Macedonia: The Next Domino?

Macedonia: The Next Domino?

Mini Teaser: Macedonia's democracy and indenpendence remain imperiled. While regional forces are largely responsible for this, U.S. policy to date has done little to help a country that may be next in line to experience serious instability.

by Author(s): Marshall Freeman Harris

To the Western eye, Macedonia can seem to be a mass of contrasts and contradictions. It is sparsely populated and has little strategic or geopolitical importance, yet forces in neighboring countries hold that its statehood and national identity pose grave threats to their security. Its Macedonian population and Albanian minority coexist in cities and towns across the country, yet, in many cases, lead totally separate lives. Above Lake Ohrid, its glaciers, mountains and waterfalls form a landscape with the seemingly impossible beauty of an amateurish oil painting, yet only miles away impoverished families crowd into single rooms in primitive houses. In Skopje, the capital, the peal of bells from the Orthodox cathedral mingles with Muslim prayer calls and, of all things, the familiar melodies of Wesley hymns from the local Methodist church.

For the past year, the local scene has been even more incongruous: as Macedonian and ethnic Albanian citizens have gone about the business of their daily lives, Serbian forces across the border in Kosovo have been killing hundreds of Albanian men, women and children, driving hundreds of thousands into the wilderness, and razing villages to the ground.

A key objective of current U.S. foreign policy is to halt this violence and prevent it from spreading into Macedonia and elsewhere beyond Kosovo. As in Bosnia, the United States is trying to do this by imposing an expedient, Dayton-style settlement that meets with the approval of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic and that sacrifices the rights of the Kosovar Albanians. To justify its expediency, the U.S. administration invokes a domino theory: if Kosovo again dissolves into war, Macedonia and Albania will be drawn inexorably into the conflict. Then Greece and Turkey, two U.S. allies and NATO members, will be pulled into a full-blown Balkan war that, in turn, could spread still farther or tear the Atlantic Alliance apart.

These fears are genuine, particularly regarding Macedonia, which, six years after independence, remains one of the world's most fragile and imperiled democracies. This former Yugoslav republic is surrounded by four countries in which powerful political forces, at best, prefer that it remain weak and vulnerable and, at worst, seek its dissolution.

To the west, forces in Albania may have designs on Macedonia's western regions, which are largely populated by ethnic Albanians. They hold that the Macedonian Albanians, who may constitute as much as 40 percent of Macedonia's population of two million, have no real historic ties to the ethnic Macedonians and only tenuous political links to the new Macedonian state. They belong instead, it is claimed, in their motherland of Albania or some future pan-Albanian federation.

To the north, Serbia has attempted to weaken, if not impoverish, its former Yugoslav partner-republic, just as it did through violent means with Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia before their successful campaigns for independence. As Yugoslavia dissolved, Milosevic's Belgrade regime expropriated all of the Yugoslav army's weaponry and other equipment in Macedonia, as well as a number of other economic and financial assets in the republic. It also laid claim to territory along the Serbian-Macedonian border. Since then, it has reportedly armed the small Serbian minority population within Macedonia.

To the east, Bulgarian political forces continue to lay at least rhetorical claim to Macedonian territory. Bulgaria now enjoys the most progressively democratic government in the Balkans, but, historically, Bulgarians have viewed the territory that is now Macedonia as part of Bulgaria. In the nineteenth century, Bulgarian leaders purportedly moved their capital to Sofia, in the far western part of the country, with the expectation that it would be the political and geographical center of a greater Bulgaria. Today, among viable political forces outside of the government, the view is still widespread that the Macedonians are ethnic Bulgarians separated from their motherland only by an artificial frontier and an ersatz Macedonian language.

To the south, Greece has sustained a six-year campaign to prevent the country's recognition under its preferred name, the Republic of Macedonia. In Athens' view, the nomenclature "Macedonia" is Greek--it is the name of the ancient territory that now constitutes part of the northernmost province of modern Greece--and, if "expropriated" by Skopje, would give vent to irredentism among the Slavic "Skopjeans." To prevent this in the years immediately following Macedonian independence, Greece opposed international political and economic support for Macedonia. It imposed two devastating unilateral trade embargoes, and prevented Macedonia from using its preferred name in the United Nations and other international forums.

