Macedonia: Repeat Performance (2001)

Note from the LeftEast editors: In his text, ‘From the banality of elections to a new political situation’, published on LeftEast in cooperation with Bilten.Org, Artan Sadiku calls for a serious rethinking of left political perspectives since the widespread belief that the social question would inevitably trump national divisions has been disproved by nationalist struggles that may soon ‘put to test Macedonia as a county’. As a contribution to the discussion, LeftEast is republishing here an article by Panos Garganas , a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SEK), who was put on trial by the Greek state for defending Macedonian independence, written just after the Ohrid Agreement ending the secessionist war of 2001 (Socialist Review, No.255); together with an article from May 2012 by one our editors, Andreja Zivkovic, exploring the relevance of Garganas’s prescient analysis of the role of the Ohrid Agreement in creating a new terrain for the nationalist struggles over Macedonia, and proposing a  Balkan-wide approach to the solution of the Macedonian national question(s).

Panos Garganas is a Greek socialist. The Greek government put him on trial for treason in the 1990s for supporting an independent Macedonia.
Panos Garganas is a Greek socialist. The Greek government put him on trial for treason in the 1990s for supporting an independent Macedonia.

There is a war going on in Macedonia. In most places outside of the capital, Skopje, there has been fighting. Recently there was a threat of a repeat of what happened in Sarajevo – that the people of Skopje would be shelled by forces stationed just outside of the city. There is a real danger that Macedonia is on the brink of becoming a second Bosnia. Nato and EU leaders are saying they are doing their best to prevent this sort of thing happening. They present themselves as reasonable people who are trying to defuse a situation where there are two communities competing with each other. In reality this is a repeat performance. They have the same responsibility in Macedonia as they had in Bosnia for setting each community at each other’s throats. We have to stop them before they turn Skopje into Sarajevo. It would be a disaster. Sarajevo was a disaster. Skopje would be even greater.

The intervention of the Great Powers has been at the root of all the problems in the Balkans including Macedonia for a long time, over 100 years. The problem of oppressed minorities existing within the borders of every single Balkan state is the result of Great Power intervention at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Macedonia was the main target of the carve-up. There was a Macedonian uprising that fought for liberation from the Ottomans, but it was defeated. Nobody lifted a finger to help it. Instead there was a race between the Great Powers for the division of Macedonia which reached its climax during the First World War.

Within the region the bloodbath lasted for ten years. It started in 1912 with the first Balkan War and ended in 1922 when the invasion of Turkey by the Great Powers and the Greek army came to an end. At the end of that terrible ten year war some Balkan people managed to gain independent states. The Albanian state became independent, but Macedonia didn’t. They were divided, some within the Greek borders, some within the Bulgarian borders, most of them within the Serbian state where they were considered to be “southern Serbs”. They had to wait for a much longer time than any other people in the Balkans for their own state. It was during the Second World War, when resistance fighters against the Nazis in Macedonia joined Tito’s partisans, that Macedonia emerged as a republic within the old Yugoslavia.

The problems start with this background. Division and redivision of the borders on the map had nothing to do with the wishes of local people. It was a carve-up which created all sorts of problems. For a long time this situation was frozen after the Second World War. But the problems emerged in the 1990s during the period of the crisis and the break-up of Yugoslavia. The picture people have in the west is that Macedonia was the one success story in the whole mess of the break-up of Yugoslavia. It actually escaped the war between Serbia and Croatia, and the war in Bosnia – it wasn’t involved in any of these wars. So there was this picture of a haven of stability, a success story in an otherwise terrible catastrophe. But the roots of the present crisis were there and the problems and tensions were exacerbated by the policies of the west during that decade.

Greece imposes conditions

There was a plebiscite that voted for independence at the beginning of the 90s. Although people voted overwhelmingly for an independent republic – over 90 percent – there were conditions attached by the EU and the west as a whole. The state that was most heavily involved in imposing conditions was Greece, which claimed that if Macedonia became independent it would be a threat, and that the new state would have ambitions to take Salonika away from Greece. That was absolute rubbish. Comparing the army strength of Macedonia with the army strength of Greece is like comparing the army strength of Greece with the army strength of the US. If anybody believes that Greece could take New York from the US because there are a few hundred thousand Greek Americans living there, then you could believe that the Macedonian state was a threat.

