The Week in Fear and Demagoguery

Nationalism and militarism: on the rise across the region again. 

Paranoia reigns in the Balkans. Relations between Belgrade and Prishtina have completely broken down now. Kosovo’s parliament passed a resolution suspending all dialogue with Serbia until former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, wanted by Serbia on war crimes charges, is granted unconditional release. The former KLA commander was recently arrested on an Interpol warrant from 2004 in France, and has been stuck there awaiting extradition to Belgrade even though the ICTY’s acquitted him twice. Apparently only Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s highly impartial and independent judicial system can determine who is guilty.

Some have suggested that there is more to the suspension of dialogue with Serbia than just securing Haradinaj’s unconditional release. Politicians in Prishtina say they are frustrated that dialogue with Serbia seems to have strengthened Belgrade’s position in Kosovo. Some have even said that dialogue with Serbia should only resume if Belgrade agrees to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

One thing’s for sure: there will be no further “dialogue” between Belgrade and Prishtina until after Serbia’s April 2nd presidential election. Vucic will win but expect some vote rigging and a closer race than in elections past. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci is creating a Kosovo Army. NATO and the US have expressed concern over the “unilateral action” — not something they’ve ever had a problem with in Kosovo before.

The entire region seems to be ramping up the militarism and revving the machines, the drums of disorder can be heard approaching faintly in the distance. Macedonia has stirred something uncivil in us. If the “ancient ethnic hatreds” or “Balkan ghosts” we thought had been exorcised are returning, at least you know better. Leave it to the rest of the world. Robert Kaplan might even be relevant again now. I stumbled on this passage from early 1991 today:

Today the significance of Macedonia lies in several facts. It is, to begin with, where any epilogue to a break-up of Yugoslavia will be written Whereas the Yugoslav provinces of Serbia and Croatia are easily imaginable as nation-states, Macedonia represents a political no-man’s land where Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Greek ambitions vie with one another and with a nascent Macedonian nationalist movement. Second, the long, bloody history of ethnic and sectarian strife portends the likely future of Balkan politics in the last decade of the twentieth century. And third, Macedonia offers a clearer window than any other region of the Balkans onto the sources of strife in the area. Why are peoples pitted so relentlessly one against another? Why do hatreds run so deep?

Fast forward nine years. A Human Rights Watch report from 2000 describes Macedonia as a “model of stability and democracy in the region.” That all changed in January 2001, when an Albanian guerrilla force called the National Liberation Army surfaced and brought the country close to a full-fledged civil war. Albanians had long been marginalized in Macedonia, and the well-armed NLA had risen from the ashes of the recent Kosovo War to rectify that fact. By August, diplomats and representatives of the country’s four main political parties were sitting near the ancient shores of Lake Ohrid, drawing up a document that would guarantee a more just means of distributing political power by bringing the Albanian minority into state structures in exchange for peace. The result was the Ohrid Framework Agreement. It accomplished several things, including the reaffirmation of Macedonia’s unitary nature (removing federalization as a possibility) and the granting of Albanians the right to use their language and national symbols at the local and state level wherever they comprised 20 percent of the population. The settlement was not without its flaws. Macedonia became a bi-national state, meaning smaller ethnic groups were marginalized by both Macedonians and Albanians. Keeping with the regional custom, former warlords were remade as politicians. Among them was Ali Ahmeti, leader of the country’s largest Albanian party DUI, who while in office was granted amnesty for war crimes.

Macedonia is experiencing a crisis once again, and many of the same problems that plagued the country in 2001 have resurfaced. Then as now, the crisis is spreading and spilling over from neighboring countries. Macedonia’s two-year political stalemate has pitted the increasingly authoritarian VMRO-DPMNE party led by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski against the western-backed opposition SDSM led by Zoran Zaev and their coalition partner, DUI, still headed by ex-warlord Ahmeti. The crisis entered a new phase on March 1st, when President Gjorgje Ivanov refused to issue Zaev a mandate to form a government. Ivanov’s rationale was that the Albanians’ new set of demands “could destroy the country”. Some of the demands being made now are that the Albanian language enjoy the same status as Macedonian, and that a serious debate be held about the potential modification of the Macedonian flag, national anthem, and coat of arms in order for “state symbols to reflect social multi-ethnicity and ethnic equality”.

These are considerably more radical ideas than anything provided for in the Ohrid Agreement.

It’s these same series of demands that make up the so-called “Tirana Platform”, created in the Albanian capital after the December 11th, 2016 elections in the company of Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania. The list of new “requirements” for Albanians living in Macedonia, where they make up about 25 percent of the population, is quite bold. But since DUI emerged from the December election as the decisive kingmaker, the Albanian party was in a good position to insist upon the platform’s implementation come coalition-forming time.

Many people in Macedonia say that since the Tirana Platform was written in a foreign country that it should not be allowed to influence the internal politics of Macedonia at all, even though the constitution of Albania allows for Tirana’s involvement in the affairs of Albanians who reside outside of Albania proper. Other critics argue that the platform should not be considered because it was only written after the elections, meaning the public could not vote on it or even take it into consideration when making their choice at the polls.

Some SDSM voters have privately expressed disappointment and have described the entire process as “undemocratic”. In recent days, the national status of the Albanian language has prompted “civic protests” attended by mostly VMRO supporters who favor a “unified Macedonia” and the maintenance of the status quo. Everyone agrees the EU has appeared very weak in its response to the crisis.

The most contentious part of the Tirana Platform, at least outside of Macedonia, is the demand that the country’s parliament adopt a resolution condemning the “genocide of Albanians in Macedonia 1912 – 1956” — implicating neighboring Serbia in another genocide. Few have questioned whether the best venue for addressing historical claims to genocide is in part of a post-election platform aimed at maximizing political and nationalist power.

