Steve Crawshaw: Macedonia can avoid the fate of the Balkans, but only by give and take

'The endless pressures for futher break-ups can come to seem an infinitely deep nest of Russian dolls'
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The Independent Online

The Balkan pattern has become woefully familiar in the past decade. First, we have an outbreak of fighting. Then, suddenly and hearteningly, we have the proclamation of a ceasefire. All the news agencies run "urgents", denoting the significance of the event; TV and radio news bulletins join in the rejoicing. And then, by breakfast time next morning, the ceasefire is almost forgotten. A Balkan ceasefire often proves little more than a pause to take breath – before things get worse.

Thus it has been in Macedonia in recent weeks and months. Each ceasefire seems the mere prelude to a worse outbreak of violence, a few days or weeks down the line. Albanian rebels in the hills around Tetovo, the main city in Albanian-majority western Macedonia, yesterday agreed to withdraw from their positions. Road blocks and barricades were dismantled. Everything seemed to be looking rosy. To believe that, one would need to be a dreamer indeed.

In some respects, it seemed a miracle that, when Macedonia first broke away from Belgrade in 1991, it did not get caught up in one of Slobodan Milosevic's many wars. Kiro Gligorov, the soft-spoken Communist who led Macedonia to independence, made compromise the watchword of the day; Macedonia continued to pride itself on its multi-ethnic quality, as a Yugoslavia in miniature. But the growing tensions in Kosovo in the 1990s affected neighbouring Macedonia, too, with its 30 per cent Albanian minority. Macedonians, understandably, became increasingly nervous throughout that time.

Three years ago, before the simmering Kosovo conflict finally boiled over into full-scale war, the violent writing was already on the wall. As ever in the Balkans, little symbols triggered disproportionate dramas. A local mayor was jailed for raising the Albanian flag over the town hall in the little town of Gostivar; demonstrations in his support ended with three dead. From every conversation in western Macedonia it was clear that, as I wrote at that time: "The clock of violence is ticking." I had a bizarre conversation with the deputy of the jailed mayor, who explained one reason for resentment of the government in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. "They sent us a Christmas card in 10 languages – English, German, French, everything, but not Albanian. Can you expect me to be 100 per cent loyal to a state like that?"

A missing greeting on a Christmas card does not sound like the stuff to trigger a civil war. And yet, questions of language take on an all-important emblematic quality in this part of the world. Three years on from that conversation in sleepy Gostivar, one of the most important sticking points in negotiations between the armed rebels and the Macedonian government remains the refusal to accept Albanian as an official language; the Macedonians fear this change could be the prelude to the break-up of Macedonia itself.

Meanwhile, Albanians feel increasingly alienated from the state in which they were once loyal citizens. In Tetovo recently, every Albanian I talked to – including many who were bitterly opposed to the gunmen in the hills – expressed resentment at the government's perceived reluctance to take Albanian grievances seriously. The rebels can only be defeated in the long term if a serious attempt is made to treat the Albanians as equal citizens in this state.

Even now, there are scraps of comfort. There is no longer a malevolent spider at the centre of this web of violence, as there was in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. That means that negotiations and deals can, with patience and persistence, bear fruit . Crucially, the Macedonian government does not seek a full-scale war (unlike Milosevic, who needed wars to keep himself in power). Nor, the armed minority apart, do most Albanians want further armed conflict. Theoretically at least, even the rebels do not want a break-up of the country – though, with every month that goes by, the prospect becomes more likely.

The lack of malevolence does not, however, make the problems any less intractable. As this week's riots in Skopje showed, it is not just on the Albanian side that feelings run high. The attacks on Western embassies in Skopje and on the offices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were a reminder that the Macedonians are determined not to be pushed into a corner. The government spokesman this week snarled that the US and European Union negotiators were "co-ordinating closely" with the Albanian rebels, the National Liberation Army. (By which, he apparently meant that Western negotiators have taken seriously the concerns of both sides.)

Lord Robertson, the Nato secretary-general, who was in Skopje yesterday with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said the latest ceasefire meant that it was now possible "to take the negotiators back on track". For that to happen, however, both sides must understand that such negotiations are in their best interest.

At the moment, there is little such realisation. The violence means Macedonia is drifting inexorably towards break-up. This would be in nobody's interest – except the gun-running thugs who have played a key role in the rebel NLA. Most obviously, the Macedonians stand to lose from the dismemberment of their country. But the dangerous ripples would spread throughout the Balkans; Albanians, too would lose from endless instability. Independence for Yugoslav republics from Milosevic's thuggish chauvinism made sense. The endless pressures for further break-ups can, however, come to seem an infinitely deep nest of Russian dolls. Each discontented minority becomes, when it breaks away, the new majority in a region which contains within it another discontented minority. If that discontented minority breaks away ... And so on, ad infinitum. The ethnic cleansing that was so beloved of Milosevic and of the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, cannot be an option for the twenty-first century, not least because of what the Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegovic, once described to me as the "Jackson Pollock quality" of the Balkans – an ethnically bespattered map.

In the post-Milosevic era, peaceful co-existence and tolerance finally have a chance. That chance must be seized – by Albanians and Macedonians alike. Military victory is not an option for either side. Without compromise, a bloody political defeat is, however, an all too likely prospect – for both sides.