Diplomats often say things publicly that they know perfectly well aren’t true—statements like “peace is the only option.” Such declarations can be useful, as long as it’s understood that the words are meant to inspire positive action, not to be taken literally. (If peace is the only option, why should diplomats work to stop violence?) The danger comes when the rhetoric feeds myths that inspire inaction. That may be the case with one of the more commonplace utterances of Western officials these days: Violent aggression is inevitably self-defeating.
If ever there was a place where this isn’t true, it is the Balkans. And yet diplomats who work the region repeat it constantly. Last month, for instance, European officials flew to Macedonia to voice support for that country’s democratically elected government, which is battling armed Albanian extremists who claim to be fighting for equal rights for the country’s Albanian minority (Albanians make up about a third of Macedonia, Slavs about two-thirds).
“It is … very important that everybody understands that extremist ways of solving problems will not lead anywhere,” said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Added European Union security chief Javier Solana, “Nothing, and I mean nothing, will be obtained by violent means.”
In fact, the insurgents have already obtained quite a bit by violent means. They have forced the international community and the Macedonian government to take long-held Albanian grievances more seriously. Ever since Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, its Albanian minority has complained, with some justification, of discrimination. Albanians are greatly underrepresented in public sector jobs. The government funds universities that teach in the Macedonian language but refuses even to accredit the Albanian-language University of Tetovo. Even the constitution, say Albanians, treats them as second-class, defining Macedonia as the country of “the Macedonian people” (i.e., Slavs) and relegating Albanians to the category of “other citizens.” These inequities are modest compared, say, to what the Albanians of Kosovo endured under Milosevic. And there has been some progress toward correcting them by the current coalition government, which includes the country’s largest Albanian party, led by Arben Xhaferi. But the progress has been fitful, largely because most Slavs believe that the Albanians already have equal rights and that giving in to their demands will only encourage more demands.
Not wanting to upset the fragile political balance in Macedonia, Western governments have been loath to put much pressure on the government to do more. But the whole political dynamic has changed since the extremists started lobbing mortar shells on Tetovo, the country’s second-largest city. Suddenly, European leaders started leaning on Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski to respond forcefully but carefully to the guerrillas, but also to cut a deal with Xhaferi for greater rights for Albanians in order to strengthen Xhaferi’s position among Albanians and undercut growing popular support for the extremists. Trajkovski seems to have gotten the message. Last week, he launched a measured and seemingly successful military offensive against the guerrillas outside Tetovo. The extremists disappeared into the mountains, though sporadic fighting continued through the weekend along the Kosovo border north of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. This week, Trajkovski is holding all-party negotiations to amend the constitution and make other changes demanded by Albanians. Thus, while the extremists have for the moment retreated, they have already advanced their stated goals of equal rights for Albanians.
Of course, almost nobody believes that equal rights really are their goals. What the insurgents—or at least many of them—ultimately want is what just about everyone who has taken up arms in the Balkans over the last decade has wanted: an ethnically pure state of their own. Albanian nationalists talk openly of uniting the Albanian western half of Macedonia with Kosovo and the Republic of Albania to form a “Greater Albania.” That may never happen, given the international community’s aversion to changing borders. But a more modest goal may be achievable: autonomy for western Macedonia. Rebel spokesman Sadri Ahmeti tipped his hand when he told the New York Times late last month, “We want Macedonian forces to withdraw from our territories. … I am fighting for the liberation of my territory.”
A few weeks of fighting have already fired up nationalist fervor among both the Albanian and Slavic populations. If there is no progress on meeting Albanian political demands and the extremists launch another offensive, a bloody all-out civil war could break out, and autonomy for western Macedonia may begin to look like the best possible solution. Again, violence would have paid off for the rebels.
