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Welcome to Zone 2

Mick Woods

I REMEMBER raising a glass or two with an Albanian politician from western Macedonia about a year and a half ago – just after the refugee crisis in Macedonia was over and the majority of the Kosovars had returned home. We sat in the stylish Arbi café in Tetova gazing at the strangely deserted streets.

"There are no lengths the Macedonian government will not go to profit from the suffering of the Albanians", he told me. This seemed fair enough. During the war in Kosova the Macedonian government regularly closed the borders to refugees to force the international community to either airlift refugees to third countries or to elicit increased aid. I doubt if any of this ever reached a refugee. Thousands of Kosovars spent nights in the freezing no-man's-land on the mountainous border crossings huddled under plastic and anything else they had managed to bring with them from Pristina or Ferizai.

When the war was over, the border crossing north of Tetova was like a giant scrap yard. Driving down from Kosova you saw the first crushed and bulldozed Yugo car 5km from the border. The fields and roads around the border were a tangle of abandoned tractors, cars and horse carts. "Road" is maybe a bit of a fine term – we would probably describe it as a badly maintained farm track.

Those refugees who got into Macedonia were to a man either cared for in the houses of ethnic Albanians or taken into camps run by humanitarian agencies. I spent some of the three months I was in Tetova organising educational support for the refugee camp at Neprostrino discovering that the camp had been built by German KFOR engineers on top of a rubbish dump at the insistence of the government. In fact it was a very good refugee camp, as refugee camps go. Dry and well equipped, good tents and wood burning stoves. There wasn’t really enough water for 6000 refugees, but the plumbing in the rest of Macedonia isn’t so great either.

Putting refugees on top of a rubbish dump! It's both a metaphor for how the Macedonian authorities feel about Albanians and an insight into their desire to get a bit of civil engineering done for free.

Back at Arbi, two beers later we had gotten onto discussing the future of Macedonia. "We will bide our time for maybe four or five years until the Albanians in Kosova get on their feet again and are able to support us, then it'll be our turn to fight."

The guy concerned was not an isolated extremist, in fact he was a leading member of the Democratic Party of Albanians – the Albanian nationalist party in governmental coalition with the Macedonian Slav nationalist VMRO of prime minister Ljubco Georgievski.

Soft apartheid
Macedonia is a strange place, dirt-poor – the poorest of the former Yugoslav republics. It took me maybe three or four days to realise how strange and divided it was. I spent the first few days of my time in Slav Skopje where the televisions blasted out the "Peace Concerts" from Serbia, where international artists performed on the main bridge in Beograd as a human shield against NATO bombs. A few days later and 38km west I was in Albanian Tetova complete with mosques and UCK graffiti on the walls.

The Kosovar teachers' trade union SBASHK had run a campaign in Kosova under the slogan "Stop Apartheid". Apartheid means two things – (implicitly) oppression, and (literally) separation/apartness. There was a lot of both in Kosova, and in Macedonia a bit of the first but lots of the second. Tetova is roughly 80% Albanian, and up to 20% Slav (plus other national minorities, mainly Roma. The Slavs occupy nearly all the jobs in the state, police, post office, nationalised industries, health service etc. They shop in Slav shops, visit Slav cafés and mix with other Slavs. The Albanians likewise keep to themselves but in fact seem more prosperous than the local Slavs despite high levels of unemployment and underemployment. This is largely a result of mass migration by young Albanians as gästarbeiter to western Europe and the repatriation of their savings. Workers wages are piss-poor in Macedonia in any case – teachers earn 350DM a month and manual workers will be lucky to see 200DM.

Many Albanians claim that things have gotten worse since independence – the massive job cuts as a result of privatisation fell most heavily on them and the constitutional changes as a result of independence made them second-class citizens (the constitution was amended from Macedonia being the home of its inhabitants to being the home of the Macedonians, i.e. Slavs). Others argue that things have in real terms gotten better since independence due to the increased possibilities with the market. I suspect, though, that the vast majority feel that life is as bloody awful now as then.

