The Macedonian government declared itself a victim of a terrorist attack this week. Forty armed ethnic Albanians, crossing from neighboring Kosovo, broke into a Macedonian border police station on Tuesday and held a number of police officers captive for several hours overnight. These men claimed an affiliation with the National Liberation Army (NLA), the group that sparked separatist violence in Macedonia in 2001 and was closely associated with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which waged a paramilitary campaign against Serbian rule in the late 1990s. More alarming for regional actors, however, these gunmen called for the creation of an Albanian state within Macedonia.
But opposition sources remain doubtful of these allegations. They perceive the situation as a government-concocted ploy to distract the public from scandals of illegal wire-tapping and corruption, to mobilize Macedonians against the Albanian minority, and, eventually, to unify citizens in support of the unpopular government. Others warned of similar future incidents, “The longer we wait [for a resolution of the crisis] the higher the risk that someone might hire small criminal groups of Albanians to try to stage a conflict. Albanian criminals might be used to attack Macedonian villages or vice versa,” former legislator and political analyst Mersel Biljali added.
Ultimately, whether the hostage incident is determined to be authentic or a political smokescreen, it still brings to the forefront a dangerous idea, which has resurfaced in Albanian political rhetoric in recent months. While dreams of Albanian territorial expansion have no basis in current policymaking, no future prospects, nor do they hold practical support from the majority of Albanians, they do engender hostility and instability within the Balkans. Moreover, they serve to distract Albanians from more imperative domestic matters. In reality, Albanians across the Balkans do not need a new or unified Albanian state. Instead, they need comprehensive improvements within the existing Albanian-majority states.
Costs of nationalist rhetoric and violence
First, however, ethnic Albanians within Albania proper, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Greece must understand that a new Albanian state can only come about at the cost of massive regional violence, and such a price is unacceptable. Albanians should not fall prey to their nationalism-pandering politicians or to extremist factions. They must recognize that regardless of sensationalist political speeches, as recently exhibited by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, there are no policy campaigns toward a new Albanian state in the Balkans and no peaceful pathways other than the long journey toward eventual EU membership. The only way toward such a nationalistic goal is via social violence, destabilization, and widespread suffering of ordinary citizens. The majority of Albanians aspire to improve their daily lives with regard to domestic economies, job markets, and political corruption – not renew the violence that took the lives of their friends and families. In the aftermath of the hostage situation, the secretary general of the Lipkovo municipality in Macedonia, Nexhadi Osmani was even quoted as saying, “We have lived through war and we know best what it’s like. We do not want to go through it again.”
This majority must make their voices heard and demand that their politicians stop fanning the flames of extreme nationalism for self-serving agendas. A decrease in rhetorical calls for nationalist expansion coupled with a concomitant weakening of public support may also decrease instances of nationalist-driven violence by small militant groups.
Rescue Kosovo and Albania instead
Albanians across the Balkans have more urgent challenges to overcome. Currently, Kosovo is experiencing a mass exodus. In fact, just in the past year, seven percent of the country’s adult population has fled economic disaster, with the general unemployment rate a staggering 31 percent and youth unemployment at over 50 percent. As it stands, three out of 10 Kosovars live in poverty. To make matters worse, these economic woes exist alongside increasing security concerns related to global terrorism. Albania still faces the challenges of corrupt elites, an ineffective judiciary, organized crime, and an extensive black market economy rife with all sorts of illegal trafficking. Thus, what is the logic in calling for a new or unified Albanian state when existing states are in acute need of a rescue mission first and foremost? Additionally, there is no rationale in sacrificing regional stability and the well-being of everyday people for the benefit of vote-seeking and crisis-seeking demagogues.
Calling all Albanians
The media coverage of the hostage incident in Macedonia incited some positive reactions from ethnic Albanians, with some eagerly awaiting the imminent creation of a third Albanian state amidst violence. This reaction in itself is problematic and must be tamed and muted. I call on all Albanians to condemn the violent pursuit of a new or unified Albanian state within any sovereign Balkan territory. Let go of the delusion that domestic governments or international allies are willing to offer Albanians this fantasy. Remember the bloodshed of the 1990s, the crises that echoed across the world due to enflamed nationalism, and finally, focus on finding solutions for your most pressing practical problems. Don’t let the past erode your future, with its outdated notions of glory via ultra-nationalism. A much more productive aspiration for Albanian citizens and policymakers alike would be to curb corruption, economic stagnation, and mass migration within the Balkans.
As a more fruitful alternative to violence and ultra-nationalism, the international and Albanian communities must call upon the Macedonian government to craft stronger minority protection policies and begin a consistent, honest enforcement of them. These policy changes must be directly tied to Macedonia’s accession to the EU, alongside policies related to Macedonia’s blatant corruption, violations of freedom of press, and other disturbing political practices. Otherwise, nationalistic demands will only grow louder and more numerous as ethnic Albanians continue to experience both explicit and more subtle discrimination at the hands of an increasingly desperate Macedonian government.
Cover photo credit: Balkanist