International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 4 (October-December 1998)


Macedonia and the Kosovo Conflict
By Alice Ackermann


The violent conflict in Kosovo has once again put the spotlight on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a country of two million inhabitants with a complex multi-ethnic demographic structure. Sixty-six percent of Macedonia’s population are Slav Macedonians, close to 23 percent are ethnic Albanians, the largest minority group, and there are also smaller numbers of Turks, Roma, Serbs, and Vlachs. Residing along the borders with Albania and Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are the most politically mobilized of all ethnic groups, not only because of their substantial size but also because of their distinct grievances. With a long history of discrimination in the former Yugoslavia, especially throughout the 1980s, ethnic Albanians have demanded nation status, language and educational rights, and an end to discriminatory practices in the legal professions, the military and police, and government. 1   While some progress has been made towards reducing discrimination and guaranteeing minority rights, ethnic tensions remain, as does the polarization of Macedonian society. There are still demands for more proportional representation, for an Albanian-language university in Tetovo, and perhaps even a federal state, 2   however, there have not been the kinds of hostilities seen in other Balkan states.

Although the Republic of Macedonia, which became independent in September 1991 against the background of the Yugoslav war, succeeded in preventing the much-feared spillover of war from Bosnia, the country’s stability continues to be threatened by the violent conflict in adjacent Kosovo, the political disorientation in Albania, internal ethnic tensions, inherent institutional weaknesses associated with the democratization process, and economic hardship. This article analyzes the regional and domestic environment of contemporary Macedonia, and explores how the linkage between external and internal conflicts, especially the violence emanating from Kosovo and the ethnic conditions within Macedonia, still poses severe challenges to this small state which once formed the southernmost part of Yugoslavia. It goes on to discuss how some of the preventive measures, most of which initiated in the early years of Macedonia’s independence, remain crucial for preserving peace in the country and for averting a spillover of the violent conflict in Kosovo. Concluding, it is suggested that Macedonia should proceed toward greater integration to prevent further marginalisation of its ethnic groups, and continue along its course toward regional cooperation as part of its preventive approach to foreign policy.


The Political Violence in Neighboring Kosovo

The conflict in Kosovo has deep-rooted antecedents, although the underlying causes of the present violence date to 1990 when the Serbian government stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status, suspended its Provincial Assembly, and imposed direct control over this province of more than two million inhabitants, of which 90 percent are ethnic Albanians and only 7 percent Serbs. Kosovo’s Albanian leadership first reacted to Serbia’s arbitrary policy by organizing strikes and demonstrations. Ethnic Albanians also held a referendum in September 1991 in which they declared Kosovo a sovereign and independent state. An appeal to the European Union for recognition in late December 1991 was rejected. Five months later, Albanian Kosovars elected their own president and Parliament, bringing Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) to the presidency to represent the ethnic Albanian cause. 3

It was under Rugova that Kosovar Albanians shifted to a strategy of non-violence and non-cooperation, even as violent repression increased, and fear was widespread that Serbia would move militarily against Kosovo after the termination of war in Bosnia. This non-violent, non-cooperative policy involved establishing parallel institutions such as schools, hospitals, a tax collection agency, cultural and sports organizations.

For several years, Albanians in Kosovo remained committed to non-violence despite repressive Serbian tactics. Arrest and detention became widespread, as did the seizure of property, documents, and medical and humanitarian supplies. Belgrade also initiated its own campaign of “Serbianization”, substituting street names in Albanian with Serbian ones, implementing a Serbian educational curriculum, laying off large numbers of ethnic Albanians, and resettling Serbian refugees in Kosovo. 4

By the end of 1997, however, patience and the commitment to non-violence were beginning to wear thin. Frustration was building up over excessive Serbian repression, high unemployment, and the deterioration of quality of life. The emergence of a group of militant Kosovo Albanians, the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which sought secession by means of violence, and the violent acts perpetrated by the UCK not only unraveled Rugova’s non-violent campaign, but led to brutal reprisals on the part of Serbian police and military forces against ethnic Albanian civilians. An escalation of violence occurred in early spring of 1998. Since February, when Serbian forces began their military operations, hundreds of people have been killed. The largest number of ethnic Albanians died in March, when Serbian soldiers, using helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers, killed close to eighty Kosovar Albanians, including many women and children in retaliation for the killings of several Serbian policemen by UCK militants. Also, Serbia’s retaliatory policy in Kovoso resulted in the destruction of nearly 500 Albanian villages, and triggered another refugee crisis, not unlike the one witnessed with horror during the Bosnian war. It is estimated that at least 300,000 ethnic Albanians have been internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighboring Albania. 5

