'Macedonia May Be Entering the Balkan Vicious Cycle'

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GEORGI LICOVSKI/AFP

A Macedonian helicopter attacks suspected rebel positions

TIME.com: Two months ago Macedonia appeared to have averted a crisis when it drove Albanian separatist guerrillas away from the town of Tetovo, and opened talks with the country's ethnic-Albanian minority. But a new round of attacks on security forces, as well as anti-Albanian riots, suggest the country is back on the brink of a civil war. Why has the conflict flared up again?

Dejan Anastasijevic: It was only a matter of time before this happened, really, because the main source of the trouble in Macedonia was never removed — the ethnic-Albanian hard-liners operating from Kosovo. After driving the Albanian fighters away from Tetovo a couple of months ago, the Macedonian government opened a dialogue on constitutional changes with parties representing the ethnic-Albanian community. But the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army used that time to regroup and reorganize, and now they've launched a new offensive. One of the most worrying developments, though, is that we now see vigilantes from the Slavic Macedonian community attacking Albanian civilians. In the town of Bitola on Tuesday, some 40 shops owned by Albanians were destroyed. Even in the capital, Skopje, an Albanian bar owner has been killed by masked gunmen. The government is saying it was in a criminal dispute, but it looks like the actions of vigilantes.

I'm afraid Macedonia may now be entering the vicious circle of violence and retribution that have been a common feature of the Balkan wars of the last decade. Because the violence is no longer confined to clashes between the security forces and insurgents. Ordinary people from both sides are clearly being sucked in, which means that what started as a security problem for Macedonia is turning into an ethnic conflict.

How is the Macedonian government responding to the danger of vigilante actions turning this into a full-blown civil war?

They've come out condemning the violence, and said they're investigating. But there seems to be little political will on the government side to hit the vigilante mobs very hard. They're reluctant to make mass arrests, and isolating the ringleaders takes time. But the crisis is escalating all the time, because every day there are new reports of soldiers and policemen being killed by the rebel fighters, and that may make the situation spiral out of control. The clashes have now spread territorially from their original focus around Tetovo to a number of other towns and cities, and the conflict is spreading socially, too, not simply being confined to guerrillas and security forces, but drawing in ordinary people on both sides.

The West has unequivocally rejected the separatist insurgency, and is concerned to stop Macedonia turning into yet another Balkan tragedy. What can it do to avoid this?

When the conflict first erupted earlier this year, the West tried to intervene diplomatically to solve the problem. It pushed the Macedonian government to open up greater dialogue with the territory's ethnic-Albanian population, and on the other hand put pressure on the sources and supporters of the guerrillas in Kosovo. Obviously this pressure was not enough to send a message to the extremists that violence would not be tolerated.

The key to stopping the insurgency remains for securing the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. It is a rough terrain and it is potentially risky for the NATO peacekeeping troops in KFOR, but keeping the peace is what they’re there for, and there are 40,000 of them. The Macedonian government has also urged that the West do more to stop fundraising efforts for the guerrillas among Albanian communities in Switzerland, Germany and the U.S. Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski met with President Bush this week and was promised more economic aid, but it will be next year before that aid begins to arrive. And by then, there may be no country left to aid.