A Historical Background to the Macedonian-Albanian Inter-Ethnic Conflict


Where do conflicts originate? The aim of this paper is to look at the origins of the current Macedonian-Albanian inter-ethnic conflict from a historical perspective. For this purpose, it assesses the influences of certain historical developments to the development of a strained relationship defined by fear, suspicion, and possibly hatred. In view of these, it will pose the question: was it all expected?

The historical focus is on the late Ottoman period, the inter-war period, the Second World War, the Yugoslav Communist era of Macedonia, and post-Communism. The paper will show that Macedonian perceptions of the ethnic Albanian community have been defined by an ethnic Albanian promotion of the idea of 'Greater Albania', fast demographic growth, and a post-Yugoslav protection of the young Macedonian state. Albanian perceptions, in turn, have been defined by a perceived Slav threat to their existence, as well as frustrations and hopes created by Tito's paradoxical nationality policies.

But such perceptions do not necessarily lead to conflict. What created the conflict in February 2001 were recent internal developments and external sparks that could feed on the existent conditions of inter-ethnic mistrust.

At the end of the 20th century the 'Macedonian Question' arose from its historical ashes. Forgotten and solved in appearance for some 80 years, Macedonia is yet again a question for Balkan stability. Indeed, certain preludes in the form of problems between the young Republic and her neighbours in the past 10 years, were there to announce the revival of the 'Question'. But in themselves, they were but one dimension, one that now is pushed behind in the name of economic co-operation, development, regional political leaderships, and the emergence of the new inter-ethnic crisis.

The real problem, therefore, emerges from the grey zone of overlap between the Macedonian and the Albanian 'Questions'. What is to be the form, or composition, of Macedonia, and, how are the territorial, or cultural, aspirations of the Albanians in the Balkans to be accommodated? The nature of the problem is ethnic, based on the claims of the ethnic Albanian community of Macedonia and the fears of both the Macedonian and Albanian communities from each other, but it may as well be perceived as a territorial problem. Indeed, ethnic problems, or rather, their mixture with territorial political claims, have always been at the core of the Balkan region's problems. Up to the conflict, ethnic Albanian claims ranged from guarantees of cultural rights, to elevation of the community to a status of constituent nation of the Republic of Macedonia. Specific claims were largely focused on education, most notably at university level, as well as proportional representation in the public administration, the police and the army. Their satisfaction would have remedied what in their eyes is their condition of second-class citizens, and, according to some, would never have led to a conflict in the first place.

However, the Macedonian perception was, and is, different. Ethnic Macedonians believe that all guarantees for, to use Schopflin's words, a 'cultural reproduction' of the Albanian minority have been granted, both by the constitution and in practice. There are primary and secondary schools in Albanian language as well as independent and state media. Also, the electoral system guarantees that the Albanian electorate will always be proportionally represented in Parliament, and it is a practice when forming a coalition government to include an Albanian party. It is feared that satisfaction of any further claim would lead to federalisation, and perhaps decomposition of Macedonia. The example of Kosovo had served to confirm such fears. In this light it is apparent that ethnic claims in fact intersect with territorial, and this has been somewhat encouraged by such statements of the NLA as Communique 4 issued in January 2001, in which it indicated that it was fighting for the rejection of Macedonian occupation of Albanian-inhabited lands, since it would not stop until "the Albanian people are liberated." Consequently, the Albanian ethnic-based claims are perceived to be in conflict with a Macedonian determination to preserve the newly formed state.

These fears may be traced to originate back in history. Indeed, certain historic developments in the past century and a half have influenced the ethnic psychic of both communities in relation to each other, thus creating fertile grounds for possible problems. This psychic is conditioned by fears and suspicions, and we shall look at history to see how they came about. Even if historical facts may not be well known to individuals, Blaze Ristevski is right to say that one does not only know history, one also feels it.[1] Thus we will focus on historic events and developments that shaped the different ethnic groups' perceptions, most notably in the late Ottoman period, the inter-war years, the Second World War, the Yugoslav Communist era of Macedonia, and post-Communism.

Nevertheless., the real origins of the inter-ethnic conflict in Macedonia are recent. The Albanians have been present in the region much longer than the problem itself, and we did not have a conflict until February 2001. So, nothing is pre-determined. The woods for a Macedonian fire, as well as the sparks to light it up are much more recent and specific, coming from both Macedonia itself, but also from its external environment.

But firstly, what was it in history that provided for the fertile grounds to nurture potential problems?

