bombing the Bosnian Serbs (the first ever military action in its 50-year existence). By the end of the 1990s, NATO was at war with the Serbs over Kosovo. It was only a matter of time before Macedonia was dragged into the mire.

As Simon Jenkins points out in The Times (London), 10 years of international intervention has left ‘a patchwork of insecure statelets as mafia fiefdoms or UN colonies (or both)’ (2). Indeed the history of the Balkans over the past decade (indeed, through the past two centuries) is a story of outside intervention igniting, intensifying and perpetuating local conflicts.

By internationalising a regional issue, intervention moves it on to a bigger stage, raises the stakes, and increases the complexity of the forces at play. The prospect of attracting the patronage of foreign powers prompts groups and minorities to launch struggles that they could not hope to win on their own, in an attempt to win international support.

The ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia are making a last-ditch attempt to gain recognition from NATO, as the ethnic Albanians in neighbouring Kosovo did so successfully not long ago. Familiar with the language that will press interventionist buttons in the Balkans, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia’s Tevoto are depicting themselves as victims of a fascist Slav regime. This, despite the fact that there is an ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia’s coalition government, and that they have never experienced repression of the kind suffered by minorities elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

Unfortunately for the guerrillas, NATO’s priorities have changed. NATO secretary general Lord Robertson (who, as UK foreign secretary during the Kosovo war, feted the ethnic Albanian forces there) has now branded the NLA a bunch of ‘localised extremists’. Since the downfall of president Slobodan Milosevic, the NATO allies have been encouraging the Serbs to do their dirty work for them and help to keep the ethnic Albanians in check. Yet if it leads to more international intervention, the NLA’s gamble may yet pay off, at least in terms of further undermining the unity of Macedonia.

During the war against Serbia the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was transformed from a small proscribed terrorist group into an unofficial member of the NATO alliance, supplied with weapons and aid. Intervention effectively separated the province of Kosovo from Serbia. But as the latest events show, NATO’s love affair with the ethnic Albanians was only ever skin-deep. Yesterday’s freedom fighters can quickly become today’s extremist gangsters when strategic interests change, and with NATO keen to do business with post-Milosevic Serbia.

But then, all of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia were only ever pawns in the great power games in the Balkans. Look at the Albanian refugees today, enjoying the fruits of their victory in Kosovo by living in penury in uninhabitable council flats around the UK.

As NATO troops are sent to guard the Kosovan border, US state department officials meet the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian leaders, and the US media discusses funding the Macedonian military, another round of intervention begins. Meanwhile the Germans move to send tanks into the Balkans for the first time since the Second World War.

Only a few days ago UK prime minister Tony Blair boasted once more of the success of his personal crusade in Kosovo; now the stability of the whole of the Balkans region is on a knife-edge, with fresh conflicts threatened in Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia. This is the pay-off for more than a decade of foreign intervention.

And yet, at a time when the destructive consequences of NATO’s moral mission in the former Yugoslavia should be clear for all to see, recent experience suggests that many in the West will draw the conclusion that still more intervention is required. The failure of the Something Must be Done approach is taken as proof only that Something More Should Have Been Done in the past, and Should Be Done now.

As Simon Jenkins points out, civil wars end – when somebody wins, they burn themselves out. With intervention (especially of the kind that keeps changing sides) the war will never end. Locked into a seemingly endless cycle of instability and intervention, the Balkans can but unravel further, until its long-suffering citizens are finally allowed to decide their own futures.

(1) Newsweek, 26 March 2001

(2) The Times, 21 March 2001

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