It is therefore no surprise to me that fighting has broken out between Albanians and their Slav-dominated government. As I write this (19 March) it is not yet clear whether this is a small guerilla action or the beginnings of a popular uprising. A few days ago, it seemed to be merely a small incursion from Kosova with the support of a few local activists but increasingly it seems to be gaining momentum and gathering popular support. Some reports suggest that hundreds of young men are joining the guerillas, and NATO and UN spokesmen are running around making frantic noises of support for the Skopje government. It is as yet unclear whether this coalition will survive the radicalisation of the Albanians or whether the US, wearing either its NATO or UN hat, will be forced to militarily intervene to force the Albanian genie back into the bottle.

Macedonia – ein geografisches begriff?
Moltke once described Italy as a geographical expression. Many Albanians believe this is the case of Macedonia. Macedonia was last famous for Alexander the Great – that was over 2300 years ago. It also was the power-base of one of the Byzantine dynasties but that was also a long time ago. For over a thousand years Macedonia disappeared from the history books. It essentially reappeared as the bloodiest battlefield of the 1st and 2nd Balkan Wars in 1912/3, as Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria mugged the Ottoman Empire and then fell out amongst themselves. The big winner was Serbia who incorporated present-day Macedonia into the Serbian kingdom.

Macedonia was only given the status of a federal republic after the Partisan victory in Yugoslavia and when it fell out of the disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991, its name caused such upset in Greece (which also has a ethnically Greek region also called Macedonia) that it led to border closures and threats of war. The Greeks (or Grecians as President Bush would probably call them) also made much of Alexander in their silly chauvinist campaign against Macedonia. The outcome of this is that Macedonia now has the catchy title of the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM).

Between the Macedonian dynasty and 1991 a few things had changed in the Balkans. The Slavs had turned up around 700-800AD, but of course the Albanians had been there even longer and claim to be the most ancient of all the European peoples, descended as they are from the Illyrians. They are also a geographically compact population living as a majority within Albania, Kosova, Western Macedonia and a small area of Southern Serbia (and Montenegro). Modern Albania was established in 1912, not as the result of an Albanian national liberation struggle but at the insistence of Austria who wanted to curb Serbian expansion and deny it access to the Adriatic. This exercise of realpolitik resulted in a truncated Albanian state, first as an Austrian puppet, later as an Italian puppet.

Drawing the line
The credo of modern European diplomacy (since Helsinki) has been support of internationally recognised boundaries and this was a formula we supported during the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. This was I think from the standpoint of practicality not principle. Although Bosnia-Hercegovina was a historical state with reasonably well-defined boundaries, I for one would not have a problem with the majority of the population of an area establishing independence or even transferring to a neighbouring state if this could be done peacefully and non-violently and with respect for the rights of minorities within this area. This is my opinion.

As it was, the civil war and aggression in Bosnia and the tiny Croatian Krajina was anything but peaceful or democratic – it was denial of the most basic rights of minorities and even majorities within the effected areas. In order to create a supply-line to the Krajina it was necessary to cleanse Brcko, Prijedor, Banja Luka etc. We clearly characterised a Greater Serbia as a reactionary project, but what of a Greater Albania or Greater Kosova?

I believe that the Albanian people have the right to national self-determination whether they live east or west of the Shar mountains. Whether we would argue that they exercise that right is another matter. This concrete question is dependent on a number of problematics but actually comes down to the question of "How best do we fight reactionary nationalism and advance the struggle for democracy and socialism?" For example – in 1980 we would have demanded Republic Status for Kosova within the Yugoslav Federation. In 1989 we would have defended Kosova's autonomy, but by 1998 we would I think have drawn the conclusion that there was no future for the Kosovars within the rump Yugoslavia and supported the struggle for independence.

Has this point arrived in Western Macedonia or, for that matter, in the Presevo valley where Albanian guerillas face the "newly democratic" Yugoslav National Army? Does anybody believe that Kosova can or should be reincorporated into Yugoslavia? Has US diplomacy made another 180-degree turn since the fall of Milosevic and will they now join their former enemies against their former allies? And, finally – we know that the only future for the Balkans is as a democratic federation, but how do we get there?