While the execution-style killings of at least 15 women, children and elderly inhabitants in the small village of Gornji Obrinje at the end of September 1998 6   finally convinced the United State and Europe to draw the line with Slobodan Milosevic, president of the rump-state of Yugoslavia, it is unclear at present how the conflict will be settled. In early October, the United Nations, the US, and NATO demanded that Serbia comply with Security Council Resolution 1199—an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, the creation of stable conditions for the return of refugees, and serious negotiations for a political solution which would include some form of autonomy for Kosovo. In the case of non-compliance, Milosevic would risk NATO air strikes. But the Kosovo conflict is far from a settlement, especially since most Kosovar Albanians have now opted for secession rather than territorial autonomy within a Milosevic-ruled Serbia.


Kosovo’s Impact on Macedonia

The violence in Kosovo continues to pose a serious threat to the entire southern Balkans. While a much feared spillover of the armed confrontations from Kosovo into Albania and Macedonia has fortunately not materialized, the countries’ security is and remains affected as long as the Kosovo conflict is not resolved and Serbia is led by Milosevic.

There are two principal ways in which the crisis in Kosovo has affected Macedonia’s security and internal stability. The first is related to the fear that Macedonian Albanians may be providing support to Kosovar Albanians—either financial or through arms supplies—and that Kosovo may serve as a model for collective mobilization to ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. A second way in which the Kosovo conflict has affected Macedonia’s security comes as the result of sharing rather fluid borders with Albania, Serbia, and its province Kosovo. This has led to a series of border encroachments, especially on the part of Serbia but also by the UCK or groups involved in arms smuggling on their behalf. There is also growing concern over the outcome of the Kosovo conflict and whether the province will be granted independence which Macedonian politicians view as destabilizing for the region.


Support for Ethnic Kin and Kosovo as a Potential Model for Collective Mobilization

Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have been largely sympathetic to the Kosovo Liberation Army. 7   However, there is uncertainty as to their support—funds or arms—to it. Given the proximity to Kosovo, the close ties between the ethnic Albanian leaders from Macedonia and Kosovo, and the tightly-knit group structure that ethnic Albanians from both regions share, it is likely that at least some financial assistance has gone to the UCK. In an interview for a German television channel, Mendu Thaci, vice president of the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSh), which takes a rather radical approach toward ethnic Albanian grievances, claimed that Macedonian Albanians were supporting the UCK “materially in various forms”. Macedonian media have also spoken of the possibility of Albanians from Macedonia having fought alongside the UCK in Kosovo. 8   However, none of these sources can be confirmed.

What is more unnerving for the Macedonians are statements that have come from the leader of the PDSh, Arbën Xhaferi, known to alternate between a radical and a more conciliatory approach. When using bold rhetoric, Xhaferi will emphasize that “violence will come to Macedonia just like it came to Kosovo” if the Macedonian authorities do not heed the demands of ethnic Albanians for more autonomy and access to the political system. 9   However, in a more conciliatory gesture, Xhaferi will also explain that more autonomy means internal self-determination. 10   While there is some anxiety among Macedonians that the armed struggle in Kosovo may serve as a model to ethnic Albanians in Macedonia for collective action, in a September 1998 interview President Gligorov struck a more optimistic note, emphasizing that he believes “Albanians in Macedonia or a large part of them do not want a war”. 11

While some of these remarks on the part of ethnic Albanians may be “idle talk”, these statements do much to feed the spiral of fear that Macedonia runs the risk of fragmentation. Even though moderate Albanians in Macedonia believe that their demands can be met by working within the political structure, there is a profound anxiety within Macedonian society that ethnic Albanians are seeking secession. These psychological pressures keep the two ethnic groups divided and polarize political and social life in Macedonia.