The accommodating history

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The question of who settled first and where

According to some sources, the Illyrians, of whom the Albanians believe themselves to be the direct descendants, have held vast territories covering all of the western Balkans ever since 2000 BC, including territories in today's Albania, northern Greece and former Yugoslavia. It follows that around the time when the Slavs settled in the Balkans, the 7th century, the Albanians had already long settled in the relevant areas. These claims are disputed by Serb historiographers, whose arguments dispute that the Albanians descend from the Illyrians, instead claiming that Albanian prehistory goes back only to the 11th century, when they were allegedly mentioned for the first time. In the same line, it was only in the late 18th century the Albanians started making inroads "in the lands of the South Slavs".

Regardless of timing, the end result is that the territories on which ethnic Albanians were settled and were a majority in the 19th century did not coincide with the frontiers of Albania proper today. According to some sources, in 1875, their extension, covering a territory of up to 80,000km2, was up to Novi Pazar, Nish in the north; Vranje in the north-east; Kumanovo, Skopje, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kicevo, Prilep and Bitola, in the east; Podgorica, Tivat and Ulcinj in the north-west; and Preveza, Konitza and Janina in the south. Skopje at the end of the 19th century counted some 45,000 people, of whom 25,000 were Muslims, almost all Albanians, 10-15,000 'Bulgarians'[2], 3000 Jews and 2000 Serbs.

When did the problem emerge?

If a significant Albanian presence is thus accepted, a question that comes up concerns the nature of their relationship with the local Macedonian population. The Albanians in Macedonia were, because of their Islamic religion, placed in a position of a privileged ruling class in relation to the deprived Slav Christian masses. Indeed, in the first half of the 19th century many semi-independent feudal lords (chiflik-sajbii) on the territory of Macedonia proper were of Albanian origins.

This kind of ordered relationship, with the Christian Macedonian population in the subordinate position, could have influenced the Macedonian-Albanian inter-ethnic relationship. Macedonian communal memory of the times of the chiflik-sajbii is filled with resentment due to the worsened living conditions of the Macedonian peasants resident on the chiflikApart from the already existent heavy taxes owed to the central Turkish authorities, the land of the peasants was now taken away and added to the chiflik, where, becoming dependent, they were also obliged to pay taxes to the local chiflik-sajbii, and were often forced to provide free labour. The creation of such a negative memory was substantiated by the existence of Albanian outlaw groups who came from today's territory of Albania proper or western Macedonia, and looted the Macedonian villages.

But it is doubtful if this could be sufficient to create a relationship of mutual resentment between the two ethnic groups. "The oldest generation from Western Macedonia... remembers when Christians and Muslims would live under the same roof as part of the same extended family… [M]arriages have always been freely contracted across linguistic lines. The children of such mixed marriages would all grow multilingual" (Friedman). After all, Macedonian collective memory was dominated by resentment for the 5-century long Turkish presence in Macedonia up to the First Balkan War, rather than towards Albanians in themselves. Collective recollections from the inter-war period switched to the fight for Macedonian territory of the Balkan powers and the subsequent division of the Macedonians. On this basis, an Albanian problem should not dominate Macedonian collective memory. And yet, the problem with the ethnic Albanians today exists.

Projects on 'Greater Albania': Macedonian survival questioned

In June 1878 the Prizren League was established in Kosovo. Its main aim was a defence of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire in order to impede what the League's founders, the Albanian Gheg clans, saw as a Slav penetration in their lands. For a better organisation of these defences, they asked the Sultan to unite the four vilayets in a unique autonomous administrative entity. Albanian independence, however happened only in 1912, when an assembly of 83 delegates proclaimed in Valona the independence of Albania. This proclamation was a hurried response to the advance of Serb and Montenegrin troops in Macedonia and of Greek troops in Epirus. The Great Powers quickly recognised the independence of the Albanian state, and in the following year fixed the borders. A third of the Albanian population remained under Serb and Montenegrin administration, including the western coast of Lake Scutari, Kosovo and Metohija, and the western part of today's Macedonia. The Greeks retained southern Epirus.

The division of the Albanians thus happened with the Balkan Slavs held responsible, creating one of the primary sources of Albanian resentment. History since then may be termed irredentist, involving a tendency to reunify these divided 'Albanian lands'. An illustration is the choice of King Zog (1928-1939) to name himself 'King of Albanians' rather than 'King of Albania': Tirana would not forget the 35 percent of the ethnic Albanians outside the borders of the newly founded state.

