The Plight of the Kosovar

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.


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Written: September, 1998

Rumour has it that from now on, citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will need a hard-to-obtain visa to enter the Czech Republic. This already is the case with Bosnians, for instance. Officials in Macedonia believe that this is intended to stem a flow of future Kosovar immigrants. If so, the Czech government holds a grim view of the prospects of peace there and rightly so. Discounting the Second World War and numerous other skirmishes, the developing war in Kosovo is the Fourth Balkan War. The Czech Republic already hosts a great number of "Former Yugoslavs" and of Albanians, for measure. Ordinary Czechs believe them to be responsible – together with Russians and Ukrainians – to the uncontrollable and intimidating wave of street crime. This intuition, it seems, is based less on statistics than on plain old xenophobia.

The situation is shrouded in myths and misconceptions. The Albanians in Albania are not related to the Albanians in Macedonia (known as "Shiptars"). The former are mostly Christians – the latter Moslems (like their brethren in Kosovo). Even the Albanians in Albania are not a cohesive lot – they are divided to Northerners and Southerners with bitter mutual enmity the only thing connecting them. Witness the recent near disintegration of the Albanian state over regional politics (disguised as a financial scandal). The risk of a spillover of the conflict into Albanian territory is small. Not so with Macedonia. This is why NATO is flexing its muscles on Macedonian territory. The message is ostensibly intended for Yugoslav ears. Really, NATO hopes that it will echo far north, in the Kremlin. The Balkans is a strategic area – says NATO – and we will bomb to pieces anyone who wishes to meddle in it. Cold war rhetoric and not from Russian lips, this time.

The Slav Macedonians loathe and fear the Albanians. The latter do not hide their desire to tear Macedonia apart and establish a Greater Albania, comprising Macedonia's Western parts. Radical new leaders – such as the now imprisoned Rufi Osmani, mayor of Gostivar – hoisted Albanian flags on municipal buildings. This led to bloody riots. Slav students counter-rioted when Albanians demanded bilingual education. Things are explosive even without Kosovo.

But this is part of a larger picture. The Macedonian political elite never really wanted to separate itself from the Yugoslav Federation. In the first years of the embargo on Yugoslavia, Macedonia was the main route of smuggling into the beleaguered country (from Greece, through the Vardar river). Macedonia is torn between supporting Serbia and the Slav cause (championed by Russia) – and complying with Western pressures. The West finances the gigantic trade and current account deficits of Macedonia, without which the economy and the currency would have long crashed even beyond their incredibly depressed levels. Other factions still dream about a Greater Bulgaria. The opposition, IMRO-DPMNE is accused of being the creation of the Bulgarian secret service, or the Bulgarian mob, depending on the speaker. Persistent rumours have it that Milosevic signed a secret pact with the Macedonian ruling (former socialist) party, the SDSM, using the mediation of Arkan, a particularly ferocious militia commander in the good old days. Serbia undertook to heat the border with Macedonia just before the October elections and thus to allow the government either to postpone them or to declare a state of emergency. The SDSM stands to lose big in the elections following economic mismanagement and colossal corruption charges. The main beneficiary is a repatriated politician (whose vote, by the way, was crucial in dismantling the Yugoslav Federation), Vasil Tupurkovski. He is perceived as "Mr. Clean Hands", though backed, from the shadows, by Big Business. He is also pro-American (he lived in the States many years and his family is still there). Russian hands don't like this, probably.

Gradually, anti-Western feelings are emerging in Macedonia. The USA is perceived as automatically anti-Serbian (read: anti-Slav) and pro-Albanian. Emotions run high against Germany and the United Kingdom, as well. Russia benefits from all this. If it plays its cards wisely, it could achieve two goals: (a) Destabilize the Southern flank of NATO and (b) transform Macedonia into its agent. If the conflict escalates, Greece and Turkey could be easily drawn in. Both are NATO members. They will not be fighting on the same side, though. And maybe they will carry the fighting into Cyprus. Though far fetched, this is the first opportunity in a decade to seriously dent the NATO facade. Russia is not likely to miss it. Milosevic, in many respects, is a pain. In other respects, though, he is a strategic gift from heaven.

