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Conflict in FYR Macedonia

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was at the center of controversy almost as soon as it declared its independence in September of 1991. The region of Macedonia, which historically includes large portions of Greece, Bulgaria, and the present-day FYR Macedonia, has historically been heavily contested throughout modern history by Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, as well as Slavs living in the historical region of Macedonia. The "Macedonian Question" as it has sometimes been called, led in part to the First and Second Balkan Wars, and was central in World Wars I and II. FYR Macedonia's declaration of independence seemed to bring the Macedonian Question to the fore yet again. Bulgaria disapproved of the creation of the new country as it had always considered that region to be Bulgarian (in fact, a late-nineteenth century Slavic Macedonian nationalist leader actually proclaimed, in reference to the Slavic Macedonians, "We are Bulgarian"). However the most vocal opposition came from Greece, who famously objected to the new country's use of the name Macedonia.

Greece believed that the name Macedonia referred to the Greek region of Macedonia and nothing more. They feared that the new country would have territorial designs on Greek Macedonia, which includes the major port city of Thessaloniki. The Greeks took the situation seriously enough to impose an economic blockade on the landlocked country, which was already suffering from a similar blockade imposed on them by Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. The sanctions were lifted in 1995 after FYR Macedonia agreed to be officially referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. FYR Macedonia also agreed to officially renounce any territorial claims on Greece, and modified its flag from an adaptation of the flag of Alexander the Great to the flag that is currently used. FYR Macedonia's current relations with Bulgaria and Greece have improved considerably in the past decade. Recently the United States announced its decision to refer to the state as the "Republic of Macedonia," notably omitting the reference to the former Yugoslavia. While the US claimed that it made the decision to reward FYR Macedonia for its commitment to democracy, the move sparked a row with Greece who feared that there may be "negative effects" associated with the use of the new name. Many speculated that the American decision was due to FYR Macedonia's support of the Iraq War.

Luckily for FYR Macedonia it was spared from the vicious ethnic conflicts that engulfed the rest of the former Yugoslavia. However in 1999 it seemed that FYR Macedonia's luck had finally run out. Thousands of Kosovar Albanians fled to FYR Macedonia, fleeing the Serb aggression against Kosovo's Albanian population. FYR Macedonia already had a significant Albanian minority (Albanians make up 25.17% of FYR Macedonia's population, while Slavic Macedonians make up 64.18% of the population). The Albanian minority began to question their position and protection in FYR Macedonia and ethnic tensions began to come to the surface. These tensions broke into a full-fledged insurgency when Kosovo Albanian refugees carried out armed provocations, launched attacks on government forces, and seized territory. The insurgency took place throughout the portions of FYR Macedonia that were inhabited by ethnic Albanians, mostly in the north and northwest of the country. The fighting had a serious polarizing affect on the population of FYR Macedonia.

Macedonia alone had avoided the inter-ethnic violence that characterized conflicts elsewhere following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. This distinction ended in February, when violent clashes erupted between Macedonian forces and armed ethnic Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (NLA). A series of scattered and intense conflicts followed predominantly throughout northwestern Macedonia, where the majority of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian population resides.

The stated goal of the NLA was to strengthen political and economic rights for ethnic Albanians, who comprise an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the country's two million inhabitants. The insurgent's demands included: amendments to the constitution that would guarantee equal standing for ethnic Macedonians and Albanians; a commitment to official bilingualism; increased presence of ethnic Albanians in state organizations, including security agencies; and the decentralization of power. For its part, the Macedonian government has countered that the ethnic Albanian minority already possesses sufficient political rights, as evidenced by the multi- ethnic composition of the coalition government and the upcoming opening of a private, Albanian-language university in the country's second largest city, Tetovo.

In addition, the government has accused the insurgents of wanting to split the country apart along ethnic lines. The crisis in Macedonia reached a critical level over the weekend of June 22 to 24, when the Macedonian army launched an attack on Aracinovo, a village roughly 10km outside of Skopje that had been under NLA control since June 9. On June 25, NATO and EU representatives brokered a deal between the NLA and the Macedonian government that allowed the NLA to leave Aracinovo and return to its home territory without having to relinquish its weapons. This move, viewed by ethnic Macedonians as giving in to pro-Albanian, Western pressure, sparked a demonstration in Skopje that resulted in the storming of the parliament by ethnic Macedonians.

In July 2001 a cease-fire was agreed upon and the fighting was ended with the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement in August 2001. The Ohrid Framework Agreement called for constitutional and legislative changes designed improve civil rights for the Albanian minority, such as establishing Albanian as a semiofficial language and to guarantee the political, cultural, and religious rights of ethnic Albanians, integration of minorities into the security services, and a new census. The Agreement also called for the deployment of NATO peacekeepers to disarm Albanian rebels and help secure the country. IN 2003 European Union forces were deployed as peacekeepers in the country, replacing NATO forces in an unprecedented step.

Trouble arose from a government plan to redraw local governmental boundaries, which would mean that in some areas ethnic Albanian towns would be added to formerly Slavic Macedonian regions, upsetting the ethnic balance and perhaps giving ethnic Albanians a majority in some provinces they did not hold a majority in previously. Opposition leader Nikola Greuvski, himself a moderate Slavic Macedonian, started a successful petition drive to hold a referendum on the boundary question. Ali Ahmeti, an ethnic Albanian leader, has called on Albanians to boycott the referendum, putting it in danger of falling short of the 50% turnout requirement. However the referendum failed due to low turnout, much to the relief of most international observers and government officials.



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