In 1939 fascist Italy annexed Albania. By this action, Italy inherited the legacy of a nationalist conscience in formation with all the irredentist aspirations that had been cultivated during the reign of King Zog. Two years after the annexation of Albania proper, Italy, by entering a war against Greece and Yugoslavia, attached all the Balkan regions with an Albanian presence to Albania proper, thus making possible the birth of a 'Greater Albania'. In July 1941 the territory of western Macedonia was annexed. The Italian occupation forces were presented as liberators of the Albanian people from the oppressive regimes of old Yugoslavia. Having in mind the latter's ethnic discriminatory politics against the Albanian people, as well as their disadvantageous economic situation, their positive response could be expected.

The occupation administration established in western Macedonia was divided between its Italian and Albanian segments. In December 1941 the civil administration in this part of Macedonia was led by the Ministry of the 'newly liberated' lands of Albania, its functions taken over in 1943 by the respective ministries of the Albanian 'Quisling' government. The administrative, the judicial apparatus, and the police, were entirely staffed by persons of Albanian origins. The oppressive policies included the establishment of schools entirely and exclusively using this language and the substitution of the Slavic forms of personal names with Albanian ones.

Immediately after the end of WW2, extremist nationalist organisations started operating in the region. One of them, Balli i Kombetar, having secured the loyalties of former collaborationists and ordinary people resentful of the return of Slav domination, between 1944 and 1948 involved itself in a battle against the Yugoslav armed forces. "In the last years of the Second World War and the first few years of the post-war period, the nationalist Albanian partisans of the Balli i Kombetar movement, but also the communists of the Front for National Liberation of Enver Hoxha, attempted to preserve the territorial unity already acquired..." (Bozzo & Belli 1997:83).

As a consequence of these historic developments, the image of an Albanian ambition to create such an entity as a 'Greater Albania' was thus firmly imprinted in the Macedonian consciousness. Events following WW2 that indicated that the Albanians continued to fight for increased autonomy of the regions they inhabited supported such an image. In November 1968, a day before Albania's independence day, riots broke out in Pristina. Less than one month later, similar ones broke out in Tetovo, showing a strong nationalist display. Isa Blumi argues that such an event should not be used as an indicator of an Albanian ethnic cohesiveness, claiming that the Tetovo demonstrators had not been Macedonian Albanians, but Kosovar ones who had fled to Macedonia after the violent suppression of the Pristina demonstrations by the Yugoslav National Army. Even if it was so, from this example one can understand the vulnerability of the Macedonian state to the plight of the Kosovar Albanians and the influence they might exert over events in Macedonia.

In the post-Yugoslav period, the Albanians of Macedonia became increasingly vocal. Whereas in Tito's Yugoslavia they were a divided, and thus an easily manageable minority facing a powerful state, in independent Macedonia they form a large and territorially concentrated population in a problem-besieged state. This reinforced the Macedonian perception that the greatest problem facing this state was the question of Albanian secession in western Macedonia. A number of events in the 1990s confirmed such anxieties. After having boycotted the Macedonian referendum for independence in September 1991, in January 1992 the Macedonian Albanians declared an autonomous 'Republic of Ilirida' in western Macedonia. Albanian flags fly in all ethnic Albanian public gatherings, with a conspicuous absence of Macedonian ones. This has led Macedonians to doubt the Albanian allegiance to the Macedonian state, an allegiance that is instead viewed to belong to Albania proper. Ethnic Albanian reassurances that "it is not the flag of the Albanian state, it is the flag of the entire nation", can only reinforce Macedonian fears of the potential for unity of all Albanians. In the light of such fears can be viewed the negative reactions to a state-funded high education institution in Albanian, perceived as one that could create a state within a state, thus playing the same role as the Pristina University. A more recent source of concern were the pre-Tanusevci reports in Macedonian newspapers of possible links of the Kosovo Liberation Army with Albanian paramilitary organisations in Macedonia. Thus, "[In] the mind of the average [ethnic Macedonian] person… the Albanian becomes someone capable of creating a war unless his requests, which seem never-ending, are fulfilled" (Mladenov 1999).

The changing demographics

Trends of demographic growth of the Albanian population on the territory of Macedonia proper were consistent throughout the 20th century. Data gathered on the eve of the Second Balkan War in 1913 showed that the share of the 'Slav' population was 55 percent. The Turks made up 18 percent, and the Albanians 14 percent of the population on the territory of Macedonia in its present territory. In 1948, the Yugoslav census in Macedonia showed an ethnic composition of 60.4 percent Macedonians, 17.1 percent Albanians and 8.3 percent Turks. The 1994 census showed an ethnic Macedonian share of 66.6 percent, with the proportion of the Albanians being 22.7 percent, and of the Turkish population some 4 percent.

