A few days ago, Albanian rebels based in Kosovo attacked the Macedonian town of Tetovo. They occupied a 14th-century fort overlooking the city, captured a handful of nearby villages, and held fast while government troops fired mortars at them. Thus has a new Balkan war begun, perhaps. But why?
According to the Washington Post, the guerrillas are fighting to get control of all Macedonian cities where the Albanians have “historically … owned territory” (click here for a demographic map), which, if true, makes them a sinister new version of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbs. Alternatively, according to the New York Times, they have taken up arms “after years of frustration and discrimination” against them in Macedonia, and according to the Daily Telegraph, they are in search of “equal rights,” which makes them sound a little bit like overenthusiastic civil rights campaigners.
Those are the short answers: Pick your interpretation. But I’m afraid the longer answers—that is, not just why an invasion now, but why violence in the Balkans still continues—aren’t very much better.
You would think we’d have worked a few solutions out by now. Indeed, ever since violence began spreading through the Balkans 10 years ago, we in the West have been looking for deeper explanations. For a long time, the accepted view, as promulgated by the writer Robert Kaplan in his book Balkan Ghosts, was that the Balkan conundrum could be explained as a result of irreconcilable, unresolvable “ancient ethnic conflicts,” and there wasn’t much we could do about it. At one level, this is hard to dispute: A lot of people have been fighting one another in the Balkans for a long time. And yet, why ancient ethnic conflicts should matter to Serbs and Croats who had, after all, lived together peacefully for the preceding 50 years isn’t quite so easy to explain. Nor does it account for the fact that a good number of other ancient ethnic conflicts—think Germany and Poland, or indeed Germany and France—have disappeared, or at any rate have been reduced to a low grumbling noise, under the influence of peace, free trade, open communications, and the collective European memory of the horrors of the 20th century. Why not the Balkans?
Another culprit, even more frequently cited, is nationalism. As recently as this week, Carl Bildt, the United Nations’ special envoy to the Balkans, described the Macedonian incursion as “the flame of nationalism again, nothing less, nothing more.” In a broad sense, this is even harder to dispute: What were the Balkan wars except small groups of people taking up arms against other small groups of people in the name of nations whose flags they waved and whose languages they spoke? But that isn’t a sufficient explanation either. The Czechs and Slovaks felt enough mutual dislike to split their small country in half, but that wasn’t enough to make them start shooting at one another. Why is American nationalism mostly focused on Fourth of July fireworks? Why does Balkan nationalism involve killing next-door neighbors?
At a later stage in the game, many began blaming the Serbs—or to be precise, those in Serbia who backed a particularly lethal form of Serbian nationalist aggression. In a limited sense, this explanation too had some merit. As early as 1992, maps of a future Greater Serbia were floating around Belgrade. I was once shown one: It did indeed include large chunks of Bosnia, Croatia, even Hungary. That the subsequent wars in the region were inspired by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader, and that they were intended to create this long-talked-about Greater Serbia, is undoubtedly true. But Milosevic’s existence, and Serbia’s belligerence, aren’t enough to explain all the violence either. Now Milosevic is gone. He has been replaced by extremely civilized people, not only the new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, or the new Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, but also the people around both of them. I happened, by chance, to have dinner last week with someone who works closely with Djindjic. He spoke flawless English, told funny jokes, and was as pro-Western as it is possible for an East European to be; he also said he hoped very much that Milosevic would be in prison within the next few weeks. Yet in Macedonia, the violence continues, and it has nothing to do with the Serbs.
Without a doubt, everyone’s impulse will now be to blame the Albanians: Politicians have already started to do it (Christopher Patten, former governor of Hong Kong; Javier Solana, former secretary general of NATO) as have the NATO troops on the ground in Kosovo. “I got used to thinking of the Serbs as oppressors because of Bosnia,” an American officer told the Washington Post. “But here we’re really protecting the Serbs from the Albanians.” And again, it is true that during the mass anarchy that reigned in Albania a few years back, Albanian rioters broke into the huge weapons arsenals left lying around the country by the previous regime. Those guns have now found their way into the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose affiliates now appear to be invading Macedonia. Albania’s politicians are weak, divided, and indecisive, both in Albania itself and in the surrounding countries where Albanians make up large minorities. As one Albanian journalist put it, even when trying to be in tune with the West, Albanian politicians sound like an untuned instrument.
Thinking about it more carefully, however, I would prefer that we not demonize Albania or the Albanians. Not only does the world not need yet another rogue state, it is also clear that at the moment, the ethnic Albanian politicians in Macedonia are loudly condemning the violence, and I see no reason to denigrate them. That then leaves me with two conclusions of my own, take them as you wish.
One is that war begets war: Once a delicate ethnic balance is disturbed, it cannot be easily recovered. Cycles of revenge take over, people become accustomed to bloodshed and less inhibited about murder. The World War II is often mistakenly remembered as Hitler’s war against the Jews. In fact, during the course of that war, Germans killed Ukrainians, Ukrainians killed Poles, Poles killed Russians, Russians killed Jews, and, during the deportations of Germans that took place during the war’s aftermath, it even happened that Jews killed Germans—and, in each one of these cases, vice versa. The same thing now appears to be happening in the former Yugoslavia, as it is in Afghanistan, and as it is in parts of West Africa, too.
More to the point, it is also true that when you scratch the surface of just about all the actors in the Balkan wars, sooner or later you find a clique of former Communists trying to stay in power. It was no accident that the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia seemed so similar to the revolutions of 1989, nor that the arrest of the interior minister was such an important milestone. It isn’t that Milosevic was a Marxist: Communism, in its final days, was about corruption and rule-by-cronyism, not ideology, and he typified that. More than one journalist has now pointed out that the KLA was also originally founded by Maoist admirers of the Albanian Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha—and it fights, as I say, using Hoxha’s arsenal. Who knows who it is supports, and why, in Albania now? Who knows in whose interest it is to keep the fighting going?
It isn’t nationalism, but the politics of nationalists that turns ordinary ethnic tension into war. Nor is it ancient ethnic conflicts that make people go out and kill their neighbors, but rather the memory of recent shootings and killings. The distant past does matter—but so do the outrages of last week. Once this sort of revenge violence has started, and once it is in someone’s economic or political interest to keep it going, it can be almost impossible to stop: Think of Northern Ireland. I hope we are all prepared for the Balkan wars to continue.