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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death of Coexistence?

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After violence broke out around the northern Macedonian town of Tetovo about ten days ago, Macedonian Prime Minister Lubco Georgievski declared bluntly that "Macedonia is under aggression" from armed groups of Albanian extremists. Furthermore, he accused the United States and its European allies of not doing enough to prevent the export of violence from Kosovo. While Georgievski's pathos and indignation are fully understandable, his sudden discovery of NATO's passive position is less so.

The current crisis in Macedonia did not come as a surprise to most regular observers. The republic has experienced ethnic disturbances several times in its brief history, although they never before amounted to a full-scale insurgency. Macedonia, it should be recalled, was the first country cited by those who argued against the dangerous precedent set by NATO-backed Kosovo Albanian separatism. Only the unparalleled flexibility and rationalism of Macedonia's multiethnic political class — reinforced by negative lessons from the experiences of the country's neighbors — had (until recently) allowed this young state to escape the fate of the other post-Yugoslav republics. Macedonia is ruled by a multiethnic coalition government that includes representatives of the Democratic Party of Albanians.

This same rationalism, however, led the Macedonian authorities two years ago to back NATO in its war against Belgrade and in support of the extremist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It could be argued that, given the fragile character of the young Macedonian state and its own problems coping with an Albanian minority, Skopje simply had no other choice than to support NATO, despite significant domestic opposition.

However, as demonstrated by the recent outbreak of violence, the logic behind the decision to support NATO did not work to Macedonia's benefit. There is bitter irony in that, having sided with NATO in its criticism of Belgrade's efforts to fight Albanian extremism in Kosovo, Macedonia now has to figure out how and whether counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations on its own territory could be done differently — with much fewer resources than Belgrade had at its disposal in Kosovo.

In this, Macedonia is not likely to receive direct military support from the West. NATO, trying to keep its current presence in Kosovo as unproblematic — and casualty-free — as possible, is totally dependent on its "non-confrontational" approach to the Albanian extremists. Support for Macedonia from its regional neighbors — Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece — may be a substitute, but it is a controversial one, given a history of their claims to Macedonia regarding everything from its territory to its name and language.

The fighting in Macedonia underscores that it is the "Albanian issue" that will present the key security problem for the Balkans.

Russia, for many reasons, is sympathetic to Skopje and will probably be ready to help indirectly, perhaps by providing helicopters or sharing its vast counterinsurgency experience. This means that, despite considerable political support throughout the world and even limited military assistance, Macedonia is left alone with the virtually impossible task of suppressing a sustained insurgency backed by armed incursions from Kosovo without alienating its own Albanian minority. While fighting has remained limited so far, even a limited level of violence might suffice to destroy the delicate ethno-political balance in Macedonia, where Albanians live throughout the country.

While the Macedonian crisis is far from over, the recent outbreak of violence has made several things perfectly clear.

First, it has more vividly than ever demonstrated the chronic inability of NATO forces in Kosovo to solve one of their main declared tasks —to prevent the export of violence to other regions. This, in turn, further undermines the official rationale for the international occupation of a part of Yugoslav territory.

Second, NATO's call to Belgrade to do the "security work" in the buffer zone on Serbia's administrative border with Kosovo and on Yugoslavia's border with Macedonia completely rehabilitates the Yugoslav military after its 1999 capitulation to NATO. Whether the Yugoslav military would use this opportunity to reassert its limited presence in Kosovo proper, envisaged by UN Security Council Resolution 1244, or would prefer to let NATO drink the Kosovo cup to the bottom unassisted, is now to be decided by Belgrade.

Third, the crisis has created a sense of common anxiety and concern throughout the region, especially for Macedonia's neighbors with Albanian minorities of their own. In particular, the leadership of Montenegro — a republic that, together with Serbia, comprises Yugoslavia and that has a compact Albanian minority — will probably think twice now before leaving the Federation and will give up any hopes that "the international community" is prepared to guarantee the republic's integrity.

Finally, the situation in Macedonia once again underscores that, in the years to come, it is the "Albanian issue" that will present the key security problem for the Balkans. The "Albanian issue" did not begin with and will not end in Macedonia — a country that, of all Balkan states, seemed to be on the road to building a truly multiethnic society. One of the most distressing conclusions of the potential destabilization of Macedonia is that if even this relatively successful (until recently) example of "peaceful coexistence" between non-Albanian and Albanian populations has failed, it may mean that such coexistence is impossible in principle.

Yekaterina Stepanova is a senior researcher at the Center for Political and Military Forecasting. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.