The two main reasons for the increase in ethnic Albanian presence in Macedonia were differences in natural increases and migrations. Albanians in Macedonia have a far higher birth rate than their Macedonian counterpart, with four children or more per family. Consistent population movements of Albanians into Macedonia particularly augmented during the 1990s. With the breakdown of the SFRY, there was practically no control over the influx of people across the border from neighbouring Albania in the west and Kosovo and Metohija in the north-west. Principal reason for the influx from Albania proper was its internal instability of 1995, during which entire Albanian villages moved to Macedonia. Immigration from Kosovo was mostly made possible in the beginning of the 1990s since the border between Federal Yugoslavia (including Kosovo) and Macedonia remained unsettled. The principal causes activating this long-term migration have been the martial law imposed in Kosovo, the pressures exerted by the Yugoslav People's Army enforcing this law, the illegal traffic of arms and drugs, the trade relations between Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians, and refugee flows instigated by the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

There are two major consequences to such demographic processes. Firstly, the demographic changes in favour of the ethnic Albanians threaten to disturb the ethnic balance in Macedonia today, thus exacerbating Macedonian fears. For what the Albanians primarily base their claims on, is a combination of historic right, based on the image of a divided and victimised community, and self-determination reliant on a strong concentration and increasing proportions of this ethnic community. Secondly, the population in Macedonia is today highly ethnically polarised, both in terms of quantity and geographical distribution. This makes the population question particularly important, as it is a strong basis on which to build the ethnic Albanian claims or the ethnic Macedonian defences. It affects all discussions on inter-ethnic issues: over the number of hours of minority language in television and radio programming, the employment in the state sector, the use of national symbols, and the question of the Constitutional status of the Albanian community in Macedonia. It is also a question that can be easily abused. The results of the regular 1991 census were disputed by the Albanians, as well as those from the extraordinary 1994 census, funded and monitored by the international community. The last showed that ethnic Albanians constituted 22.7 percent, although their own estimates go up to 40 percent, a figure almost certainly exaggerated. Because of such ambiguities, it is very important that the overdue census of 2001 should take place as soon as possible, although this will not be possible in practice before the on-going process of constitutional amendment is over.

The perceived Slav threat

"The Albanian people have faced the partition of their ethnic land since the Congress of Berlin. Serbia and Montenegro have expelled the Albanians forcefully from their land and colonised it. Ethnic cleansing has been carried out in the most brutal way in the occupied land."[3] Although the perceived threat for the Albanians in the Balkans comes primarily from Serbs, the Macedonians as well have been added to such a perception in the context of Tito's Yugoslavia. "The unfortunate but truthful fact is that Albanophobia is what unites the Slavs, the Orthodox people" (Rusi 1999).

An account of Albanian perceptions of an organised South Slav threat may start with what was seen as "the first programme of Serb expansionist policy in 1844". Nacertanija, compiled by Ilija Grasanin, set the basis for Serbia's modern views of her historic mission of uniting all the Southern Slavs and the regions where they lived. What this meant in essence was territorial expansion of Serbia, which had repercussions for the Albanians. Later, Serbia's triumph in the second Serb-Ottoman war of 1877 meant the beginning of a forceful mass exodus and resettlement of the Albanians from south-western Serbia, preceded by use of military force. The 1878 Congress of Berlin allowed for territorial expansion of Serbia, Montenegro and Greece, which affected the lands populated by Albanians. The newly acquired lands were now subject to "ethnic cleansing and colonisation" directed primarily against Albanians.

Between 1912 and 1918 in the Serbian territories outside the new Albanian state i.e. in Kosovo, Sanjak and Macedonia, the latter now becoming a part of Serbia, the Serb military undertook legally sanctioned resettlements, colonisation, deportations and persecutions. The 1914 Law-decree on Agrarian Reforms and Colonisation passed by the Serb government is an example of a legal act that allowed for such policies. Similar activities continued after 1918 and 1929 in the new Yugoslav Kingdom. Christian Giordano finds a link between an apparent socio-economic background and a hidden ethnic one behind the new laws on land reform brought in this period (Giordano 2000). The laws thus amounted to forceful emigration, expropriation of Albanian ownership and colonisation of Albanian inhabited lands with Serbs and Montenegrins. As a consequence, the 1930s saw a worsening in the inter-ethnic relations between Slavs and Albanians, which in turn was seen as a proof that policies had to be strengthened with more drastic measures. Such measures were most notably suggested by Cubrilovic in his 1939 project titled The Expulsion of Albanians, in which herecommended that state authorities force all Albanians to emigrate to Turkey or Albania, by the means of state terror created by means of laws, as well as military terror. Today, this document is viewed as a manifesto for the 'ethnic cleansing' of ethnic Albanians in present-day Yugoslavia.