It was a cover for a campaign that was trying to turn Macedonia into a protectorate. Greece’s allies in the west played along with imposing conditions. Macedonia is still a republic without a name. The UN still officially calls it the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because the Macedonian authorities and Greek government have not agreed on a name. The Greek state still insists that Macedonia should not be part of the new name. Macedonia was under pressure throughout all the wars of the 1990s. The then Tory Greek government in the early 90s had discussions with Milosevic. It has now become known that they discussed how to partition Macedonia between Serbia and Greece. They weren’t just discussing the name but were going much, much further. The then president of the Macedonian republic, Kiro Gligorov, has now revealed in his memoirs that the Greek secret services offered him $1 million if he would put his signature to a deal to change the name of Macedonia. He obviously said no, but these are indications – there may not have been fighting on Macedonian soil in the early 90s – but there was certainly a war going on over who would control the state and what conditions would be imposed on its future.

This whole campaign didn’t succeed in changing the name of Macedonia but it was partly successful. Everything that was privatised in Macedonia was cherry-picked by Greek companies. The biggest bank was privatised, bought by a Greek bank. The biggest oil refinery was privatised, bought by a Greek company. Programmes of privatisation were imposed on Macedonia for the benefit of the west in general, but of Greek companies in particular.

It’s important to have this picture in mind because the poverty that lies behind the tensions in Macedonia was created through these kind of interventions. If you are a young Albanian in Macedonia the prospect of getting a job looks very remote. There’s a high level of unemployment, in the 30 percent Albanian minority disproportionately, but it hits everybody. The background to the tensions, to the problems between the two communities, lies in this kind of situation. The western leaders are responsible for this and that is the first reason to say we can’t trust them. We shouldn’t have anything to do with their intervention because they created the problem so they can’t be part of the solution.

It doesn’t end there. They created this powder-keg by imposing conditions on what the people living in Macedonia wanted to do or did not want to do. By all this pressure they exacerbated the poverty and the tensions between the two communities, and created the background to the present situation. But this was made much worse by the war in Kosovo. Protecting Kosovan Albanians, it opened the door for ethnic Albanians in Macedonian to seek greater autonomy. The present crisis started when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) decided that it would provoke the same kind of situation in Macedonia as it did in Kosovo. It had every reason to do so, because a few weeks before the start of its campaign in Macedonia a treaty was signed between the Republic of Macedonia and the new Yugoslavia which recognised the border between the two countries. Up to then the question had not been settled. It was part of the legacy from the start of the 90s. After the overthrow of Milosevic the new government signed the treaty, and that meant the Republic of Macedonia recognised Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia. It was then that the KLA started the campaign which found an audience for its aims. So it was able to have it both ways: to start armed attacks inside Macedonia to win the sympathy of the Albanian population, and at the same time provoke Nato’s intervention into a repeat performance of what happened in Kosovo.

Now a repeat performance is quite difficult for Nato. It doesn’t have the same attitude towards the regime in Macedonia as it had towards Milosevic. It has nobody to demonise and collaborated with the government of Macedonia throughout these years. So the attitude it takes is that it has brokered an agreement between the parties representing the Macedonians and the Albanians, to change the constitution so that there will be a better balance between the two communities. The western leaders have a policy officially saying that they are opposed to the armed actions of Albanian guerrillas. At the same time they are reluctant to curb that activity because of the alliance with the KLA. This is the situation that Nato and the west created. They have an alliance with the KLA, and they can’t break it because that would be a threat to their military presence in Kosovo. If they start attacking Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia, Nato troops will have nowhere to stay in Kosovo because they are dependent on the goodwill of the Albanian population. If it came to a fight they would be very hard put to keep their presence in Kosovo.

So, on the one hand, they have this problem. On the other, they can’t have a repeat of the Kosovo model in Macedonia. It would too destabilising for the whole region. They have created a situation where if Macedonia breaks up, if it is partitioned, there’s no way the west can guarantee that its allies in the region – Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey – will stay out of this situation. There’s too much at stake for all the Balkan states if it comes to redivision of Macedonia. This is why they have this policy of saying, “We will find a new balance. Through constitutional changes we can address the problem.” They have in mind that there should be a vice-president who must be of Albanian origin, and who can have a veto on legislation. This is supposed to guarantee a better balance between the two communities.

Another Dayton

Any intervention has to have the agreement of the Greek government. Salonika is the logistical centre of the west’s presence in the area. The Greek foreign minister, Papandreou, has suggested that the way to solve the problem is to take all Macedonian and Albanian leaders to Brussels, away from Skopje, and lock them in a room – the Dayton model. What did they do in Dayton? They took all the parties to the US, locked them in an army camp, threw away the key and said, “When you agree to our terms you can sign and go back.” When an agreement is in place in Macedonia a Nato force can go in making sure that every party sticks to the agreement, disarming the Albanian guerrillas, and see to it that the new constitution which ensures the balance between rival nationalisms goes well.