The West’s lectures about the futility of violence must seem especially laughable to the Albanians of Kosovo. They spent most of the 1990s resisting Slobodan Milosevic’s oppressive rule through a strategy of nonviolence preached by their leader Ibraham Rugova. That strategy brought fulsome praise from the West, but zero relief from Serb oppression. Things changed only when the Kosovo Liberation Army came on the scene in 1998 and started killing Serb police and postmen. The KLA’s actions provoked a brutal crackdown by Belgrade, which led NATO to bomb Serbia, which in turn forced Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo. Far from being a dead end, violence for Kosovo Albanians was the road to freedom.
Obviously, violence doesn’t always work, especially in the long run. Just look at Milosevic. He used violence to consolidate and maintain power for over a decade. Now, after a violent standoff with Yugoslav police over the weekend at his Belgrade villa, Milosevic is behind bars and possibly on his way to The Hague. It took two NATO air wars to get him to relinquish his bloody grip on Bosnia and Kosovo, and it took vigorous Western support for Serbia’s democratic opposition to bring him down. The lesson is that if you want extremist violence not to pay, you have to be willing to counter it with violence while at the same time supporting the forces of moderation.
Applying this lesson is easier said than done. In theory, the war in Kosovo might have been avoided if the West had forced Milosevic at the1995 Dayton peace talks—after NATO bombs had brought him to the bargaining table—to make concessions to Rugova. The Clinton administration, however, reasoned that adding the issue of Kosovo to the already-complex negotiations over Bosnia would have doomed the entire talks. They may have been right about that. But the result was that Kosovo Albanians concluded (correctly) that the moderate policies of Rugova would bring them no justice. The KLA stepped into the breach and eventually won, for a while, widespread public support.
After bombing Serbia in 1999 and essentially intervening on the side of the KLA, the West then took some steps to ensure that the KLA would not be allowed to pocket its gains. It insisted, for instance, that people in Kosovo should be allowed to vote in more-or-less fair local elections last October. They voted overwhelmingly for Rugova’s moderation over the KLA’s thuggishness, despite the best efforts of the KLA to terrorize and intimidate its “own” community. Other decisions by the West, however, have not been so wise. Nearly every Kosovo Albanian wants independence from Yugoslavia, and moderates call for a national referendum to bring it about. But Western diplomats won’t even talk about the possibility for fear of alienating the new democratically elected government in Belgrade. This has diminished the stature of Rugova in the public’s mind and enhanced that of the KLA. Also, NATO never seriously tried to disarm the KLA out of fear that NATO troops would become KLA targets. As a result, the KLA has been able to export those arms, and a growing sense of restiveness, to Macedonia.
Since the fighting started in Macedonia, the West has done many things right. It has condemned the insurgents and muscled KLA leaders in Kosovo to do the same. It has shown support for the Macedonian government, while pressing it to negotiate with the moderate Albanians. It is sharing intelligence with the Macedonian military and beefing up NATO troops along the Kosovo/Macedonia border to apprehend rebels and arms. But all this might not be enough to keep Macedonia from descending into full-scale civil war. All the extremists have to do is provoke more firefights with the Macedonian military. Any forceful response by the government, no matter how careful, will be seen by the Albanian masses as attacks on them. Support for the extremists will grow, Slav attitudes will harden, and events will spin out of control, possibly drawing in neighboring countries such as Bulgaria and NATO member Greece.
If the extremists are bent on continued violence, then perhaps the only way to avert a bloodbath is for NATO to do what it currently shows no willingness to do: put well-armed troops on the ground in Macedonia now, during the current lull in the fighting. There would be risks involved, but perhaps fewer than might be imagined. Any insurgents foolish enough to attack NATO troops could expect a forceful response, and that response would not have the ethnically polarizing effect that the rebels are looking for. There is a precedent for such a deployment. From 1993 to 1998, U.N. peacekeeping troops from the United States, Scandinavia, and Indonesia patrolled some of the very hills of Macedonia where the recent fighting began. They deterred aggression from the north and kept relations between Albanians and Macedonian Slavs calm. Deploying a similar international force now might change the incentives in Macedonia that currently favor extremist violence. Absent such a force, Western rhetoric about how “nothing is obtained by violence” is a comforting but cruel deception.