These policies did not fail to influence the formation of a particular anti-Slav Albanian conscience, characterised by hostility to the Balkan Slavs, a permanent perception of threat and need for protection. "The relations between ethnic groups became tense, particularly between Albanian villagers and Slavonic colonists… Settling the Serbs and Montenegrins in the villages and houses of the Albanians... had negative influence on their psychological viewpoint and security perspective" (Institute of History). As a consequence, the Second World War saw a reversal of the trend, when, in the first few months of the occupation, some 10,000 settlers' houses were burnt and their inhabitants expelled, while some estimated 80,000 colonists from Albania proper settled.

Macedonia's connection here lies only in the circumstance that its recent history is closely associated with Serbia. After 1913, Vardar Macedonia itself became a part of Serbia, meaning that the policies of the Serb authorities were also applied to its territory. After becoming a partner in the new Yugoslav federation in 1944, it followed policies close to the Communist leadership in Belgrade, as perceived in the anti-Hoxha and anti-Albanian campaign of the Macedonian authorities following the 1968 riots. Similarly, after the 1981 Kosovo demonstrations, Macedonian officials allegedly made public attacks against many individuals. Thus, a common conclusion is: "Although this [chauvinism] is a Serbian product, its best consumers were among the Macedonian political elites…" (Mehmeti 1999). In 1995, when the illegal Albanian university in Tetovo was closed down by authorities, and in 1997, when demonstrations in Gostivar over the display of the Albanian flag were met with police violence, ethnic Albanians accused the government of "colluding with Serbia" (Blumi). Fadil Sulejmani, rector of the underground university of Tetovo, stated that there was no difference between the Macedonians and the Serbs.

The paradox of Tito's nationality policies

The 1943 AVNOJ birth of Tito's Yugoslavia opened an additional page in the of development of the Slav-Albanian, and also Macedonian-Albanian inter-ethnic relations. The Tito regime brought at best ambiguous and at worst paradoxical national policies that at the same time gave hope and brought oppression, but eventually left no-one satisfied. The situation of the ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia is a case in point. Ethnic Albanian perception of ethnic policies in Tito's Yugoslavia is one of a continuation of a Slav-induced oppression. Not only did the new Yugoslav state separate its substantial Albanian community from Albania proper, but also it did not provide equality with the other Yugoslav peoples by granting the Albanians the status of republic. This particularly appeared discriminatory since, instead, other people, the Bosnian Muslims for instance, thought to have less valid claims to nationhood, were given such a title. What is even more, the new Yugoslavia also left its Albanians fragmented between three of its republics, namely Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.

After 1948 and up until 1963 Tito's policies towards the Yugoslav Albanians became more ambiguous. On one hand, they remained defined only as nationality (narodnostin Macedonia and Montenegro. Kosovo-Metohija, where Albanians continued to form the majority of the population, was constituted only as Autonomous Region within Serbia, thus deprived of self-governance. Police methods based on suspicion were also being implemented. But, on the other hand, there were signs suggesting more lenient attitudes towards the ethnic Albanians. Instruction in Albanian language was obligatory in areas where there was a considerable ethnic Albanian presence. Also, Albanian immigrants were being settled in Kosovo, Metohija and western Macedonia, resulting in some 40,000 Albanians that established permanent residence between 1948 and 1956. The early 1960s saw a gradual change in Tito's policy. He moved towards larger decentralisation, by which the federal units were to receive more powers. The new policy led to the upgrading of the status of ethnic Albanians. The 1963 Yugoslav Constitution saw for an enlargement of the autonomy of Kosovo-Metohija. In 1970 the Pristina University was established. Around the same period, relations with Albania were normalised and this allowed for stronger connections between Kosovars and Albanians from Albania proper. The 1974 Constitution finished off the process by giving virtual self-rule to the Autonomous Region of Kosovo. For the Macedonian Albanians, however, this decentralisation did not mean much, since they only continued to enjoy the cultural rights granted to them as a minority. In the same manner, what Kosovo gained was, in the words of Roux, "a republic only without the title of a republic. This difference in terminology would not remain deprived of its consequences" (Roux 1998).

