Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Stop Nato's War


Balkan flashpoints

Macedonia: a powderkeg waiting to erupt

Refugee camp in Macedonia

Nowhere are the dangers of war spreading across the Balkans more immediate than in the state of Macedonia. This state has been the crossing point for many of the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo and also one of the main staging points for the Nato assault on Serbia. Furthermore, were a Nato invasion of Kosovo to be staged, the corridor running from Thessaloniki in Greece and through the Macedonian capital of Skopje is regarded by many as the only viable route. Yet the state of Macedonia on which the western leaders might have to so heavily rely is at once a reminder of those leaders' hypocrisy and the Balkan powderkeg which could overshadow all others.

This situation was borne out in its starkest form on the night of 6 April, when up to 30,000 ethnic Albanian refugees 'went missing' from camps on the Macedonian border with Kosovo. In a logistical operation by which all Nato 'relief efforts' pale in comparison the camps were forcibly emptied and the refugees bussed over the border into Albania. A swathe of northern Macedonia was ethnically cleansed at a stroke.

The propagandists have since repackaged this outrage as a benevolent gesture, but the events demonstrated that the Serbian leaders are not the sole practitioners of Albanian persecution.

Macedonia originated as a fragment of the collapsing Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. The region was split between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, each of which claimed an extended chunk of the area as their own. The Serbian authorities claimed that the Macedonians had no separate existence and were in fact 'south Serbs'. Against this background the majority of people in Macedonia favoured either incorporation into Bulgaria or were in favour of a separate, unified Macedonian state. The language of the majority of Macedonians is in fact a dialect closely related to Bulgarian. In the eastern part of the area it is regarded as virtually indistinguishable from Bulgaria.

In the aftermath of Ottoman retreat from the region Macedonia was favoured for punishment by the medium sized powers in the region. As the territorial ambitions of each were constrained by larger forces such as the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia all pressed in against each other to contest the Macedonian lands.

The area currently referred to as the state of Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia, was incorporated into the Serbian dominated Yugoslavian state after the First World War and the Serbian language became the compulsory language of education and public life. During the Second World War Vardar Macedonia was put under the control of the German ally, Bulgaria, and resentment at the earlier Serb rule initially weakened the position of the partisans in that area. This did not last long, however, and at the war's end Vardar Macedonia took its place alongside the other constituent nationalities and republics in a new Yugoslavia based more or less upon national equality, equality, that is, for all nationalities, bar one--the ethnic Albanians who make up about a fifth of the population of Macedonia.

Nevertheless, the postwar settlement was stable enough to relegate the question of the redrawing of Macedonian borders for over 40 years. Fittingly the first major figure to raise the possibility of a new set up was none other than Vuk Draskovic, the ultra-nationalist turned Milosevic deputy. Then the leader of the opposition, Draskovic suggested in 1990 that the republic of Macedonia be partitioned between Serbia and Bulgaria. At almost exactly the same time the future Croatian president Franjo Tudjman met Bulgarian representatives to discuss an almost identical plan.

The ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, have been regarded throughout Yugoslav history as potentially dangerous interlopers whose 'real' home is in the Albanian state--this despite the fact that in substantial parts of western Macedonia, most notably the city of Tetovo, the Albanians make up a majority of the population. Albanians in Macedonia have suffered the same discrimination as in Kosovo and a near hysterical fear of Albanian nationalism has existed in the province since the 1960s.

The Macedonian schools authority noted in 1981, for example, that publishers of textbooks have been 'insufficiently vigilant in preventing the penetration of Albanian nationalistic, irredentist and counter-revolutionary tendencies'. At the same time several people were given lengthy jail terms for belonging to Albanian political groupings. In 1986 the births registrar of Tetovo was sacked for registering babies with such names as Alban or Albana.

In 1989 the 'ethnic inferiority' of the Albanians was made official when the Republic of Macedonia was redefined as the 'nation state of Macedonian people' from the old designation of 'a state of the Macedonian people and the Albanian and Turkish minorities'.

In 1991 Macedonia followed Slovenia and Croatia in declaring independence. In subsequent elections there was a stark and depressing division of the vote between nationalist Macedonian and Albanian parties. International recognition was slow in coming, however, as the Greek government asserted in a ludicrous but pervasive campaign that 'Macedonia is Greek'. Hence the present state is still burdened with the strange sounding title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Only this way was it possible to achieve independence and to leave the historically generated patchwork of nationalities and states intact. It was a precarious balance that appeased Greek, and Bulgarian, chauvinism, but nevertheless postponed the kind of nationalist bloodletting witnessed in Bosnia and Croatia.

Now that pause may soon be over, called short by western intervention. AS Macedonia is turned into a Nato airstrip, the western powers have put a flame under this most volatile of Balkan tinderboxes. Now the timeless question of the Balkans presses once more: a solution from below, or disaster from above.

Throughout this century ordinary people of every nationality have worked and struggled together against the burdens placed on them by rulers big and small. Against all odds, mixed cities, workplaces and families are to be found in the region from Trieste to Thessaloniki. These facts represent the embryos of possible change in the region--the prospect of nationality not mattering against the considerations of class. On the other hand every attempt at change from above--because it can only only follow the channels of division, power politics and big business--has led to horror as the homes and bodies of people are swept back and forth in the tides of nationalism.
Duncan Blackie


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