Money, Power, and Macedonia

Money, Power, and Macedonia

Money, Power, and Macedonia

Events beyond our borders.
Aug. 14 2001 9:00 PM

Money, Power, and Macedonia

Two cheers for the Western diplomats who this afternoon brokered a peace treaty between the Macedonian government and Albanian ethnic leaders. With the stroke of a pen, they hope to end six months of fighting between the Macedonian army and Albanian rebels, and they certainly are trying to seem confident that they will succeed. "After this day, there should be no reason for fighting," said James Pardew, the U.S. envoy who helped broker the treaty: "[T]his is the day when we can begin an end to this conflict and take all the political issues off the table."

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According to his own logic—and the logic of everyone who helped negotiate this treaty—Pardew is absolutely right: There is now no reason for the conflict to continue. From the beginning, the Albanian rebels have claimed to be fighting for their rights: for the right to speak their language, for the right to have more local autonomy, and generally for the right to have more political influence in a state that is, after all, nearly a third Albanian. From the published details the accord certainly appears designed to address these grievances. Among other things, it makes Albanian the official second language in communities where ethnic Albanians comprise more than 20 percent of the population; ensures proportional representation for Albanians in the Macedonian parliament, on the constitutional court, in the government, and in the police; and awards what amounts to self-rule to ethnic Albanian regions.

As I say, according to the logic of the Western negotiators, there is no reason for the fighting to continue. But are all the actors in this drama motivated by logic?

Listen, for a moment, not to the rhetoric of rights but to the noises emanating from the ground. Cease-fire or no cease-fire, treaty or no treaty, the rebels and the government were still fighting early this morning. As recently as last Friday, Human Rights Watch reported that Albanian rebels had abducted, tortured, and mutilated five ethnic Macedonian road-workers, part of "an increasing pattern of illegal detentions and kidnappings by ethnic Albanians," which seems an extreme response to frustration over the lack of proportional representation on the Albanian Constitutional Court. Even as I write this, Macedonian Web sites are still reporting injured terrorists, dead soldiers, and "strong battles in the Skopje region."

One begins to suspect that the battle is in fact about something else other than the issues that have been "resolved" in the treaty. Indeed, a Western diplomat with years of experience in Macedonia put his view to me bluntly: "This is essentially a 19th-century struggle for territory, not a 20th-century struggle for human rights."

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This war may not, in other words, have anything to do with proportional representation at all: It may simply reflect (as the Macedonians have always claimed) the desire on the part of a band of Albanian extremists to partition the country, lopping off a bit of it for themselves, either to be absorbed into a Greater Albania or to be run as an autonomous province, like neighboring Kosovo. Or it may reflect (as I speculated a few months ago) the cycle of injury and vengeance that has been repeating itself in the Balkans for the past decade.

More to the point, it may reflect a frustrated group of people's desire for money and power. We—those of us who live in the West or the Westernized bits of the rest of the world—we who spend our days tapping neat words onto our computer screens or carefully filing papers in offices or working eight-hour days to earn money that we are fairly certain will arrive, we may well think it is better to live in our sort of world. We may well think it better to enjoy the benefits of the international banking system and the Internet, to be a part of the global trading system, to experience the pleasure of watching our statesmen shaking hands with other people's statesmen from time to time.

There are, however, other ways of life. There are those, for example, who would simply prefer to control the local cigarette-smuggling racket with no interference from neighboring police. Or who would like not to share their state with people who speak another language, but to expel the people who speak another language. Or who would simply like to be in charge, having spent many years dreaming of being in charge. Try to imagine, say, the mindset of an Albanian rebel, who has been fighting in the mountains for many years. He has killed policemen, murdered a few passers-by, bombed villages. Now he is offered the chance to have Albanian declared the official language in districts that are 20 percent Albanian. Is he likely to retire?

Within the next week, we will know the answer. If the rebels do not lay down their arms in accordance with the treaty, then the skeptics are right: This is not a 20th-century, let alone 21st-century, war about rights, and there is no point in continuing to pretend that it is. There is no point in discussing "rights" with people who are interested in "land" and "power"—and are willing to use violence to get them. That sort of violence can only be answered with violence: Appeasing terrorists is no better than appeasing dictators. Lord Robertson, Javier Solana, dozens of European and American negotiators have all put their reputations on the line, have all stated their firm belief in the "Europeanness" of Macedonia. If not all Macedonians want to be European, I hope there is a plan B.