Not only were Tito's nationality policies confusing for the ethnic Albanians, who could have easily felt manipulated, but it also resulted in their frustration. Firstly, they could see themselves placed in an unfair position and betrayed the same CPYwho, following Comintern objectives, had nurtured the dreams of Albanian unification before and in the early stages of the war. CPY's Fourth Congress held in 1928 and its Fourth National Conference held in 1934, had advocated the breaking up of the Yugoslav Kingdom into national states, as well as the unification of all Albanians by a joint struggle with the CPY. Thus, subsequent developments, like the policy of 'brotherhood and unity' (bratstvo i edinstvo), were regarded as being hypocritical, even more so as Kosovo and Macedonia remained the least developed parts of the federation. But secondly, and paradoxically, the gradual rights given to them in Kosovo-Metohija with the end result being a quasi-state entity within the federation, has undoubtedly shown the possibility of an all-Albanian unification, or at least independence from Yugoslavia. The demonstrations that took place one year after the death of Tito, displaying chants for annexation of Kosovo to Albania and the creation of a 'Socialist Republic of Kosovo', as well as cheers for Enver Hoxha, are an illustration. Today, a possible consequence of the granting of such rights to the Albanians in Kosovo is their search for continuity in Macedonia. Thus, talking about the effects of the Yugoslav disintegration upon the position of its ethnic Albanians, Kim Mehmeti writes: "The denouncement was fatal for [ethnic Albanians]: Kosovo was deprived of its autonomy that it had enjoyed in the past. Albanians from Macedonia had none of the inherited rights [stressed by author] they had enjoyed in former Yugoslavia" (Mehmeti 1999).

Tito's nationality policies produced different results for the Macedonian consciousness. At the AVNOJ meeting, Macedonia was for the first time given self-government, and the Macedonian nation was now openly recognised. The Macedonians were named a 'people' (narod), a titular nationality of an equal (at least in theory) federative republic. Thus, both Macedonian identity and self-regard were reinforced.

Brubaker has written extensively on the effect of the paradox of mixing national and ethnic separation and equality with division and suppression of free expression of nationhood. Thus, what on one hand exists, is 'institutionalised multiethnicity', i.e. "state-sponsored codification and institutionalisation of nationhood and nationality on a sub-state rather than state-wide level" (Bruebaker 1996:27). But, on the other hand there is "a mismatch between the frontiers of national territories and the spatial distribution of nationalities", thus leaving ethnic groups within the newly formed sub-units unprotected and at a disadvantaged position. This paradox is what sanctions nationalism, particularly after the wider state disappears and the titular nationalities are free to claim their own states.

The Albanian-Macedonian inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia may be a consequence of such a paradox. Brubaker claims that a logical development after the titular nationality gained its independence would be its fear from loosing the newly acquired independence in the face of the ethnically heterogeneous character of the new state. And this fear can easily develop into protection from perceived dangers. Such a possibility in the Macedonian case is even more likely because of the long history of denial of the existence of the Macedonian nation and a long non-existence of a Macedonian political entity, as well the precarious existence of the state even in the period after its independence. And on the other side, there is the ethnic Albanian minority viewing itself as placed in an unjust position, weary of Slav domination, but at the same time aware of the possibility of fulfilling its claims. A situation of tension, confrontation and potential conflict is thus automatically created.

In the views of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, the Brubakerist repressive tendencies of the former titular nationality have found real life examples, such as the issue of state-funded Albanian-language university, the 1995 Mala Rechica incident, the Tetovo and Gostivar interventions, and the Albanian disproportional presence in public administration, the police and the army. These have been perceived as largely suppressing the freedom of expression of the Albanian identity in Macedonia and have thus served as an encouragement to speak louder and fight harder for their claims.

The inflaming present

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But who put the woods?

Mutual fears, suspicions, negative group memories, feeling of group vulnerability on both sides, and a prevalent feeling of state vulnerability, these are all historically developed elements that in large ways have defined the national psychics of the Macedonian and Albanian ethnic communities. Nevertheless, these do not make an inter-ethnic conflict inevitable. Although the Macedonian state, as born in 1991, did not provide for the greatest happiness of all, it at least created conditions for a peaceful coexistence of the ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian communities. Also in view of the somewhat miraculous survival of the state in a period of regional turbulence and external challenges, Macedonia, perhaps, rightly, prided itself to be a successful multicultural democracy. Therefore, the conflict that started in February 2001 came as a surprise to many. A question to be asked is, thus, who put the woods to make the fire?

The woods came from both the outside and inside of contemporary Macedonia. One such external development was the Kosovo war and its outcome. The support that the KLA received from the West and the US most notably, may have served to encourage a thinking that similar support could be found for similar actions elsewhere. We saw a spill-over of violence used to achieve ethnic goals in South Serbia, and later in Macedonia. Indeed, with the development of the conflict in Macedonia, we could witness how the general support slowly turned against the Macedonian government, although this did not mean automatic support for the NLA. Also, the fact that Kosovo de facto managed to gain its independence (we shall witness parliamentary elections later on 18 November) in effect displayed on a large banner the message that 'violence pays'.

