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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Hot spotsBefore It Swings Back Again
The pendulum of power in Macedonia
Heather Field

The conflict in Macedonia continues, with three killed yesterday from shelling there of a Kosovo border village after hostilities continued around the village of Graçani. While the attack on Tetovo may have been repulsed, there is clearly a strong possibility of continued small-scale actions in more remote places. Moreover, Kosovo will continue to provide a base for such actions unless KFOR is able to take better control of the situation there.

Explanations for the outbreak of conflict between ethnic Albanian forces and those of the Macedonian government in former Yugoslavia include the failure of the KFOR to control the situation in Kosovo and the "buffer zone" on the Serbian side of the Serbia-Kosovo border. They also include the perceptions of participants to the conflict with regard to geopolitical changes and a swing in the "pendulum of power" in the area, observations that in recent years might, with some exceptions, has been right, and a background which goes back to the sixth century AD.

It is argued here that a major factor behind the continuation of conflict in former Yugoslavia, and now in Macedonia, has been the local understanding or misunderstanding of shifts in the geopolitics of power. An academic might refer to this as the "construction" of the conflict and its context by its participants. These understandings or constructions are incorrect, but this is only just becoming appreciated by the participants.

Under control

The immediate background to the conflict is the occupation of Kosovo, still a region of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) but under international administration by UNMIK, the UN's civilian administration, and occupied for peacekeeping purposes by KFOR, the international community's Stabilisation Force for Kosovo.

These forces came in to defend the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo after it was largely expelled by Yugoslav army forces and paramilitaries on the orders of former FRY president Slobodan Milošević. Milošević and his government were replaced in elections late last year. Democratic Opposition of Serbia representative and "mild" Serb nationalist Vojislav Koštunica became President and former opposition leader Zoran Đinđić became Prime Minister.

KFOR and its mainly NATO forces failed, however, to stop the use of Kosovo and the internationally-imposed buffer zone as a base from which ethnic Albanian guerillas were able to mount armed attacks in the area of south Serbia around the disputed towns of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa in the Preševo Valley, which have a substantial ethnic Albanian population.

Former fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), since disbanded, joined local ethnic Albanians in the Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa (OVPMB). The OVPMB's soldiers even wear badges in the red, black and yellow colours of the KLA. (Vaknin 2001, p 3-4) The rationale for their joining the conflict in the Preševo Valley of south Serbia was that the area had been under the control of Kosovo until 1956 and has a substantial ethnic Albanian population. The insurgency resulted in the deaths of several Serbian soldiers and shots being fired at the visiting US ambassador, and is still continuing on a small scale.

Training camps were also set up through which hundreds of newly-trained ethnic Albanian fighters passed. International pressures to cease fighting in the buffer zone, and the return of the Yugoslav Army to the buffer zone with international approval, appear to have been factors in the shift in major insurgency activities to Macedonia. Certainly the Macedonian government argues that the supposedly disbanded KLA is playing a role, and that the signing of a border demarcation agreement between itself and the FRY has provoked the recent fighting (FreeB92 2001c).


The conflict has led to close fighting in the suburbs of the town of Tetovo in northern Macedonia. Attacking ethnic Albanian fighters came within two kilometres of the town centre. There have been some 30 dead on the ethnic Albanian side and mounting casualties on the government side. About 200 armed ethnic Albanian guerrillas were thought to be involved. German troops came under fire in their barracks in Tetovo, and moved in tanks from Kosovo to protect their camp. A Macedonian policeman was killed by rebels in the border village of Tanusevći earlier in March when his jeep came under fire.

The insurgent National Liberation Army (NLA) called on all ethnic Albanians in Macedonia to support them in their armed struggle against the Macedonian state. Many NLA fighters are former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members from Kosovo. The actions of Macedonian troops in the conflict have extended into Kosovo, to attack suspected rebel rear-supply bases inside Kosovo, and the alleged shelling of Krivenik.

In spite of strongly expressed opposition from the international community and the great powers to the uprising, it continues. That this is so is not surprising if one recalls the words issued by Jashar Salihu at a meeting in London in 1998 (Judah 2000, pp 103-4, with geographical corrections): "Kosovo starts at Tivat (a port in Montenegro) and ends in Manastir (Bitola in Macedonia)." In other words, in the view of ethnic Albanians, it should "properly" include parts of Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Kosovo itself and Southern Serbia.