The Kosovo situation is a blessing, not in disguise, for Macedonia. It is through this - and other Serb-induced crises - that Macedonia attained geopolitical importance. The West pampers Macedonia and finances its fiscal and trade excesses precisely because of its strategic location and because of its Albanians. The potential for inter-ethnic tension is deemed to be sizeable by the West. To avert it, the West is willing to bribe all parties involved into tense calm and strained civility.

The Kosovo crisis has just started. The Serbs are a resilient, cunning bunch. Their withdrawal following the US-mediated accord is tactical, not strategic. They will be back. They will do their best to present the Albanians as intransigent, irrational and belligerent during the process of negotiating autonomy for the province. This will not be difficult. The recent crisis radicalized even the moderate Albanians (like Rugova). Their demands ARE likely to be zany and unacceptable. This will be Milosevic's chance to convert the West to his side. He will act the peacemaker, the moderate, the conciliator and let the Albanians do the dirty work of threats, walkouts and occasional terror.

There will be war in Kosovo. It is only a matter of time and nerves. Milosevic has plenty of both - the Albanians and their Western supporters none. The incident has escalated into a mini cold war. Russia has mobilized select units of its army and moved its anti aircraft missiles to counter a possible NATO strike. The new rulers of the Kremlin are old cold war hands and habits die hard in Russia. Kosovo is a golden opportunity to destabilize NATO (by provoking Turkey against Greece, for instance). I have expounded upon this elsewhere.

Once a real war breaks, the Albanians in Macedonia will be tempted to join in the fray. Though ethnically different they are not nationalistically indifferent. Hitherto, KLA has failed to establish a presence on Macedonian soil and inter-ethnic clashes have been surprisingly limited and subdued. Still, the potential is there. The Albanians in Macedonia are concentrated in a well defined geographical triangle. They could demand the same autonomy that their northern brothers are trying to extract from Milosevic. Moreover, they are better integrated into the political and economic life in Macedonia. Following the next elections (18/10) they are likely to hold the balance of power. And they are getting more and more adept at using it. They feel like second class Macedonians. They would like to become first class Albanians. So, there will be clashes and tension in Macedonia over albanian demands for greater autonomy.

Then there is the Serb-Macedonian tortured relationship. As I said, Macedonia was the last to (reluctantly) secede from the Yugoslav Federation. It escaped harm by aiding and abetting the Serbs during the siege. Macedonia was a vital (also corrupt and lucrative) bloodline, connecting Greece to Serbia (through the Vardar river). Politicians and businessmen (in Macedonia, these are linked vocations) made fortunes. Smugglers and other criminal elements flooded the country, never to go back. The two regimes are not friends but they maintain the Hillary-Bill marriage: power sharing, convenience, the occasional extramarital fling. Serbia will not attack Macedonia as long as it maintains express neutrality. NATO will not compromise this neutrality because it does not want additional trouble in its hinterland if it invades Serbia. As long as this (admittedly shaky) tacit understanding prevails - there is no "Serbian risk".

To sum up: I do not see Macedonia flaring up. A guerilla type war of attrition is conceivable but with limited targets (autonomy for the Albanians within a well defined swathe of territory). These demands will be finally met because the Macedonians are hedonists, peaceful and easy going as opposed to the neurotically tense Albanians and Serbs. Blood may be spilled in the process but sparsely and symbolically. No major disruption will occur. The economy will thrive on the conflict. It is a pathological, parasitic, short term kind of prosperity but it is prosperity, althesame.

It is when the area clams down sufficiently for the West to lose interest that Macedonia should begin to worry. Who will then finance the insane trade deficit? Who will support the eerily strong currency? Who will cater to the military needs of this nascent democracy? Who will save it from its own robber barons, crony capitalists, corrupt politicians and outright criminals?

The only hope is foreign investments. I have discussed this at great length elsewhere. It is worth repeating. Macedonia can achieve market discipline, functioning public institutions, a tolerable level of corruption and internal economic (and thereby political) stability only through the discipline imposed by foreigners. Perhaps the Yugoslav Federation was not such a bad idea after all.

It is said that Tito drank only Czech beer. But Tito is dead and the list of preferred immigration targets among all these warring nationalities does not include Prague. They would rather go to Germany or Russia. There is no real risk of a wave of refugees knocking down Czech border defences. But with its depressed economy and surging crime, Prague regards every potential immigrant as a potential threat. If the gates are not opened to them willingly the refugees might choose to knock them down.


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