It may seem reasonable that instead of fighting each other they should work out a constitutional arrangement. It seems logical but it’s not. The argument that “unless Nato is there Albanians and Macedonians would be at each other’s throats” has been used so many times: in Northern Ireland, in Cyprus. They say, “Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots would at each other’s throats unless there are guarantor powers.” The guarantor powers are there but Cyprus has been in a mess for 40 years. The Cyprus constitution in 1960 had the provision that the president would be Greek Cypriot and the vice-president would be Turkish Cypriot, with a veto. We know where that ended. It ended with a war in 1974 and many more local wars before that. It’s a formula we have to reject. The Balkan experience in Bosnia and Kosovo argues for rejection, but so does the world experience: imperialist intervention under the guise of balancing rival populations is a formula where what they really have in mind is their own interests.

How do we fight this prospect? Albanian guerrillas argue they are addressing the grievances of the Albanian minority – the parliamentary parties have done nothing, so unless the guerillas fight nothing will change. On the other hand, the Macedonian nationalists argue they are opposing Nato intervention, and the way to do so is to fight the Albanians. We have to argue you can’t fight western intervention which is creating a no-future situation for Macedonia, either through Albanian nationalism or Macedonian nationalism. They are leading to a dead end. Both are playing into Nato’s hands. Albanian nationalism does that very openly. They claim to be Nato’s allies again as they were in Kosovo, and this is the clearest indication of a dead end. The Macedonian nationalists who say they are fighting the Albanians because they are tools of Nato are actually helping Nato. A demonstration that invaded the parliament in Skopje in June was provoked by the fact that Nato helped evacuate Albanian guerrillas from Aratsinovo, a village very near Skopje.

Nato was involved. There were American military advisers with the guerrillas. They were instrumental in provoking the attack and also arranging the withdrawal. This was all true, but the demonstration degenerated into an anti-Albanian meeting. This turned what might be a legitimate opposition to Nato into an impasse. It is possible to unite Macedonian and Albanian workers to fight together against war, against poverty, against discrimination. There are still, despite the extent of the crisis, many areas inside Skopje and other cities where Albanian and Macedonian people work and live together. Until recently there were strikes involving Macedonian and Albanian workers alongside each other.

The question is whether there is a left that can offer this perspective to Albanian and Macedonian workers in Macedonia, that they can join together to fight against Nato intervention, against the conditions attached to economic aid and restructuring programmes, against discrimination. This kind of movement would offer the Albanians the prospect of change. Albanian should become an official language. These kinds of demands could be adopted.

What can we do to help things develop in that direction? We can be clear against intervention – “No Nato troops to Macedonia.” The west did a lot of damage to the Macedonian economy, with all those conditions, embargoes, and the Greek campaign against Macedonia, which has cost very dear. There should be aid without strings attached – money and jobs instead of sending troops. Greece is so close to the problem it will be central to any kind of intervention. Raising this sort of demand everywhere in Europe, but particularly in Greece, is very important. In Greece we can raise the demand of opening the border to refugees and people who want to come south to find jobs. There are a lot of refugees because of the current crisis. Many want to come to Greece but they can’t because the border is closed. Our demand should be that “they are welcome to come”. Thousands of workers from Albania have come to Greece and they are living evidence that we can unite Greek, Albanian and Macedonian workers. When Albanian immigrants came to Greece in the early 90s they had to face terrible racist attacks and discrimination. We fought back against this through the unions which took the position that all immigrants should be legalised. So Albanian workers in Greece have been drawn towards this kind of movement.

The situation is crucial. A crisis is developing and what happens in the next few months will decide which way it goes. We have only a little time to prevent catastrophe, to prevent Skopje turning into Sarajevo. If we can raise these demands workers in Skopje will see an alternative to fighting among themselves or fighting Nato through fighting each other. We have to give an example in this direction. During the Kosovo war there was a huge anti-war movement in Greece – 90 percent of the population was against Nato. We can create this situation again. It’s more difficult in the current context to build up this kind of opposition to the war because the arguments are different, but the potential is still there. Then we can clearly offer a lead to workers in Skopje who can really unite Macedonian, Greek and Albanian workers to fight for a vision of the Balkans that is open to all its peoples and that is against war and poverty.