An announcement in March 2001 by a previously obscure ethnic Albanian group, the Albanian National Front for Ilirda, indicated that through its name it had yet wider claims than this, the ancient region of Illyria having included Dalmatia in Croatia, Montenegro and northern Albania. In its announcement the group threatened Albanians who "collaborate with the authorities" and said that the "best sons of the Albanian people" were being murdered, imprisoned and massacred (FreeB92 2001d). The current conflict can be seen as stemming from earlier notions and realities of "Greater Albania" and the concept of "lost fatherlands." (Dimitras 2000, p 46)

The current obliviousness of the insurgents to international opinion, which is ranged strongly against the uprising, reflects Salihu's earlier statement (pp 103-104): "We don't care what America and England think about it, we should unite with actions, not with words." The US is opposed to the rebellion in Macedonia, with US special envoy James Pardew urging Kosovo's ethnic Albanian political leaders to stop aiding the rebels (FreeB92 2001a), saying that their actions undermined the progress made in Kosovo. The US has described the insurgents as extremists who are jeopardising ethnic co-operation and progress towards reform.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the US backed up the Macedonian government's actions against the rebels, urging them to resolve any problems they had through democratic institutions (FreeB92 2001f). The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has also condemned the "unprovoked attacks" in Kosovo (FreeB92 2001b). The European Parliament has gone so far as to pass a resolution calling for KFOR to tighten border controls to prevent the movement of guerrillas from Kosovo into Macedonia and to be more active in arresting and handing over extremists to the UN civil mission in Kosovo (FreeB92 2001e).

The Swedish Presidency of the EU has condemned the insurgency, as has the UN Security Council. Russian Security Council Secretary Sergej Ivanov said that a unified position had been reached with the US on the insurgents, and "If they fail to listen, we will have to take preventative measures." (FreeB92 2001h)


An early indicator of the movement of the Kosovo and Preševo Valley conflicts to Macedonia came with arrest of six suspected Albanian extremists from Macedonia trying to cross into Kosovo from Macedonia in early March 2001 (FreeB92 2001g). It was announced by General Carlo Cabigiosu, the commander of international forces in Kosovo. US forces' units had also been stationed in and around the village of Debelde to prevent the spread of violence.

It is argued that ethnic Albanians are "going for broke" in Macedonia, for regional self-rule, independence, or some sort of "greater Albania." They attempted to do in the Preševo Valley and have succeeded in doing in Kosovo partly as a result of the failed ethnic cleansing drive of the government of Slobodan Milošević and NATO's bombing of Serbia.

They are doing so partly because of the change they perceive to have taken place in the geopolitics of the area and a swing in the "pendulum of power." Recent changes have been taken to indicate that the pendulum has swung, and that it is therefore time to go for broke, before it swings back again.

However, the roots of the struggle go back a long way, to the origins of the Albanians as descendants of earlier inhabitants of the area and of the Serbs, Croats and to some extent Macedonians as descendants of the Slavs who moved into the area around the sixth century AD. The ethnic and linguistic divisions were enhanced by strong cultural, religious and class divisions, which grew up during the period of Ottoman rule. These were between the mainly Muslim ethnic Albanians who were closely identified with the Turkish Ottoman administration, and the Serbs and Macedonians who were Orthodox Christians mainly employed as serfs working the land of Ottoman and local Albanian landlords.

Pendulum of power

From the insurgents' perspective, basic divisions in the distribution of power in Europe over the last century have taken the form of a "pendulum" swinging between two types of arrangements in Europe, at least in the first half of the century.

Prior to this, most of the last half-millennium saw what was to become Yugoslavia divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, with some regional control of territory by Venice, and on a temporary basis by Napoleonic France. Slovenia had long accommodated itself to Austrian control, and while Croatia resented Hungarian domination, this was tempered by the close connections Croatia had with Austria under the empire. In the 19th century, Russian support and Ottoman weakness allowed a Christian Slav Serb state to be established and expand.

In 1878, uprisings and reprisals in Bosnia-Hercegovina led to administration by Austria-Hungary, and incorporation into the empire in 1908. In the immediate pre-World War Two period Austria and to a lesser extent Germany were strong and held the "pendulum of power."

Turkey was weak, and lost its grip on territory in the area. For the Albanians, 1878 was the year of the League of Prizren, at a meeting where Albanian leaders discussed the threat of loss of Albanian-inhabited lands to expanding and in some cases newly arising Christian and Slavic states. One of the solutions to be considered was the creation of "Greater Albania." But it was not to be.

Instead, the first Balkan war of 1912 saw Turkish control of the areas populated by Albanians overthrown and these territories divided between Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Kosovo was considered a particular prize by Serbia because it had constituted "old Serbia," the heartland of the medieval Serbian state which had been conquered by the Ottoman empire following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Bulgaria waged war on the other allies for a better territorial settlement in 1913, but lost the war and had to concede territory.

