Macedonia: military conflict returns to centre stage in the Balkans

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With the recent confrontations in Macedonia, yet another part of the Balkans is on the verge of imploding into chaos. After Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, this new theatre of war threatens to further destabilise a region which has been subjected to blood and fire for ten years. And once again, the local populations are exposed to massacre and barbarity through the confrontation between rival nationalist cliques.

In this conflict, it’s the Macedonian army and police against the UCK, the separatist Albanian guerrillas, a new armed wing of the same Albanian mafia which was at work in Kosovo but was officially dissolved.

The ingredients of a new powder keg

Serbia has also been put on a war footing against other pro-Albanian militia, after a year of sporadic skirmishes which threatened southern Serbia from the valley of Presevo and Tanusevci, a frontier village between Macedonia and Kosovo. NATO, and the US in particular, have authorised the Serbian army to make an incursion into the security zone set up since July 1999 round the Kosovan frontier, This concession is aimed at preventing the pro-Albanian militia from acting directly against Serbia. In exchange, Serbia has presented a ‘platform’ of negotiations which on 12 March, under the aegis of NATO, resulted in a cease-fire with another pro-Albanian faction, the UCPMB. This led to the combat zone being displaced towards Macedonia, around Tetovo, the country’s second town, which is near to Kosovo and which is home to a population which is 80% Albanian-speaking (the population of Macedonia as a whole is about one third Albanian).

Ten years after proclaiming its independence in 1991, following the break-up of Yugoslavia, Macedonia is once again at the heart of the Balkans conflicts, just like it was in the wars at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. First it was at the centre of a popular uprising against Ottoman rule, which in turn led to the war between Greece and Turkey in 1897. Then, after its ‘liberation’, which marked a decisive step in the disintegration of the Ottoman empire following the first Balkan war in 1912, the ‘ownership’ of Macedonia was a major imperialist stake in the second murderous conflict which saw Serbia and Greece fighting against Bulgaria. This conflict was one of the immediate causes of the first world war. The same antagonisms are still waiting to resurface at the first opportunity. Not only the old rivalry between Serbia and Albania, which has been revived by the war in Kosovo - Macedonian territory is also claimed by Bulgaria and Greece.

The role of the great powers

In response to the recent evolution of the situation, we have seen a spectacular turn-around in the position of most of the great powers towards Serbia. Since the ousting of Milosevic and his replacement by Kostunica, this is a state which has become much more "presentable" for the western democracies, who have gradually "normalised" their relations with Serbia. They are trying to make us believe that the great powers within NATO (which has 42,000 soldiers in KFOR) are acting as the guardians of peace and democracy, as the defenders of civilisation against nationalist extremism and wicked people in general. Yesterday it was the Serbs who were in the grip of a dictator accused of wanting to restore ‘Greater Serbia’; today it’s the Serbs and the Slav population of Macedonia who have to be protected, and fingers are being wagged at the Albanians whose government is suspected of trying to set up a ‘Greater Albania’. But only two years ago the ‘international community’ claimed that it was defending the Albanian population of Kosovo. This humanitarian pretext was in fact the essential justification for NATO’s devastating intervention. But it was an out and out lie. By unleashing their military operations, the allied forces knew very well that they would push Milosevic into intensifying and generalising his policy of massive deportation of the local populations. What’s more, the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo turned the region into a pile of ruins. And the partition of Kosovo into different sectors under NATO control, which was supposed to put an end to Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, has simply parked the local populations in barbed wire ghettos, where they live in miserable conditions in a climate of permanent ethnic hatred.

As in all the Balkan conflicts over the past 10 years, the great powers never get mixed up in the situation for the reasons they give, but only to defend their own imperialist interests in the region. The same imperialist appetites motivate all states, from the smallest to the largest. At the moment all the great powers are openly supporting the Macedonian government and NATO has called for extra troops to deal with the pro-Albanian guerrillas between the Serbian and Macedonian frontiers. But behind the facade of unity between the great powers lie the same cleavages and rival imperialist interests which have already been asserted in the previous Balkan conflicts this last decade. Each one of them makes use of the local nationalist cliques. As in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo, the interests of the great powers diverge profoundly and while all of them hesitate to throw too much oil on the fire right now, each one is still seeking to draw whatever benefit it can from the present situation. And if the occasion arises, these divergent interests will come to the surface in Macedonia as well.

Thus France, for example, having been forced last year to take part in the bombing of Serbia in order to be able to maintain its presence in the Balkans (in the form of occupation troops who are holding part of Kosovo in the name of KFOR), is using this opportunity to go back to its traditional policies, on the one hand by renewing its ties with its old Serbian ally, and on the other hand by rushing to express support for Macedonia. As in the past, it is doing this in association with Britain. When the current hostilities began, it was Paris which ran to the president of Macedonia with offers of aid, while the foreign minister went to Skopje and proclaimed “we don’t want to allow the terrorist groups to endanger the stability of Macedonia and the whole region”. Another spokesman declared “we support the Macedonian government’s policy of moderation” - a sentiment echoed almost word for word by Mr Robin Cook at the exact moment that the Macedonian army (moderately, no doubt) began shelling Albanian villages. Meanwhile the British SAS has been seizing Kosovo Albanians on suspicion of being involved in the mass killing of Serbs.

As for Germany, which ten years ago was encouraging Slovenia and Croatia to go for independence, thus precipitating the break-up of Yugoslavia, and which in Kosovo actively supported the UCK, it has not changed its overall objectives in the region: to increase Serbia’s isolation and above all to surround it with a ring of pro-German states. But Germany’s imperialist aims are more long term: to deprive Serbia of access to the Mediterranean by provoking the secession of Montenegro.

The main interest of the US is to preserve the status quo, to act as the leader of NATO in order to contain the ambitions of the European powers - to remain master of the game in the Balkans, even though it is finding it harder and harder to keep control of the situation. One of the most recent examples of this loss of control can be seen in the Bosnian-Croat Federation established by the 1995 Dayton accords. Here the majority of Croat soldiers have left the common army in a move towards establishing a ‘third entity’ (Herzeg-Bosnia) which would leave Muslim areas caught between Serbs and Croats. This undermines the credibility of Dayton.

Finally Russia, by calling loudly for a firm intervention against the ‘Albanian terrorists’ is still trying to present itself as Serbia’s most reliable patron.

This is why counting on the ‘international community’ and on NATO to prevent things spiralling into chaos in the Balkans, which is the notion advertised by all the governments and the media, is a total illusion. Already each power is trying to play its own game behind the limited confrontations that have taken place. But they are also playing with fire. It’s obvious that the extension of the conflict to the whole of Macedonia, the possibility that Macedonia will fall apart, would increase the chances of a more active intervention by other states who have a direct interest in the situation, like Bulgaria and Greece. That would mark a real escalation of military tensions, spreading them outside ex-Yugoslavia for the first time since 1991. The fact that the bourgeoisie is conscious of such a danger is shown by an article which appeared in Le Monde on 18 and 19 March “If the upsurge of violence spreads to the whole Albanian community and if the integrity of Macedonia is threatened, it would then be very difficult to contain the appetites of many others and it could start a chain reaction” Why? Because capitalism is sinking inexorably into military barbarism. This is a clear manifestation of the bankruptcy of this system. But the bourgeois press never point that out.

CB 20.3.01