Macedonia: More Scary Skeletons Are Yet to Break Out of Yugoslavia’s Closet

A worker puts on finishing touches on a new facade with EU and Macedonian flags on the glass wall of the EU office in Skopje, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on 03 February 2017.

Despite achieving a favored status with the West, the former communist Yugoslavia was an artificial construct in which nations that resented one another were forced to live together under the same roof.

The beginning of Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s led to the bloodiest wars in Europe after World War II. The process of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, however, is far from over.

Today it concerns the likely further fragmentation of its successor states where all kinds of ethnic and religious enmities have been masked first by the communist ideology, and then by the post-modernish order imposed on what came to be called “the Western Balkans” by the West after 1995.

While more than 20 years after its pacifying, Bosnia and Herzegovina still finds itself in a really bad state, with Serbs, Croats, and “Muslims” (Bosniaks) resenting one another, and there are ongoing ethnic tensions in both Northern Kosovo and Southern Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it is formally known in the UN, might be the most volatile of all.

This is certainly the case as Macedonia’s huge ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up between one-fourth and one-third of the population, or possibly even more, has refused to help form a new Cabinet. This follows a year of political deadlock because of demands that Albanian be given the status of an official language.

Because of this demand espoused by all of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian political parties, the country’s largest party, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE led by Nikola Gruevski (prime minister between 2006 and 2016), has been unable to form a coalition government. This leaves huge uncertainties about the country’s future, especially with respect to its ethnic relations.

It is worth remembering NATO’s 1999 war against the leftover Yugoslavia (consisting by that time only of Serbia and Montenegro) over its leader Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. The war led to NATO taking over Kosovo from Serbia, instituting a UN mission there, and eventually the over 90% ethnic Albanian Kosovo declaring independence in 2008. Milosevic himself ended up dying in jail in 2006 while on trial at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

In 2001, feeling emboldened by the success of the Kosovo Albanians led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanians of Macedonia, or, rather, an organization named “Army for National Liberation” modeled after the KLA, waged their own insurgency against the Macedonian authorities in what became an all-out civil war in Northern Macedonia.

The Macedonian Civil War of 2001 was terminated only after the West made the ethnic Albanian leaders understand that at the time the ethnic Albanian minorities in the Balkans (outside of Albania proper) were not going to get any more chances for autonomy or independence (after all, Macedonia was not the Milošević Regime and had not carried out ethnic cleansing).

The leaders of the Albanian insurgency in Macedonia, however, let it be known that they could instead gain ample concessions within Macedonia. This they did with the 2001 Ohrid Agreement in which, among other things, the government of Macedonia agreed that Albanian would become the official language in any municipality where it was the mother tongue for more than 20% of the population.

This settlement was favored neither by the Macedonians nor by the Albanians, but it did help the West to keep the lid over tensions in one more former Yugoslav republic for some more time. Until the water in the pot boils over to the point of explosion, that is.

Now it’s 16 years later, and guess what, the ethnic Albanians are not satisfied and want more. And the Macedonians are even more resentful of such concessions than they were in 2001.

It is worth nothing that Macedonia as a nation sprung up after 1944 as one of the republics of communist Yugoslavia, with a decision of the communist leadership under Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, confirming a policy of the Communist International, Stalin’s international proxy. The Soviet Union, the Comintern, and Yugoslavia were great at “creating nations” for political purposes.

Before that, the majority of the population in the historic region of Macedonia was widely considered part of the Bulgarian nation, and a certain percentage of Macedonians still identify themselves as Bulgarian. Needless to say, Macedonia is a favorite topic for Bulgarian nationalists, which are much more docile than, say, the nationalists of Serbia or other Balkan countries (losing two world wars really gets it out of you—just ask the Hungarians and the Germans).

After the breakup of communist Yugoslavia in 1991–92, Macedonia was left with a shaky national identity and an already vast ethnic Albanian minority. It has been severely tested by the “Albanian question” ever since. The country of Albania, when it was established by the European Great Powers in 1912, did not encompass all regions with an Albanian majority. Few people know, for example, that the anti-Ottoman rebels who proclaimed Albania’s independence back in 1911 did so in Prishtina, the capital of today’s Kosovo.