Prior to 1912, the Serb and Montenegrin inhabitants of Kosovo were complaining about continual pillage, rape, murder and kidnapping by ethnic Albanian warlords and landlords and their followers. Many were still in effect serfs. This situation which arose from earlier prohibitions on Christians and other members of the non-Muslim raya owning land in the Ottoman empire until the mid-19th century, and from the connections of the Muslim ethnic Albanian population with the Turkish rulers. After 1912 and incorporation into Christian Slav states, the situation was reversed and ethnic Albanians found themselves being expelled and harassed.

The First World War began with a strong Austria-Hungary and Germany, which with Bulgaria, occupied Serbia after the assassination of the heir to Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo by a Serb. The Serbian army undertook a costly retreat to the Adriatic, where they were transported by British and French ships for recuperation and a return to the conflict. The "pendulum" of international power swung further towards Austria-Hungary and Germany as their forces took over territory in Serbia, Italy, Eastern Europe, Tsarist Russia and France.

Although Russia was defeated and underwent revolution, and France was partly occupied, the British held out and the United States entered the war. Austria and Germany were defeated and the Allies emerged victorious, though all were weakened except the United States. The non-Serb nationalities of what was to become Yugoslavia had been favoured by Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies during the war.

Kingdom or puppet state

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany, the pendulum then swung the other way. In recognition of the high price paid by Serbia during the war, and due to the need to dispose of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Serbs were permitted to form with the Croats and Slovenes and other nationalities and groups in the area the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

During the wartime Austro-Hungarian occupation, Albanian nationalism had been encouraged in Kosovo, leading to post-war conflicts and massacres after the Serbs returned, and continued insurgency from local kačak armed opponents of Serb control. After an uprising in 1918-19, a Serbian regional administration was imposed and over 60,000 Serbs settled on land expropriated from ethnic Albanians (Pavković 2000, p 81). The influx of Serb settlers between the two world wars was assisted by government subsidies.

Attempts made to avert direct involvement in the Second World War were rejected by demonstrating crowds Belgrade. They chanted that war was better than the pact then proposed, and "Bolje grob nego rob!" (better the grave than slavery). German air raids began 6 April 1941, and Serbia found itself again suffering on the side of the Allies, in this case the Soviet Union, Britain and France. During the war, the "pendulum" of power and influence over the Balkans swung towards Germany and (occupied) Austria again, who formed the Axis with Italy occupied the area and ruled it through quisling politicians.

The Croats established an Independent State of Croatia (NDH, from Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska) headed by Ante Pavelić, with a racist Nazi ideology. Many Croats, including Franjo Tuđman, joined the partisans in opposition to it during the war. As well as undertaking the extermination of most of the Jewish and Roma population on its territory—on the German model—NDH also undertook the suppression of the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, pursuing with great brutality a policy that a third would be killed, a third converted, and a third expelled.

Perhaps strangely in view of this, or reflecting their pre-Ottoman Roman Catholic religious status and perhaps even their "superior class" status under the Ottoman empire, or just from the need to have their support rather than opposition since the NDH state included Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Ustaše state viewed the Muslims of Bosnia as Croats converted to Islam.

Germany established a puppet state in Serbia under Milan Nedić, but killed over 100,000 Serbs in reprisals against attacks by royalist Mihailović forces and by partisans. The partisans were backed strongly by the Soviet Union and later by the Western allies. Kosovo became part of an Italian-backed "greater Albania" Albanian state. The defeat of Germany and Italy brought back the Yugoslav state, now under Communist rule, and an attempt to balance the interests of the different national and religious groups in the country and stamp out signs of nationalism.

The "pendulum" hence twice swung towards Germany and its allies during wartime in the 20th century. During these periods, the interests of Croat and ethnic Albanian nationalists and been favoured, and those of the Serbs attacked. It had twice swung back, leading to periods of a Yugoslav state in which the interests of Serbs were strongly defended, if less so during the post-World War Two Titoist Communist era.

From the point of view of all of Yugoslavia's nationalities, while the collapse of Communism was the backdrop to the demise of the second Yugoslavia, this was assisted by a strong Germany and, to a lesser extent, Austria. It was Germany which forced through EC recognition of independence for Croatia and Slovenia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia, to be followed later by the United States.

A lack of guarantees of the rights and representation of minorities led to fears that the pendulum had swung again. There were fears, however far-fetched, that under a strong Germany, aided by Austrian influence, Ustaše terror would again be unleashed on the Serbs. Non-judicial executions and massacres of Serbs by Croatian state police units in the Gospić area fed such fears and gave them substance. In Bosnia-Hercegovina there were fears that Muslim domination of the new state would lead to a return of Ottoman empire type class relations, with a possible reversal of the 1919 land reform, and a loss of jobs and the housing that went with them by Serbs at the level of the municipality and individual enterprise, also of "socially owned" assets.

