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Review of 2001 Saturday, 29 December, 2001, 09:02 GMT
Macedonia: Step back from the abyss
Aracinovo
Macedonia was poised on the brink of war
Paul Wood

We recognised the NLA commander immediately by the large, silver .357 magnum strapped to his black flak vest and by the fact he only had one hand. The other had been blown off while bomb making in the Kosovo war.

This was March in a still snowy Albanian village in northern Macedonia and the commander was preparing for a war in the only corner of the former Yugoslavia untouched by the past decade's ethnic conflict.

Today this commander is biding his time in his villa on the Albanian coast after war was averted by a skilful and unprecedented international diplomatic intervention to save Macedonia.

But the Macedonian time bomb was not defused altogether. The republic of two million people remains at risk of an explosion of ethnic violence if the peace deal achieved under international pressure is not implemented fully.

The first sign of trouble came last January with a mortar attack on a police station in the small town of Tearce, in western Macedonia.

A statement was issued by a previously unheard of Albanian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army.

It said: "The uniform of the Macedonian occupier will be targeted until all areas with Albanian population are liberated".

Macedonia is a tiny chunk of what was once Yugoslavia, landlocked between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Between a quarter and a third of the population are ethnic Albanian, and they have always had a seat in government.

Resentment

"This is not Kosovo," a member of the majority Slav population told me a year ago, summarising ethnic Macedonian resentment both at the Albanians taking up arms and at an international community which, it was angrily claimed, had misunderstood the situation in the republic.

But ethnic Albanians felt they were second class citizens, virtually excluded from the police and army, denied state funding for their university in Tetovo and subject to a constitution which described the country as being the "national state of the Macedonian people".

NLA rebels
NLA rebels achieved a high level of support

So although the NLA gunmen were always a minority within a minority, Western diplomats were taken by surprise at the level of support the guerrillas quickly achieved among an Albanian population who believed their aspirations had been too-long denied.

A world away from the mountain villages where the NLA was born, even the news reader on Macedonian state television's Albanian language program could proclaim: "They are heroes. If I was not a mother with two children I would join them too".

Once the fighting erupted around the Western city of Tetovo, it proved difficult to stop. Albanian guerrillas there denounced the NLA's own general staff as cowards for wanting to accept the first of many internationally brokered cease-fires.

The Macedonian security forces brought out helicopter gun-ships and heavy artillery, pounding rebel-held villages in defiance of international calls for restraint.

The 3,000-strong German Nato garrison stationed nearby ran for cover - there would be no immediate military intervention.

Diplomacy

Instead there was a text-book exercise in preventative diplomacy by Nato, the EU and the US.

Over seven gruelling weeks of intensive negotiations in the picturesque setting of a villa on Lake Ohrid, American and European envoys brought the two sides progressively closer together.

Protests in front of the Parliament in Skopje
Many Macedonians accused the government of surrender

Events on the battlefield threatened to derail the whole process several times.

The rebels took the village of Aracinovo, and threatened to rain down mortar bombs on the capital, Skopje, if the security forces did not stop their punishing assault.

Eventually NLA rebels were escorted out of Aracinovo by international troops.

This event and the emerging terms of the peace deal provoked an armed crowd of ethnic Macedonians to go on the rampage, attacking Western embassies, international journalists and even the Macedonian parliament.

The deal which had so enraged them allows for an extra 1,000 Albanian police officers to be recruited. But they will remain under control of the central government in Skopje and not be answerable to local leaders, as the ethnic Albanians had wanted.

Albanian will become an official language along with Macedonian and can be used in official institutions in areas where ethnic Albanians account for at least 20% of the population.

And the constitution is being changed to remove any reference to the ethnic background of Macedonians.

It will now describe all Macedonia's population as "citizens of the Republic of Macedonia".

'Essential Harvest'

The deal opened the way for Operation Essential Harvest, a 30-day British-led effort to collect weapons held by the NLA. The target of 3,000 weapons, including a couple of tanks, was met.

The Macedonians accused the Albanians of hiding up to 85,000 weapons. Jane's Defence Weekly says that in reality the Albanians may continue to hold up to 8,000 guns.

Surrended rebel weapons, Macedonia
Some analysts believe the rebels retain a sizeable arsenal

A respected think tank, the International Crisis Group, says that some 3,000 guns are also in the hands of ethnic Macedonian paramilitaries.

After much delay, the Macedonian Government has finally approved the constitutional changes set out in the peace deal.

But the ethnic Albanians say it is a watered down version of what was agreed. And elections due to be held in January to cement the peace deal now look like being delayed.

Among the ethnic Macedonian parties in the coalition government, the moderate Social Democrats have now pulled out of the government, leaving it in the hands of uncompromising nationalists.

Most of the NLA's leadership have put on suits and have entered the political arena. But some important commanders have joined a new group, the Albanian National Army.

It wants to unify all Albanian lands - so-called Greater Albania - something which will be resisted to the last drop of blood by the ethnic Macedonians.

The peace deal is at risk of being torn apart by two opposing forces: the Macedonian nationalists bitterly resentful that the international community forced them to give away too much, and Albanian rebels who think they can still get more.

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