In 1912, the Serbs conquered the territory of Macedonia, which had been under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire. This was also the beginning of the First Balkan War, and by all accounts it was extremely violent. In The Balkans 1804 – 2012, Misha Glenny spares few gruesome details:

“The entire region was littered with the corpses of soldiers civilians and horses, as the Serb soldiery moved to Skopje and beyond, they visited destruction and murder on the local Albanian population. Fired by tales of atrocities committed on Christian peasants during the unrest in the Albanian territories, the Serbs unleashed the full force of nationalist hatred against defenseless villages…”

Intermittent acts of violence continued through the first half of the 20th century, though weren’t always so one-sided. During part of WWII, Albanians partnered with the Germans and suppressed parts of the Macedonian population. The significance of the end date 1956 for the alleged genocide likely refers to Aleksandar Rankovic, the head of the Yugoslav secret police. Sabrina P. Ramet described him and his reign of terror in The Three Yugoslavias: State-building and Legitimation, 1918 — 2005, “[He] deeply distrusted non-Serbs in general and Albanians in particular. He believed surveillance was the best method for ruling Kosovo. As early as the winter of 1956, UDBa undertook to confiscate all weapons of the Albanian population of Kosovo– an undertaking which provoked resistance and resulted in the deaths of a number of Albanians before an estimated 9,000 firearms were confiscated.” It was one of his most sweeping operations. Eventually, the truth about his conduct towards Albanians reached his superiors and he was issued a condemnation at the Sixth Session of the Serbian party’s Central Committee. Subsequently, the Committee announced that he represented “Greater Serbian tendencies within the League of Communists.” Rankovic was certainly one of the darkest figures in Yugoslavia’s history and his crimes against the Albanian population were abhorrent. But regardless of the  allegations, Serbia would likely never be found guilty of genocide before a court since the UN’s Genocide Convention wasn’t adopted until 1948 and only entered into force in 1951.

The fact that nearly all high-ranking EU officials, as well as representatives of the US, have voiced their support for Zaev and DUI, signals that western leaders also support the platform. The special emissary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany for Southeastern Europe, Turkey and the EFTA countries, Christian Hellbach, was asked directly if he thought there was anything wrong with any part of the Tirana Platform. His answer was a clear and unambiguous “no”.

In addition to the new genocide allegations, this month also marks the anniversary of the beginning of the 1999 NATO bombing. This year’s March 24th anniversary will be an even bigger national event than usual due to the heightened tensions between Russia and the US, neighboring Montenegro’s imminent membership in NATO, and the April 2nd presidential elections. Serbian media reports that Russia even plans to deliver six of its used MiG-29s warplanes – a gift from Vladimir Putin — on the anniversary of the first day of “NATO aggression”.

Hopefully they’ll be safe. After two crashes in Siberia in late 2008, the Russian Air Force grounded all of its MiG-29 fighters. It turns out most of their MiG-29s were incapable of engaging in combat missions because they’d been poorly maintained, and about 70 percent of the planes were ultimately determined to be too old to fly.

PM Vucic at a factory in Velika Plana inspecting military equipment and armored cars (Photo credit: Tanjug)
PM Vucic at a factory in Velika Plana inspecting military equipment and armored cars (Photo credit: Tanjug)

Vucic also visited an armored vehicle and machine gun factory in Velika Plana over the weekend, where he was photographed with Serbian-made weapons, probably showing off for Hashim Thaci who is still scrambling to create the Kosovo Armed Forces.

Militarization and nationalism appear to be on the rise in Kosovo and Serbia. In Macedonia, it’s just unbridled nationalism. The struggle to assert a distinct Macedonian heritage through “antiquitization” projects like Skopje 2014 has been one of VMRO’s only “accomplishments” during its decade in power. Prior to independence in 1991, Macedonia had no historical experience of having its own State, so the process of the formation of the modern State was entirely dependent upon how it was seen by others. None of Macedonia’s neighbors take it seriously. Greece rejects Macedonia’s use of the name “Macedonia — as both an ethnic and a territorial description, claiming the name for itself. Bulgarians believe that Macedonians are really ethnic Bulgarians who speak a dialect of Bulgarian. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Macedonia established its own Orthodox Church. Serbia has never recognized it. As many others have written, Skopje 2014 project was an attempt to correct for this through the construction of an imaginary pseudo-historic city with such an aggressive aesthetic presence that it could not be denied.

Many observing Macedonia right now say Gruevski is only holding onto power because he fears jail. But VMRO and its supporters also genuinely fear the destruction of this fragile Macedonian identity. The widely criticized absence of Albanian signs and symbols anywhere in Skopje 2014 was very much deliberate: Colorful revolutionary protesters, many of them supporters of SDSM, made a nightly habit of attacking Skopje 2014’s many monstrous monuments by pelting them with paint. Their coalition partners in DUI uphold the Tirana Platform which demands a possible redesigning of the Macedonian flag, rewriting of the national anthem, and the reconceptualization of the Macedonian national crest. Taken together, these twin acts of destruction have had the unfortunate effect of vindicating some of VMRO’s most paranoid nationalist propaganda.

A few commentators insist that this crisis in Macedonia is strictly political in nature. They say that there’s no “ethnic” dimension to it at all. But what’s happening here in the region isn’t dissimilar to what’s happening in the United States or Britain or Turkey or most places in the world: a partial rejection of the west coupled with a return to nationalism. Albanians are tired of being the west’s obedient children. Serbs are tired of pretending they don’t have a right to be angry. Macedonians are tired of being told they might not even exist at all.

Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.

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