All-out war increasingly stalks the volatile Balkan region — the land route from Europe to the Near East — as sporadic fighting intensifies, hopes for compromise fade and fears arise of a militant Islamic state near the heart of Europe.
Reports indicate that financing for Islamic ethnic Albanians fighting against the Macedonian government comes from outside the country — including the U.S. — and is coordinated through an organization in Switzerland.
Militant ethnic Albanian forces are again in the north of Macedonia as they occupy villages and blockade roads near the city of Tetovo, the site of earlier fighting in late April and early May. As the fighting escalates, ethnic Albanian politicians are demanding major concessions from the central government, according to official sources in the region.
The Party of Democratic Prosperity of Albanians, the largest ethnic Albanian political party in Macedonia, has “formulated its demand” for changes to the Macedonian constitution, as well as “a halt to the action of the army” against the rebels and “total amnesty” for the fighters, according to Radio Yugoslavia, the official broadcasting service for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
On March 27, the leader of the PDPA, Imer Imeri, stated that he was “convinced that the constitution of Macedonia would be altered soon.” Ethnic Albanian politicians support the establishment of a confederation in Macedonia based upon ethnic composition.
The Macedonian government, however, is resisting any major change. On the same day Imeri’s statement was reported, Radio Bulgaria quoted Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski as declaring, “Macedonia is facing two possibilities — a united state or a new blood bath.”
Many in the region fear that the predominately Albanian north part of Macedonia will merge with a future independent Kosovo, and form a powerful Islamic state.
The U.S. and the European Union pressured all major political parties involved in the Macedonian crisis into forming a coalition government, and urged the Macedonian government to avoid major armed clashes with the rebels.
If Macedonia’s government of “national unity” falls, an area-wide conflagration could erupt.
The Albanian-dominated northern region of Macedonia borders on Yugoslavia, U.N.-controlled Kosovo and Bulgaria. In the event of a large-scale conflict, ethnic Albanian fighters would operate throughout the border region, crossing national frontiers at will, bringing men and supplies where needed.
A recent report from the British Broadcasting Corporation states that British officials learned that 1,000 fighters could be shifted from the disputed Presevo Valley in southern Serbia to northern Macedonia. A separate report from Radio Yugoslavia states that the fighters would come from the Kosovo region.
Disregard for national borders would bring in Yugoslavia — Serbia being the largest member of the Yugoslav Federation — and involve NATO troops in Kosovo, some of whom are American.
Greece, a NATO member, also has a defense agreement with Yugoslavia, and Russia has strengthened its ties with Belgrade since the fall of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
Neighboring Bulgaria could find itself in the conflict if thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees flee across Macedonia’s eastern border into Bulgaria.
Turkey — also a NATO ally — could be forced into aiding fellow Muslims under pressure from strong fundamentalist Islamic factions within that nation.
Although they are not formally supported by any government — including Albania — ethnic Albanian fighters have enthusiastic backing from fellow Albanians.
Reports indicate that Albanians living in Europe and the U.S. are sending money to the Macedonian fighters through an organization in Switzerland. A founder of the purportedly disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, Fazliu Veli, is said to have warned of a wider war if the Macedonian government does not negotiate with ethnic Albanian rebels.
Guardian Unlimited, the Internet version of the Guardian of London, states, “Albanian exiles in Switzerland have organized and supported the creation of the NLA.” The report also cites a statement by former U.S. diplomat Daniel Serwer to the effect that the financing of the ethnic Albanian separatists, “poses as much of a risk to American soldiers in Kosovo as the Albanian gunmen crossing the border into Macedonia.”
Serwer, according to the Guardian, will speak at U.S. congressional hearings next week, seeking to ban contributions from the U.S. to ethnic Albanian separatists fighting in Macedonia.
The rebels in Macedonia appear to have firm support. While Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Russia, all claim that ethnic Albanian fighters are using local villagers as shields, a BBC report places the assertion in doubt.
According to an account of a BBC reporter visiting a rebel-controlled area, villagers freely refer to the fighters as “our army,” and as the “Albanian army.”
A general war in the region would benefit Russia, which has long advocated strong measures against ethnic Albanian fighters and associates them with militant Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Central Asia.
While the EU and U.S. have urged a policy of negotiation and restraint in regard to the rebels, Moscow recommends a state of war be declared. If fighting begins to rage, Russia likely will trumpet the superiority of its original position.
Moscow, since it has close relations with all governments involved, would also be in a position to assist in peace negotiations between those governments and rebels, should any of the fighters survive.