Tuesday, 12 February 2002

Leaving War Behind

I penned this one in Skopje for TIME magazine. It was published on 12 February 2002.


Peace may not exactly be breaking out all over Macedonia, but the country does seem to be taking small but definite steps to put last year's war behind it. Despite tense delays over its ratification and implementation throughout the autumn, the peace agreement brokered between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians at Ohrid last August is holding.

Ohrid's promise of weapons collection from the insurgents was completed with NATO's help back in September. What's more, ethnically mixed police patrols of communities in conflict areas, also pledged at Ohrid, have thus far been a success; the patrols are entering more and more villages every week, increasing trust on all sides.

The promised full amnesty for all former guerrillas has stumbled and staggered since August, but it is now inevitable. President Boris Trajkovski initially announced an amnesty in September; however, that contained loopholes that have kept many rebel leaders, including Ali Ahmeti, leader of the National Liberation Army (NLA), hiding in the hills. Within a few weeks, those loopholes will be closed, and Ahmeti will be able to come down from the hills to join ordinary political life. In short, war-war is gradually becoming jaw-jaw.

"After Ohrid, the conflict wasn't really finished," political analyst Veton Latifi explained to me. "Whether it was 26 September when NATO finished collecting weapons or whether it was later when the Ohrid-related laws were passed, no one can say, but somewhere in that process, the mood changed." The Ohrid agreement, Latifi believes, was not really accepted by either side; it was the confidence-building measures that followed that made all the difference.

Of course, the bitter war is not so far in the past to be forgotten, especially with occasional incidents like Sunday's booby trap explosion that killed a man returning to his home in the village of Aracinovo. People still fear renewed conflict, and some major politicians still try to play on this fear. At the end of January, for example, the President and the Interior Minister both claimed that a "spring offensive" from Albanian insurgents was inevitable. Ethnic tensions naturally increased. But such claims soon revealed themselves to be little more than an attempt to delay upcoming elections, and with the help of soothing words from the international community, especially NATO and the OSCE, such talk quickly faded. "Over the past two weeks," says Latifi, "relations seem to have improved dramatically."

While renewed fighting becomes more and more unlikely, however, other serious problems are starting to emerge as the long-term hangover of this war. Real trouble on the horizon will come from deteriorating social factors, most importantly, rising unemployment. With the ending of state subsidies for many large, state-run industries around the corner, massive lay-offs are looming. What's more worrying, this new wave of unemployment has an ethnic element.

With the debts of this war hanging over it, says my Skopje-based colleague at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the commentator Agim Fetahu, the state can no longer afford to shore up these industries, and the state-supported firms about to be hit by the ending of subsidies are disproportionately employing ethnic Macedonians. "For years, Albanians were locked out of jobs at these firms, with the result that Albanians are now over-represented in the private sector," Fetahu explains. "When the new round of inevitable lay-offs comes, it will be ethnic Macedonians who will suffer more." Hence, many worry the coming economic trouble could lead to new ethnic tensions.

But such economic strife will build gradually and may still be some time off. In the meantime, the real spring offensive will be political, as parties vie for votes in the run-up to the general election, to be held in either June or September. The new star in the political sky is a fresh Albanian political grouping, the Democratic Alliance Integration Movement, encompassing all three main Albanian parties and the NLA, whose leader, Ali Ahmeti, is the man hoping to make the transition from guerrilla to politician. If this new Alliance holds together until after the elections, it more or less guarantees a strong presence for Albanians in the next government. As Agim Fetahu explains, "There's a tradition here, despite the war, that a government needs both a Macedonian and an Albanian party to be considered fair and legitimate. It's been like that for 12 years, that is, throughout the entire lifetime of independent Macedonia."

Only this time, the Albanian partner in government will not be, as it has been in the past, some small party representing only a fraction of the minority population; it will be this strong Alliance, ostensibly representing a quarter to a third of the country's population, depending on which ethnic census you believe.

The impression one gets of Macedonia now is of a society trying to continue on the road to peace. Yes, there are incidents that threaten the peace process, and, yes, there are problems on the horizon that threaten the long-term outlook for peaceful coexistence between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians. But last year's war is now exactly that: last year's war. It is now seen as its own particular era in the past. And if that seven-month war between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians can remain in people's minds as a temporary madness unique to the year 2001, then just maybe this small Balkan country of two million people has managed to escape the all-encompassing devastation of some of its ex-Yugoslav neighbors.

Andrew Stroehlein founded Central Europe Review and heads the training department at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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