This does not nevertheless mean that there was no internal basis for the conflict. For firstly, there was lack of firm governmental control of the Macedonian border with Kosovo and Albania. Such laxity allowed for unimpeded movement of men, drug- and, most importantly, arms-trafficking. One cannot claim for sure where the arms that came from Albania's looted ware-houses ended up. The discovery in the spring of 1999 of a cave full of weapons and KLA insignia in the region of Lipkovo, one where, incidentally, much of the conflict would later take place, could have raised doubts about the intentions with the arms, but cannot have resolved them. Even if accepted that much of the weaponry went to Kosovo, and later in South-Serbia, many of them came back again to Macedonia.

Or perhaps, the lack of such border controls was intentional. It was public secret in Macedonia of an alleged behind-the-scene governmental deal between the main coalition partners. It was a public knowledge that an Albanian mafia was in de facto control of the Albanian-dominated lands of north-western Macedonia for the purposes of illicit drug-trading. The connections of the second person of the government's junior coalition partner, the DPA's (Democratic Party of Albanians) Menduh Thaci, to this mafia were also publicly known. The governmental deal widely spoken of was turning a blind eye to such a control in western Macedonia with all the illegal trading it hid (police patrols rarely went there, and when they did, grave incidents sent the strong message that they were not welcome), in exchange of a guarantee for strong support by the ethnic Albanian population to the senior coalition partner VMRO-DPMNE, who could thus remain in power. In effect, north-western Macedonia thus became a grey area already out of the sovereignty of the Macedonian government, from which the same government could be easily militarily challenged later on when it did try to assert control.

Where did the spark come from?

Nevertheless, the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001 saw further developments that coincided in time to the cumulative effect of a Macedonian internal conflict. The behind-the-scene games could have gone on, as it seems was in the interest of both the partners of the arrangement, and the weapons that went through Macedonia were engaged elsewhere for the time being.

But that 'time being' came to a close with the end of the Kosovo conflict and the later push of the PMBLA from South Serbia. The end of the conflict in Kosovo posed the questions what would happen to the men of the KLA (those not engaged in the Kosovo Peace Corps), for they were "a sacrificed generation which has known nothing but armed conflicts for years, and doesn't know how to do anything but fight,"[4] and where would their weapons end. Many of both of these could find their way easily into Macedonia. The engagement of the men and their arms was even more constrained by the push of the PMBLA from southern Serbia, so that in March 2001, Yugoslav police could enter the buffer Ground Safety Zone along the Kosovo border, including the little strip of land between Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia proper. Consequently, the men of the PMBLA had to seek refuge and take their weapons to an area that was little controlled. Such was northern Macedonia, an area suitable enough because of the reasons outlined above.

But the grey character of such an area was threatened by the reaching of an agreement between the federal Yugoslav and the Macedonian government to settle the long-disputed border between the two states. The delimitation materialised in February 2001, immediately before the Tanusevci incident, and the Macedonian Parliament ratified it in the beginning of March. The grey area that made the former men of war and the illegal traffickers comfortable thus disappeared.

On 12 February an A1 Television crew went to the village of Tanusevci in the north of the country on the border with Kosovo to check that unknown piece of land assigned to Macedonia with the delimitation agreement. Over there, the crew was retained by armed men, its equipment was taken, and the crew was later let go. Police and army detachments were a few days later sent to the village, and were immediately engaged in fights…

Instead of a conclusion

Does this mean, that the conflict's causes were of an economic nature, and the conflict would not have happened were it not for traffickers, and government deals that turned a blind eye to them? Does the above imply that, were it not for external factors, were it not for Kosovo, or the West's encouragement of Kosovo, Macedonia would not have been challenged with an armed conflict?

Such questions remain to loom, and one should be very happy to accept them. They mean that conflicts are incidents of circumstances, a sign that history can sometimes play with us. But would this explain the staying power of such conflicts, their ability to reflect so well in the souls of ordinary people? The men who fought initially for the NLA may have been Kosovars, but an increasing number of young and frustrated Macedonian Albanians were mobilised. The NLA already existed in 2000, organised by such Macedonian Albanians as Ali Aliu and Fazli Valiu, people who had dedicated their lives to organised battle for Albanian liberation, in whichever form it may come. The fact that their aims and methods bore fruits and support in Macedonia is indeed a matter for concern.

The aim of an ethnically heterogeneous state is not to allow ethnic frustrations to happen. But, in view of the development of particular ethnic psychics that were easily placed against each other, the Macedonian case perhaps shows that inter-ethnic accommodation can be very difficult.


