Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Macedonia seeks closure of Kosovo drama

Macedonia’s National Security Council, made up of the country’s top officials, met to discuss the UN envoy’s proposal for Kosovo’s final status after he presented it to Belgrade and Pristina on February 2, Balkan Insight has learnt.

The meeting is seen as a clear sign that Skopje remains deeply concerned about the outcome of the Kosovo drama.

The government is relying on the international community to keep matters under control and prevent fresh destabilisation of the region, but analysts are still concerned about potential dangers for the ethnically divided republic.

One is that internal political instability will increase, after Albanian opposition parties appeared to time a walk-out from parliament with the announcement of Kosovo’s final status. Another worry is that extremist groups from Kosovo may set up bases in the border areas of Macedonia. A third area of concern is a potential division of territory between Serbs and Albanians in northern Kosovo; this may encourage Albanians in western Macedonia to try to detach territory in a similar way.

For all these reasons Skopje wants to see the final status issue in Kosovo off the agenda as soon as possible. Indeed, many expect Macedonia to be among the first countries to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

When it comes to Kosovo, Macedonian public opinion is divided along ethnic lines. Ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of the country’s two million inhabitants, have strong family and cultural ties to Kosovo and strongly support independence. Most ethnic Macedonians, on the other hand, see Kosovo as a potential danger.

Ethnic Macedonians have been wary of Kosovo since the Kosovo conflict of 1999, when some 300 000 refugees fled to Macedonia, placing a burden on already fragile ethnic relations in the country.

Two years later, Macedonia was plunged into an ethnic conflict launched by fighters of the National Liberation Army, demanding greater rights for Albanians in Macedonia.

The six-month conflict ended with a peace deal that provided greater rights for the Albanians, while the guerrillas turned into politicians and formed the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

The party joined the centre-left government from 2002 to 2006, when Macedonia made its policy shift in favour of Kosovo’s independence, but withdrew to the opposition after elections returned the centre-right to power.

On the eve of the Kosovo status resolution, the behavior of the DUI is one of the main reasons for Skopje’s anxiety.

The party stormed out of parliament this week along with its minor partner, the Party for Democratic Prosperity, complaining that the government was bypassing the Ohrid deal provisions.

Experts say the walkout has deprived Macedonia of a broad political consensus on Kosovo, increasing the risk of trouble.

“Macedonia is in a fragile situation; there is no political unity and stability and we have two parties that have decided to act outside the institutions,” law professor Vlado Popovski told Balkan Insight. “Macedonia would have been much more resilient towards potential risks if there had been political unity,” he said.

Biljana Vankovska, professor at the Institute for Defence Studies in Skopje, agreed. “If the best way to prepare for Kosovo’s final status was internal stability and a broad political consensus, we are again unprepared,” she said. “The DUI walkout is another negative factor.”

Popovski said the DUI move was timed to coincide with developments in Kosovo, with the DUI “using tensions over Kosovo to put pressure on the authorities to accept their political demands”.

Apart from these internal developments, events in Kosovo pose other threats to Macedonia’s stability. Some analysts fear Macedonian border villages, populated by Albanians, could become a safe haven for extremists groups from Kosovo.

Blagoja Markovski, a former army official and head of the Balkan Forum for Security NGO, said extremists unhappy with Ahtisaari’s proposal could try to destabilise Macedonia.

“Judging from the experience of 2001, when armed groups freely crossed the porous border with Kosovo, extremist groups from Kosovo could set bases in border areas of Macedonia populated by Albanians,” Markovski told Balkan Insight.

This concern was also discussed at the last session of the Security Council. One official told Balkan Insight that remnants of extremist criminal groups have no political backing and do not currently pose a threat but added: “It doesn’t mean they would not be a threat in a different political context”.

President Branko Crvenkovski recently said the presence of extremist and criminal groups in Kosovo, as well as large quantities of weapons, needed continued monitoring.

“The capacity of Kosovo’s institutions is weak; we must not underestimate the risks and our institutions will remain vigilant and will closely monitor developments,” he said.

Another potential worry is the outcome of events in the north of Kosovo, where some local Serbs have said they will secede in the event of Kosovo gaining independence.

“If parts of Kosovo (start to) function independently from the state with parallel structures, Albanians may go for the same model in (western) Macedonia,” one official said.

Vlado Popovski, one of the architects of the Ohrid peace deal, agreed, saying the division of northern Kosovo could have negative repercussions. “It could result in an attempt to create a similar situation in western Macedonia,” he said, adding that he was confident that the international community would not allow a division because of the “domino effect”.

In the meantime, Macedonian politicians believe Kosovo will not reignite the region on account of the numerous safeguards they expect to be incorporated into any final settlement see link to document.

These start with a ban on any potential merger of Kosovo and Albania, which they believe effectively rules out the creation of a Greater Albania that would seek to absorb all the mainly Albanian territories of the region, from Kosovo to western Macedonia and the fringes of Serbia and Montenegro.

Some officials also expect that the UN envoy’s proposal to address the live issue of the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

Pristina has refused to recognise the line, saying it was agreed between Skopje and Belgrade to suit Macedonia and at Kosovo’s expense.

Macedonia now wants to see final “closure” of the Kosovo issue, according to Dane Taleski of the Institute for Democracy. Prolonging the final status question was the greatest threat to the stability of Macedonia and indeed the region.

“We need to wrap up the Kosovo drama once and for all, for the longer it stays open, the more someone will want to use it for different purposes,” Taleski said.

“Limited or full independence of Kosovo should not be taboo or a security threat to us,” Vankovska agreed. “It is much worse to keep final status undefined, as this will increase anxiety among all actors.”

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