Since Macedonian independence, Western nations have done little to ease these regional tensions or to facilitate Macedonia's transition into modern statehood. When U.S. Ambassador Robert Frowick and I arrived in Skopje in 1992 to establish a monitoring mission for the Commission (now Organization) for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), we were virtually the only Westerners in town. Due to the first Greek embargo and UN sanctions against Serbia, the economy was in dire straits. Skopje's streets were uncharacteristically quiet and dusty. Shops were filled, but with goods that most Macedonians could not afford and that could not be exported due to sanctions and the embargo. The political scene was dominated by ethnic, former communist and nationalist parties rather than purely democratic ones. The media were, for the most part, state-controlled or at least state-subsidized. Privatization, to the extent that it took place at all, benefited communist-era managers of enterprises and cronies of government officials.

During the past six years, too little of this has changed. In Macedonia's formative years, the pursuit of consensus in the OSCE and European Union weakened, if not eliminated, critical European support for the country. In the United States, deference to Serbia, on which President Bill Clinton has developed a self-imposed dependency for keeping the peace in Bosnia, and the Greek-American lobby, on which the Clinton administration relies for domestic political support, have also ensured that Macedonia remains in a political and economic limbo.

To a large extent, President Clinton has merely continued the policies of his predecessor, who was equally cowed by Serbia and the Greek-American lobby. Having vainly supported the continuation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the face of growing Serbian hegemony, if not tyranny, President George Bush finally accepted the realities of new Bosnian, Croatian and Slovenian states in April 1992. Citing the need for time to cool the passions of the Greek populace, however, Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger prevailed upon Secretary James Baker, and Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis prevailed upon Bush, for a short delay in granting diplomatic recognition to Macedonia. Bush agreed. Rather than honoring their commitments to prepare their people for the inevitability of Macedonian statehood, Mitsotakis and Greek-American leaders then launched a massive campaign to turn the U.S. delay into a permanent denial of recognition and use of the Macedonian name. As Bosnia was attacked by Serbian forces and struggled for survival, Macedonia slipped from the administration's limited radar screen, and the short delay in recognition grew ever longer. After Bush lost the 1992 presidential election, Ambassador Frowick courageously bucked the trend by formally asking Eagleburger and the lame-duck administration to recognize Macedonia. He was ignored.

As the Greek-American lobby escalated its campaign, the Clinton administration tacitly accepted the Greek embargoes of Macedonia and, on the name issue, supported seemingly interminable UN mediations that harmed Macedonia's development by leaving it as a sort of quasi-state, with a de facto status greater than that of a constituent Yugoslav republic but less than that of a real nation. When the Clinton administration finally recognized Macedonia two years after independence, it recognized it as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", one of Greece's preferred appellations. It also declined to grant full diplomatic relations to the new republic. The normally automatic process by which diplomatic relations immediately follow recognition was halted, not because some U.S. national interest was invoked but because, in one of the most hysterical moments of the new presidency, Greek-Americans persuaded White House adviser George Stefanopoulos to intervene with Clinton. As a result of further Greek-American lobbying, the U.S. Postal Service delivered mail and the major telephone companies logged calls not to Macedonia but to the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." Even today, Bell Atlantic bills list calls to Skopje as "FYR Macedonia."

Unchained from domestic politics, genuine U.S. interests demanded a different outcome. As elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, these interests are centered on the promotion of pro-Western, democratic governments, media, and other institutions; the fullest possible expression of political rights and civil liberties; and free trade. A corollary of this is opposition to political repression, to the mistreatment of religious, ethnic, and other minorities, and to territorial adventurism.

In Macedonia's case, advancing these interests would have meant immediately accepting the newly independent republic's right to self-determination, statehood and international recognition, the criteria for which Skopje had clearly met in European and other international political institutions. Part of this self-determination, as former Assistant Secretary of State Hodding Carter told Greek officials during a non-governmental mediation mission four years ago, is the "right of a people and nation to identify themselves by the names by which they have historically known themselves and believe themselves to be", particularly when, as was clearly the case in Macedonia, the people and nation have forsworn extraterritorial and other related ambitions.

More specifically, advancing U.S. interests would have meant rejecting categorically Greece's claims regarding Macedonia's name; demanding, under penalty of sanctions, ends to the Greek trade embargoes; moving rapidly to admit Macedonia into international political and economic institutions; providing large-scale aid to Macedonia; and issuing firm warnings to Milosevic not to interfere in Macedonia. It also would have meant accepting Greece's justifiable claim that Macedonia should replace its flag, which prominently featured a symbol indigenous to ancient Greek territory.