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Articles in Journals

Mehmeti, Kim: "Parade Democracy" Leads Nowhere, in Refugees in Macedonia, a special edition published by Search for Common Ground in Macedonia, Fakti and Makedonija Denes(Skopje: May 1999);

Mladenov, Nikola: Which Side is Ours?, in Refugees in Macedonia, a special publication ofSearch for Common Ground in Macedonia, Fakti, and Macedonia Denes (Skopje: May 1999);

Pitassio, Armando: Il dramma di una nazione incompiuta, in the Albania: emergenza italianaissue of LiMes - Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, n.1/97 (Roma: Editrice periodici culturali, 1997);

Roux, Michel: Di chi è il Kosovo? Cento anni di conflitti, in Limes - Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica n.3/98 (Roma: Gruppo Editoriale l'Espresso, 1998);

Rusi, Iso: Skopje between Prishtina and Belgrade, in Refugees in Macedonia, a special issue published by Search for Common Ground in Macedonia, Fakti and Makedonija Denes (Skopje: May 1999);


Bozzo, Luciano & Simon-Belli, Carlo: La "Questione illirica" (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 1997);

Brubaker, Rogers: Nationalism Reframed (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996);

De Rapper, Gilles: Crisis in Kosovo: Reactions in Albania and Macedonia at the Local Level,Ethnobarometer Programme Working Paper No.3 (Rome: CSS/CEMES, 1998);

Institut za nacionalna istorija: Istorija na makedonskiot narod, Vol. 2 & 3 (Skopje: Nova Makedonija, 1969);

Milosavlevski, Slavko & Tomovski, Mirce: Albanians in the Republic of Macedonia 1945-1995: Legislative and Political Documentation Statistics (Skopje: NIP Studentski Zbor, 1997);

Nystazopoulou - Pelekidou, Maria: The "Macedonian Question": A Historical Review (Corfu: Ionian University);

Schopflin, George: Nations, Identity, Power (London: Hurst and Company, 2000);

Uzunov, Krassimir & Taseva, Evelina: Major Factors in the Evolution of the Ethnic Situation in the Republic of Macedonia(Sofia: Center for the Study of Democracy, 1993);

Zotiades, George B.: The Macedonian Controversy (Salonika: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1961).

Electronic Documents

Batakovic, Dusan: The Kosovo and Metohia Question; athttp://www.kosovo.com/history/kosovo_chronicles/kc_part1a.html;

Blumi, Isa: The Question of Identity, Diplomacy and Albanians in Macedonia: Has the Rain Come?, in International Journal of Albanian Studies (1997), athttp://www.albanian.com/IJAS/vol1/is1/art4.html;

Bogdanovic, Dimitrije: The Kosovo Question - Past and Present, Monographs, Vol. DLXVI, Presidium No.2 (Belgrade: Serb Academy of Sciences and Arts), at http://www.srpska-mreza.com/bookstore/kosovo/;

Cappelli, Vanni: The Macedonian Question… Again (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1998), at http://www.bulgariaonline.bg/macedonia/conflict.htm;

Friedman, Victor: Censuses and National Identity in Macedonia, April 1995 Roundtable Report at International Researches and Exchanges Board, at http://www.irex.org/;

Frosina Information Network, at http://www.frosina.org/infobits/;

Institute of History: Expulsions of Albanians and Colonisation of Kosova (Prishtina: University of Prishtina), at http://www.kosova.com/expuls/pref.htm;

International Crisis Group: Macedonia's Ethnic Albanians: Bridging the Gulf (2000), athttp://www.intl-crisis-group.org/projects/macedonia/reports/mac11rep.htm;

Laskoski, Dimitri (1996), at http://www.vmacedonia.com/religion/;

Martis, Nicolas: Macedonia(Athens: 1995), at http://www.hri.org/Martis/;

Picard, René: Les archives du Ministere des affairs étrangeres (Paris). Guerre 1914-1918, Balkans, Dossier general; at http://www.macedon.org/makedonika/index.htm;

United States Institute of Peace: Special Report: Macedonia: Prevention Can Work (2000), athttp://www.usip.org/oc/sr/sr000327/sr000327.html;


Giordano, Christian: Modernisation, Land Reforms and Ethnic Tensions. Scenarios in Central and East Europepaper presented at a Conference (Sofia: September 2000);

Janev, Goran: Minority Situation Macedonia: Basic Facts about Minorities (Center for Ethnic Relations, 1997);



[1] stated in discussion at a conference in Ohrid 15-16 December 2000

[2] The usage of the name Bulgarians denies the existence of any Macedonians in the area, a matter that is fiercely disputed

[3] from the Preface of a paper published by the Institute of History at the Pristina University

[4] statement by an unidentified Western diplomat