Macedonia's Decisive Moment

By Chaim D. Kaufmann

June 27 1999

After recent events, both Macedonians and outsiders are well aware that, after Kosovo, Macedonia could easily become the next country of Southeastern Europe that will be consumed in the fire of ethnic civil war.  Ethnic Macedonians can hear the calls of some Albanian leaders for the creation of a “Greater Albania.”  At the same time, Albanian citizens of Macedonia have legitimate reason to be angry at some aspects of the government’s treatment of refugees from Kosovo.  In addition, each of the neighboring states has potential reasons to promote ethnic conflict in Macedonia.  For now the presence of NATO troops provides a breathing space, but they will not stay forever.

The lessons of other ethnic wars are sobering.  Of more than 40 ethnic and religious civil wars that have ended since 1945, virtually every single one ended in one of two ways: Either with the conquest and suppression of one group by the other, as in Nigeria, Croatia, Turkey, and Iraq (sometimes leading to more civil war later); or else with the partition of the country, whether internationally recognized, as in India, Palestine, and Ethiopia, or de facto, as has happened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, and Chechnya.  It doesn’t matter whether the United Nations disapproves of massive refugee movements or of new borders established by war; they are none the less real, and often permanent.  After 51 years no Palestinian refugees have been allowed to return to Israel, and after 25 years there is still virtually no prospect that the refugees of the 1974 war in Cyprus will ever return to their old homes. 

The one outcome of ethnic war that does not happen is survival of the original multi-ethnic state.  Once an ethnically divided country goes to war against itself, restoration of peaceful democratic ethnic relations is no longer possible.   (The only exception to this rule is South Africa, where a ruling minority voluntarily and peacefully handed over power to the majority – a model that is not applicable to Macedonia.)  If civil war comes to Macedonia, the kind of Macedonia that we know today will be permanently destroyed.

Escalation from a situation which is ethnically tense but not yet very violent to full-scale war, ethnic cleansing, and massacres can come with remarkable speed, as it did in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.  Once many or most of the ordinary members – not just the leaders -- of one ethnic group come to fear that another group intends to use violence against them, they have no choice but to begin mobilizing for self-defense.  However, members of each group can observe the mobilization efforts by the other, increasing both sides’ fears and pushing both to further escalate their mobilization.  Even worse, one group’s mobilization for group defense is often accompanied by rhetoric accusing the other group of genocidal intentions towards the first group.  But the second group is very likely to see such accusations as advance justifications for genocidal behavior by the first group.  Members of each group can also observe the behavior of the most respected leaders within the other community; if they see that the leaders of the other group condone extreme nationalist rhetoric, or fail to condemn ethnically-motivated crimes or killings, political discourse within the observing group is sharply narrowed: the argument that the other group really does intend to attack becomes virtually unanswerable.

History becomes irrelevant.  Even as an outsider, I will still say that if ethnic mobilization in Macedonia ever reaches this level, the country’s special conditions and special history – recent politics, or the positive and negative consequences of Yugoslav rule, or who did what to whom in 1912-1913 or in the 1940s -- will no longer matter.  What will matter are the factors which determine the beginnings of ethnic wars in general – namely, what both sides can do to each other right now, and what people of both sides believe the other side intends to do.  In such a situation, if a number of ethnically motivated killings or massacres do occur, escalation to full-scale war becomes almost unavoidable.

Worse, the processes of war and ethnic cleansing change society in ways which make it impossible ever to go back.  Whether or not the conflict was whipped up by hate-mongering racist politicians, the facts of war force everyone on both sides to recognize that they now face real threats to their personal safety.  While people can sometimes be talked into believing in invented atrocity stories, there is no way at all to talk people out of believing in real ones.  Even those who previously harbored no hostility towards the other group and who opposed the war are forced to recognize that if they are caught by the other side’s ethnic cleansing gangs, their own personal belief in toleration will not save them.  Identities are now imposed by the men with the guns.

For this reason, ethnic wars can be very hard to end.  Once civilians on both sides have been murdered, it becomes impossible for anyone on either side to accept any settlement that would involve entrusting their security to a government which could be seized by the other group and then used as a weapon against them.  Any moderate leader who proposed such a thing would be very easy to demonize for “risking the nation’s security,” and possibly even assassinated (examples include Mahatma Gandhi, Archbishop Makarios, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ibrahim Rugova).  This, not unreasonable hyper-nationalist leaders, is what explains the continuing refusal of the Republika Srpska to entertain any meaningful integration of Bosnia, and also explains the insistence of Kosovar Albanians – even early on when it appeared that they might not win the war – that the key feature of any settlement had to be “no Serbs with guns;” they did not dare to return otherwise.  The result is that most ethnic wars cannot be ended until either one side conquers the other or the two groups are physically separated by ethnic cleansing and flight of refugees from contested regions.  Peace-keeping, unless it operates in support of partition, can only suppress fighting temporarily, not end it.

The citizens of Macedonia know far better than anyone else just exactly how high is the risk that their country faces.  They also know what they must do to avoid disaster.  For now, both communities must treat each other with extreme restraint.  Beyond this, leaders of both ethnic groups and people of good will must act to create genuine ethnic partnership and civil society.  If Macedonia is to have any resilience as a state against the many destabilizing forces in the region, leaders and citizens of all groups must learn to see each other not just as acceptable neighbors but as actual allies, and resist at all costs the impulse to align themselves with foreign powers or political factions on the basis of ethnic affinity.  For example, ethnic Macedonians must abandon any thoughts of sympathy for the “Albanian problems” of Serbia or Montenegro and instead learn to see the Albanians of Macedonia as their most important allies and Albania itself as a friendly country.  For their part, ethnic Albanians must realize that first-class citizenship in a functional democracy is always the best deal for anyone, regardless of what symbols or colors are on the country’s flag.  (It goes without saying that these choices are also the ones which will maximize Macedonia’s chances of NATO help against external threats as well as of Western economic development and integration into Europe.)

The presence of NATO troops provides a golden opportunity for Macedonia to stabilize itself.  Unlike the normal situation in most ethnically divided societies, Macedonia has been granted a rare gift: a little while during which the different ethnic groups really can afford to let down their guard and place their trust in each other.  Macedonia’s decisive moment is now.