Sadly, the United States has done little along these lines. In the absence of a Bosnia-style conflagration, it has nevertheless been able to claim a foreign policy victory, regardless of the inordinately high cost of this policy to Macedonia. Now, with Serbian forces and the Kosovar Albanian defenders poised to renew the fighting in Kosovo, the situation has grown more dangerous. Once again we are hearing the talk of dominos falling in Macedonia and beyond.

If Bosnia and Kosovo provide any guide, it is that the United States would intervene in Macedonia, albeit perhaps belatedly, to prevent an escalation involving Greece and Turkey. It also suggests, however, that the Clinton administration would do so by building a firewall around Macedonia rather than saving it, thereby allowing at least part of the destruction to continue. The much vaunted greater Balkan war would then be averted not so much as a result of U.S. leadership, but of cynicism.

Today, the confluence of two new political developments is beginning to mitigate against unrest in Macedonia and to make it less likely that even this initial domino will fall. First, Greece's socialist government has grown less vituperative over the dangers posed by what the Mitsotakis team characterized as Skopje's "expansionist" and "communist" forces. While by no means abandoning its name-claim and other central tenets of nationalist Greek policies, the PASOK leadership seems, in general, more willing to reach at least a tacit accommodation with its northern neighbor. Indeed, it has taken major steps to improve relations not only with Macedonia, but also with Albania and Bulgaria.

Second and more important, Macedonia has just elected a new government that seems virtually certain to undertake a serious campaign to create a viable economy, and to reverse the regressive and cronyist policies of its post-communist predecessor. Despite its nationalist overtones, it has also vowed to improve conditions with the country's Albanian minority. In apparent good faith, it has even brought one bloc of ethnic Albanian political forces into the government. It has also led the parliament in granting amnesty to two ethnic Albanian mayors who, under the previous government, were sentenced to four and seven-year prison terms for flying the Albanian flag at their town halls. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and key advisers like Boris Trajkovski have advocated ethnic tolerance and moderation since Frowick and I first met them, as opposition figures, six years ago. Now we must see whether they can put these commitments into practice by checking and otherwise controlling the more nationalist, if not extremist, elements that are undoubtedly in the orbit of their governing coalition.

A third positive force may nevertheless prove to be essential: a shift in U.S. policies. Three U.S. moves could be decisive in preventing further unrest in the region. The first would be for the Clinton administration to end its deference to the Milosevic regime in Serbia, which has orchestrated four wars in seven years and appears eager for a fifth. It could do this by imposing a more just, stabilizing and democratic settlement that gives the Kosovar Albanians a parliament and other elements of genuine self-governance, as well as a referendum or a similar vehicle for the province of Kosovo to leave Serbia and achieve international recognition if the Serbian regime continues its political repression. Second, the administration could also work more vigorously to foster democracy and undermine the Milosevic regime within Serbia proper. The third step would be for the Clinton administration to provide more direct assistance to build democratic political, economic, social and cultural institutions in Macedonia. A corollary of this is for President Clinton to be less cravenly deferential to Greek-American interests by forcing Athens to launch a continuing dialogue and resolve its remaining differences with--and claims against--Skopje.

These are, of course, long-term regional prospects. Recently, however, one small, positive sign suggests that Macedonia can survive if its struggle remains a war of attrition rather than a violent conflict. In October, when President Clinton described the deal that U.S. Envoy Richard Holbrooke had made with Milosevic to avert air strikes against Serbia in response to its attacks in Kosovo, he called Macedonia "Macedonia." This may have only been because the President and his handlers realized that, in selling their latest appeasement of the Serbian dictator as a great show of U.S. strength and leadership, they were already straining the patience and credulity of the American people. It may also have been only a slip of the tongue from the ridiculous encumbrances of our official nomenclature. Nevertheless, there it was--a startling moment of clarity. Along with the promise of a new government in Skopje and the easing of tensions with Athens, this moment may herald a new era: the beginning of the Republic of Macedonia's emergence not from the jaws of history, but from the thick fog of modern U.S. politics.

Marshall Freeman Harris is a senior fellow at Freedom House in Washington, DC. As a State Department official, he served in Britain, Bulgaria and Macedonia, and in Washington as special assistant in the Office of Secretary of State James Baker. In 1993 he resigned in protest against U.S. inactiom in Bosnia.

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