'Macedonia Civil War May Now Be Inevitable'

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Macedonian soldiers in downtown Tetovo fire at rebel positions

TIME.com: Macedonia is turning into the next Balkan nightmare faster than anyone expected. Albanian rebels fought pitched battles Friday with the Macedonian police and army for control of Tetovo, the country's second city. Has a civil war become inevitable?

Dejan Anastasijevic: Things certainly don't look good at all for Macedonia. Nobody on either side of the ethnic divide in Macedonia had expected such a rapid escalation. The only way to interpret the rebels' success in sustaining a military challenge in an urban area deep inside Macedonia is that they have much more support among the local ethnic-Albanian population than anybody expected. But both communities — the ethnic Albanians and Macedonia's Slavic majority — are now radicalized, and both are losing faith that this can be solved by political means.

If the crisis maintains its present momentum, pretty soon we'll be seeing those columns of refugees on the roads that have become so familiar as a symbol of Balkan wars. And the worst nightmare could be the spillover of what we're seeing in Tetovo into the capital, Skopje, which has large Albanian and Slav communities. In the cities, these conflicts are the bloodiest, pitching neighbor against neighbor. And throughout Macedonia, the demarcation lines between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians are even more fuzzy than they were in Bosnia.

The Macedonian government has allowed its army to join the police in fighting the rebels, and is considering a general mobilization and state of emergency. But what are Macedonia's options for dealing with this crisis?

They face a major dilemma now, because the rebels appear to be holding a suburb of Tetovo, and they appear to have the support of a lot of local people. So the Macedonians will either have to use overwhelming force to restore control over the town, which would risk serious casualties on both sides in heavy street fighting — and the West is urging them to show restraint — or else they'll simply have to accept the situation that they've lost a piece of territory and concentrate on preventing similar things from happening elsewhere in Western Macedonia where there is a large Albanian population.

It's unlikely that the Macedonian government would be able to meet rebel demands, which are essentially for a partition of the country. Because the Macedonian Slav part would not be politically or economically viable, and it would be suicide for any government in Skopje to accept such a deal. So the situation is very dangerous. The disintegration of Macedonia, with tragic human consequences, is a very real possibility now, particularly if the international community fails to intervene.

Couldn't the Macedonians get help from other states in the region, or from NATO? After all, Macedonia helped out NATO by offering its territory for bases during the Kosovo war.

That's a real problem, because Macedonia has hardly any friends among its neighbors. Serbia has always wanted to dominate it, Greece doesn't even recognize the state's name as legitimate, and Bulgaria, while it recognizes Macedonia, believes the Macedonians are actually Bulgarians and their nationhood is fictitious. Bulgaria would be happy to assimilate the Macedonians under the guise of helping them, which is why their offer of military assistance was turned down by Skopje. And they're certainly not going to get any help from Kosovo or Albania.

NATO is afraid that any intervention in Macedonia will destabilize the situation in Kosovo, and the last thing they want is to be confronting Albanian nationalists there. So NATO is likely to sit on its hands and watch another Balkan disaster unfold.

And then step in and try to repair the damage after the fact?

Exactly. Here you have a situation where a relatively small band of extremists, the guerrillas and their political backers, have taken the initiative and are dictating the rules. Perhaps the international community thinks satisfying their present appetites would calm things down. I seriously doubt this. If such use of force as we're seeing in Macedonia is politically rewarded, everybody in the Balkans would immediately learn the lesson and new flash points will quickly emerge throughout the region.

The depressing thing in the Balkans is that nobody seems to learn from their mistakes.