More or less independent

Also, the view that "might" could be accepted as right and win the day developed. Croatia was recognised without strong minority rights guarantees. Bosnia-Hercegovina's government negotiated guarantees of rights and representation for its Serb and Croat minorities at EC-sponsored talks in Lisbon, but was allowed to go back on its agreement and yet still be recognised as an independent state.

The Milošević government was only punished with economic sanctions for providing troops and material and financial support for the Bosnian Serbs' war against the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government, and the Serbs' barbaric ethnic cleansing policies. The Bosnian-Serbs benefited from the latter when they obtained what is in effect more or less a separate state under the Dayton Agreement. Franjo Tuđman and Croatia were allowed to drive out some 200,000 Croatian Serbs, killing some 2000, with only a few relatively mild protests from the Western powers.

As recently granted access to Croatian government documents has shown, they had been earlier heavily involved in the Croat-Muslim war in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the vicious ethnic cleansing this entailed. This leads to the perception voiced by a Kosovar girl interviewed on BBC radio that "without war you would not be able to receive anything." (BBC 2001)

And it swings again...

Only with Milošević's attempted ethnic cleansing of Kosovo was there a full attempt to reverse an action and to bomb a country into submission to do so. Moreover, the latter action indicated that the international system's "pendulum" had swung against the Serbs and in favour of the ethnic Albanians, Croats and Muslims, as it had to varying and differing degrees prior to 1912 and in the two world wars, but this time there were no "Allies" to reverse the situation, and Slavic Russia was weaker than ever before during this century.

KFOR has proven an ineffective force in terms of preventing a growth in guerrilla forces and activities in the areas under its control. Events such as the entry of German forces into Prižren in Kosovo have necessarily suggested to the locals that maybe history is repeating itself, even if we as "sophisticated" Western observers know that this is nonsense and that Germany's first post-World War Two military involvement is a peacekeeping participation enterprise by a fully democratic country. So, from an ethnic Albanian point of view, of course it was time to go for broke to create "Greater Albania," or at least "Greater Kosovo."

The post-Communist situation of high unemployment; large build-ups in arms from such events as the looting of armouries during civil strife in Albania; the struggle of the KLA against Serb forces; and the increasingly nationalist construction of identities are all factors behind the drive.

In practice, the "power pendulum" has not swung back to some previous situation, rather the international system has
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changed. Germany, Austria and Italy are now members of the EU, along with the UK and France and most of the rest of Western Europe. Russia is weak, and itself a by-product of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. The United States is the only superpower, and one the Serbs signally failed to court at an earlier stage of conflict in former Yugoslavia.

But it will take strong pressures from the international community to make it clear that the pendulum has not simply swung, that there are new geopolitical arrangements in which Germany and to a lesser extent Austria are influential but in the context of an EU to which France and Germany belong, and that the US is not "taking sides."

Heather Field, 2 April 2001

About the author:

Heather Field is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary European Studies at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She was assisted in writing this article by Slobodan Jaksić.

Moving on:


British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2001), New radio broadcast, 23 March

Panayote Elias Dimitras (2000), "Writing and Rewriting History in the Context of Balkan Nationalisms," Southeast European Politics 1(1), pp 41-59

US Condemns Albanian Extremism, FreeB92, p 7 of pp 1-10, 17 March

FreeB92 (2001a), "Stop Helping Macedonian Rebels, Says Pardew," FreeB92, 15 March, p 3 of pp 1-9

FreeB92 (2001b), "OSCE Condemns Macedonian Violence," FreeB92, 15 March, p 1 of 1-9

FreeB92 (2001c), "KLA Could be Behind the Tetovo Clashes, Says Skopje," FreeB92, 15 March, p 1 of pp 1-9

FreeB92 (2001d), "Illyrians Threaten Violence in Macedonia," FreeB92, 15 March, pp 4-5 of 1-9

FreeB92 (2001e), "KFOR Must Tighten Border Controls, Says European Parliament," FreeB92, 15 March, p 2 of pp 1-9

FreeB92 (2001f), "US Condemns Albanian Extremism," FreeB92, 17 March, p 7 of pp 1-10

FreeB92 (2001g), "KFOR Arrests Six," FreeB92, 6 March, p 3 of 1-6

FreeB92 (2001h), "Ivanov Warns of Preventative Measures," FreeB92, 17 March, p 6 of pp 1-10

Judah, Tim (2000), Kosovo: War and Revenge, Yale University Press, New Haven

Pavkovic, Aleksandar (2000), The Fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Macmillan, Basingstoke

Vaknin, Sam (2001), "The Common Enemy," Central Europe Review 3(11), 19 March, pp 1-4


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