Border Encroachments

A major threat to Macedonia’s security relates to the fact that the country shares borders with Albania, Serbia, and Kosovo. In the early weeks of the escalation of violence in Kosovo, there was a growing concern that Macedonia would become destabilized by large refugee flows from Kosovo. Such dire predictions did not come true. According to government, UN and OSCE sources, no refugees have officially registered in Macedonia, 12   but it is likely that more Kosovar Albanians have crossed the border to “visit” with relatives and friends. 13

Disturbing during the height of the offensive in Kosovo were border encroachments on the part of groups alleged to be smuggling weapons to the Kosovo Liberation Army. In July 1998, the Macedonian authorities announced that they would be reinforcing their border with Albania so as to reduce the transfer of arms. A Defense Ministry announcement in the summer spoke of thirty incidents in which Albanians were intercepted while smuggling weapons into Macedonia from Albania. 14

More troublesome have been Serbian border encroachment, especially because the frontier between Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia is still unmarked. In August 1998, Serbia extended its border five kilometers into Macedonian and Albanian territory to combat UCK forces and to prevent Albanians from infiltrating Kosovo through Macedonia. This aroused fears that the border areas of Macedonia might be drawn into a military zone or belt. Because of the deployment of Yugoslav Army troops in the area, there was also speculation that Serbia might be preparing for a possible military confrontation with Albania. 15

These border incidents and Serbia’s delaying tactics on the demarcation of the common frontier have heightened Macedonia’s sensitivity towards being pulled into the conflict by both sides. According to Defense Minister Lazar Kitanovski, each of the parties in conflict has attempted to involve Macedonia in its armed struggle. In the summer of 1998, he accused Serbia of deliberately flying over Macedonian territory and spreading misinformation that Macedonia was allowing armed groups to enter Kosovo through Macedonia. But Kitanovski also claimed “that the Albanian side in Kosovo is trying to involve Macedonia in the conflict by releasing incorrect reports”, giving the example of the spread of false information regarding Serbian soldiers involved in thefts in Macedonian border villages populated by ethnic Albanians. 16


The Outcome of the Kosovo Conflict

There is great uncertainty as to the outcome of the Kosovo conflict. Although the Serbian leadership is committed to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and negotiate a settlement with the Kosovar Albanians, it is not yet clear whether this will happen. The termination of violence is crucial to the stability of Macedonia, although there is skepticism among its leaders as to the terms of a negotiated settlement. Indeed, Kosovo reveals Macedonia’s dilemma: on the one hand, a continuation of fighting is likely to affect the fragile multi-ethnic structure of Macedonian society sooner or later; on the other, a political solution which entails independence for Kosovo is equally perceived as a threat to Macedonia’s internal stability because of a possible “domino effect”. In other words, if Kosovar Albanians are allowed to secede and create their own state, there is the risk that Macedonian Albanians may want to proceed in a similar direction. When Defense Minister Kitanovski compared Kosovo to a volcano, he was thinking not only that the violence could engulf his country, Albania, and other states in the region, but also that segments of Macedonia could become part of a greater “Albania”. “The first stage,” he noted, “would be the annexation of Kosovo with Albania, and the second stage would be the inclusion of parts of Macedonia and Montenegro.” 17


International Preventive Responses

Conflict prevention has a “long” and “relatively” successful history in Macedonia, dating from the time of its independence in 1991. Of all the preventive actors engaged in Macedonia, two international organizations stand out because of their mandates and their long-standing presence—the UN and the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Along with the OSCE Spillover Mission to Skopje, which monitors internal conditions in Macedonia, the UN Preventive Deployment Mission (UNPREDEP) has also performed important monitoring functions along the Macedonian border. Both organizations assumed preventive responsibilities in the early 1990s when Macedonia was threatened by a possible spillover of the Bosnian war and growing unrest in Kosovo.

The most visible of the two preventive actors has been the UN preventive force which was deployed in early January 1993, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 795. UNPREDEP’s mandate was to monitor Macedonia’s borders with Albania and Serbia, a stretch of approximately 500 kms of mountainous terrain. At the height of this preventive peacekeeping effort in the mid-1990s, a little over 1,000 peacekeepers, including US soldiers, were dispatched to Macedonia, where they were stationed in permanent and temporary observation posts along the Macedonia-Albanian and the Macedonian-Serbian borders.