Macedonia has survived in its Yugoslavian-era borders only with massive Western aid and pressure over the power factors in it, and in its region.

Meanwhile, in the past decade, Macedonia has been ruled by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as an autocrat (to the extent that the country’s heavy dependence on western intervention allows this—it turns out it allows a lot of excesses). Not unlike most of its neighbors, Macedonia has few independent media worthy of the name.

A 2015 wiretap scandal revealed that the Gruevski regime had been spying on pretty much everyone with an important oppositional role in the country.

All of this has been going on against the backdrop of Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece. Even though the former Yugoslav republic could have already joined NATO, it faces a Greek veto because Greece is concerned over potential Macedonian territorial claims to a region in Northern Greece also called “Macedonia,” and has been demanding that its neighbor… change its name.

Macedonian soldiers patrol between the razor wire fence at the Macedonian border with Greece, near Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 24 February 2017. Ministers of 15 European countries agreed on 09 February in Vienna, Austria, to prepare new plans and measures that are expected to be presented in April and May to keep the so-called ‘Balkan route’ – the migration route from Greece to the EU, leading through Macedonia – closed.

Why does a potential implosion in a tiny ex-Yugoslav republic such as Macedonia matter? Let’s just say that any civil war anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere. And Macedonia would not just implode in the event of ethnic violence, it would explode. Because of everyone’s historical claims to it, and its geographic location and current politics, the conventional wisdom is that all countries in the region might get embroiled in a war within, say, half an hour of its breaking out.

Trouble caused by ethnic tensions in Macedonia could create one more major international crisis in Europe-Asia against the backdrop of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the Syrian Civil War. The already hesitant West might not be able to handle it. This isn’t the 1990s when the entire international community could afford to be obsessed with the former Yugoslavia simply because there was nothing bigger on CNN.

And you don’t think that Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkish President Recep Erdogan would stand idly by without pressing for their perceived interests in such a crisis?

The Western approach toward handling ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in particular may have been really flawed. Forcing people who hate each other to live together usually just postpones the problem until it becomes too grave to be ignored. (By the way, in Bosnia in the mid 1990s, the Brits and the French were in favor of partitioning it while the Americans insisted on keeping it together in its Yugoslav borders, and had it their way.)

Humans are generally superficial and shallow and nationalistic for the most part, and the Balkans might be one of the best examples of that even though it is mostly true for people all over the globe.

The only place in Europe that I can think of with really no ethnic tensions is Finland with its ethnic Swedish minority (or maybe they had some that I don’t know of). Even in the utterly civilized country of Belgium (not counting its colonialism history and “King Leopold’s Ghost,” that is), the Flemish and the Walloons seem to resent one other.

Back in 2012, over another flare-up of ethnic tensions in Macedonia, I wrote an article called “Time for the Preventive Partition of Macedonia.” Far from pushing any “Bulgarian cause” in this matter, I argued that a peaceful negotiated parting of people who don’t want to inhabit the same country might be preferable to a bloody civil and possibly international war in the future.

I don’t know that anything in Macedonia has changed for the better since 2012 in terms of the inter-ethnic relations; to the contrary. Indeed, the ethnic Albanians might be in a better position now to get a larger chunk of the country when (not if) it splits up.

Unfortunately, not unlike the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia was too much of an artificial entity trying to package together groups who despised one another, and these kinds of enmities have proven way more resilient than anybody could have guessed.

The Western approach toward handling this process of Yugoslavia’s breakup has been mostly misguided, and, unfortunately, that is yet to be seen in Macedonia, Bosnia, and possibly other “Western Balkan” states.

If history gives any lessons, it is that more nasty skeletons are going to break out of the former communist Yugoslavia’s closet to poke their ugly heads at European and international peace and security.

But here is to hoping that I am wrong.

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