By mid-1997, Security Council 1110 called for the gradual withdrawal of preventive forces and a termination of UNPREDEP’s mandate. However, by late 1997, the Security Council revoked its earlier decision and extended the UN mandate until the end of August 1998. It was proposed that a NATO-OSCE follow-on mission should assume the place of UNPREDEP. However, as the violence escalated in Kosovo, the Security Council decided once more to extend UNPREDEP’s mandate to the end of February 1999, and bring troop strength, which had already been reduced to 750, back up to 1,000 peacekeepers. 18   At this critical juncture, UNPREDEP is vital to the preventive efforts of other organizations such as the OSCE, and its preventive mandate provides some assurances to Macedonia and its people.


Concluding Thoughts

It is important to note that over the past seven years, Macedonia has played a crucial role in preventing some of the scenarios of a wider Balkan war from becoming reality. It has done so not only by requesting international monitors and a UN preventive force, but also through the preventive actions of its political leaders and the restraint exercised by the leaders of its ethnic groups. While this policy of political dialogue and accommodation has neither averted ethnic tensions or a polarization of ethnic relations nor led to full-fledged integration, one must remember that there have not been any large-scale hostilities as witnessed elsewhere in the Balkans. Also, it is important to keep in mind that some of these ethnic tensions are inherent to newly democratizing and multi-ethnic societies where political, economic, and social institutions are still weak and civil society is not yet fully developed.

A number of concerted policies could redress existing ethnic tensions, such as the legalization of the Albanian-language university in Tetovo, already attended by hundreds of ethnic Albanians. Another integrative measure would be to increase local governance in areas dominated by ethnic Albanians. Lastly, a more integrative society can be achieved through domestic and economic reforms directed at benefiting all ethnic groups equally. Foremost here are policies aimed at reducing the high unemployment rate and the under-representation of ethnic groups in certain professions.Many of these reforms will become the responsibility of the new Macedonian government under Ljubco Georgievski and Vasil Tuporkovski. Their coalition, consisting of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) and the Democratic Alternative (DA) won 58 out of the 120 seats in the 1998 October and November elections. 19

It is hoped that over time the rights of all ethnic groups will be expanded to assure equal access to the political and economic process. Further social marginalization of ethnic groups, in particular, of ethnic Albanians, can only be prevented if the Macedonian government consciously moves toward more societal integration while recognizing some of the specific needs of each group in its multi-ethnic state.

What remains most critical is the situation in Kosovo. Much of Macedonia’s security—regional and internal—will depend on a viable compromise solution for Kosovo. At present, the United States is engaged in negotiating a political settlement which would bring an end to the struggle for secession. It has appointed U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill, as special envoy, who shuttles between Pristina and Belgrade for talks with the Kosovar leadership and the Serbian government.

It is important for Macedonia that the US and its European allies help to bring the Kosovo conflict to an end. It is equally important to achieve a settlement that is acceptable to the Kosovar Albanians. Meanwhile the UN preventive mission should remain in Macedonia as long as is necessary. Also, deliberations should begin on a possible follow-on mission to Macedonia, possibly composed of a large presence of OSCE monitors rather than NATO troops since the alliance has little experience in preventive action, and is associated more with coercive diplomacy than with conflict prevention.

A positive development, particularly as it relates to preventing a wider Balkan conflict, is that in late September Macedonia, along with Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Italy, Turkey, and Greece signed an agreement at the regional defense ministers meeting for the creation of a Multinational Peace Force Southeastern Europe, in which the US will also participate as an observer. While the specific mandate of this Multinational Peace Force is still unclear, the agreement encompassing former adversaries is a historic step away from the bloody rivalries and antagonism which has plagued the Balkan region for much of its history.

Alice Ackermann is Professor at the School of International Studies, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida.



Note 1: A. Ackermann, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: A Relatively Successful Case of Conflict Prevention in Europe”, Security Dialogue, vol. 27, no. 4, 1996, pp. 409-24.  Back.

Note 2: P. Moore, “Macedonia to Elect New Parliament”, RFE/RL Newsline, vol. 2, no. 201, Part II, 16 October 1998.  Back.

Note 3: E. Kofos and T. Veremis, “Kosovo: Efforts to Solve the Impasse”, The International Spectator, vol. 33, no. 2, 1998, pp. 132-47. S. Troebst, Conflict in Kosovo: Failure of Prevention?: An Analytical Documentation, 1992-1998, ECMI Working Paper No. 1, (Flensburg, Germany: European Centre for Minority Issues, 1998). W. Oschlies, Kosovo ‘98 (I): Ursachen und Kulmination eines alt-neuen Balkan-Konflikts (Cologne, Germany: Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, 1998).  Back.

Note 4: For an analysis of Kosovo’s non-violent strategy, see for example, M. Salla, “Kosovo, Non-violence and the Break-up of Yugoslavia”, Security Dialogue, vol. 26, no. 4, 1995, pp. 427-38. Also, H. Clark, “Kosova’s Non-violent Struggle”, Peace Magazine, January/February 1998, pp. 10-11, 26.  Back.

Note 5: P. Shenon, “US Eyes Curbs on Belgrade as Albanian Deaths Mount”, New York Times, 25 April 1998, p. A4; “Yugoslav Army Warns of War”, New York Times, 25 April 1998, p. A4; J. S. Landay, “After Kosovo Killings, What?” The Christian Science Monitor, 1 October 1998, pp. 1, 10; R. Cohen, “NATO Shatters Old Limits in the Name of Preventing Evil”, New York Times, 18 October 1998, Sec. 4, p. 3.  Back.

Note 6: J. Perlez, “Massacres by Serbian Forces in 3 Kosovo Villages”, New York Times, 30 September 1998, pp. A1, A6.  Back.

Note 7: J. Brown, “Macedonia: Regional Buffer or Source of Sparks?” Christian Science Monitor, 29 May 1998, p. 7.  Back.

Note 8: Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), “FYROM: Daily Warns of ‘Radical Passions’ of FYROM Albanians”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-201, 20 July 1998, pp. 1-2. FBIS, “FYROM: Albanian Parties Said Trying to Involve FYROM in Kosovo”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-183, 2 July 1998, pp. 1-2. FBIS, “FYROM: Ethnic Albanians Providing Volunteers for UCK”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-204, 23 July 1998, pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 9: Quoted in Brown, “Macedonia: Regional Buffer or Source of Sparks?”, p. 7.  Back.

Note 10: Interviews with the author, May 1996, Tetovo, Republic of Macedonia.  Back.

Note 11: FBIS, “FYROM: Gligorov on History, Regional Relations”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EUU-98-244, 1 September 1998, p. 5.  Back.

Note 12: FBIS, “FYROM: Kitanovski Warns Against Supporting Kosovo Independence”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-187, 6 July 1998,p. 1.  Back.

Note 13: FBIS, “FYROM: Aid Groups, FYROM Government on Kosovo Refugees”, FBIS Daily News, FBIS-EEU-98-202, 21 July 1998, pp. 1-3.  Back.

Note 14: FBIS, “FYROM: Minister: FYROM Army Plans to Reinforce Albanian Border”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-202, 21 July 1998, pp. 1-2. FBIS, “FYROM: Commentary Sees Increased Pressure on FYROM Borders”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-209, 25 July 1998, pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 15: FBIS, “FYROM: Sources View Prospects of FRY-Albania ‘Military Clash’, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-218, 6 August 1998, p. 1. FBIS, “FYROM: MIC Views Violations of FYROM Airspace by FRY Planes”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-181, 30 June 1998, pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 16: FBIS, “FYROM: Defense Minister Views FYROM’s Security”, FBIS Daily Report, FBIS-EEU-98-207, 26 July 1998, pp. 1-6.  Back.

Note 17: FBIS, “FYROM: Defense Minister Views FYROM’s Security”, p. 2.  Back.

Note 18: See, “Security Council Extends Preventive Force in Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia until 31 August 1998”, UN Press Release SC/6451, 4 December 1997, pp. 1-8; “Security Council Extends Mandate of UNPREDEP until 28 February 1999 and Increases Troop Strength”, Press Release SC/6554, 21 July 1998, pp. 1-7.  Back.

Note 19: P. Moore, “Macedonians Choose Change,” RFE/RL Newsline, vol 2, no. 215, 6 November 1998.  Back.