Macedonia Fighting a Reminder That Solutions are Temporary

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Macedonian Army tank attacks the village of Vaksince near Kumanovo Fighting in Macedonia has flared up again after another brief lull, and the government has launched offensives on two fronts against Albanian separatists. Is the government winning the war?

Dejan Anastasijevic: They're back on the offensive, but it's hard to tell how effective they're going to be, or even how serious the level of fighting is right now. The Macedonian security forces are not well trained or equipped for this sort of anti-guerrilla operation in the mountains, and there is always a great danger that if they inflict civilian casualties in the Albanian villages where the rebels are hiding, the fragile unity government that involves the main ethnic-Albanian parties could collapse, which could seal the fate of multiethnic Macedonia.

Still, the combination the Macedonian offensive and the return, with NATO approval, of Yugoslav troops into the last section of the "Ground Safety Zone" established in southern Serbia at the end of the Kosovo conflict (where Albanian separatists had been waging a renewed campaign) is going to hurt the cause of the rebels in both Macedonia and southern Serbia.

How is the government holding up under the strain — the Albanian parties can't be happy about the renewed offensive…

And that's only part of the problem faced by the government. There's a scandal brewing in Skopje right now where the army chief-of-staff is facing media accusations of passing secrets to the Albanian rebels. The accusations sound a little far-fetched, and the government is supporting him, but the scandal is a symptom of the long-term problem. Only a month ago, the minister of defense was forced to resign over embezzlement charges. And that's just the most recent in an ongoing series of corruption cases, particularly in the security forces.

In the long term, the corruption problem may hurt Macedonia even more than the extremists. And of course the economy is in really poor shape, with huge unemployment. Many young people simply don't see any future in studying or working, and that's fertile ground for the growth of extremism in both the Albanian and Macedonian Slav communities. But the government is still standing two weeks after it was created, and it will probably hold on for a while. If they manage to avoid serious civilian casualties in the offensive against the rebels, they'll buy some time.

So right now the best they can do is hold these problems at bay?

Yes, they have deep problems to address in the long-term, but for now the focus is on simply preventing the escalation into a civil war that breaks up the country. The pattern has been established by the previous offensive. The rebels retreat, either into the mountains or into Kosovo. And then they resurface in a couple of weeks and launch new attacks. So the problems are far from over, but so far the government is holding out and they've managed to avoid an outbreak of ethnic violence in the major towns and cities.

Where it backed them in Kosovo, NATO has taken a strong stand against the Albanian separatists in Macedonia and southern Serbia. How might this effect the political future of Kosovo, which remains undecided?

The future of Kosovo remains a long term problem. Although its legally it still falls under Yugoslav sovereignty, the territory is effectively a protectorate of the international community through the United Nations, and even after it holds elections in the fall, the international community will have the final say. Still, given the changes that have taken place in Serbia, it may be easier after Kosovo's elections to establish some dialogue over the future between Pristina, Belgrade and other interested parties.

One thing the insurgencies in Macedonia and southern Serbia have done is focused the international community's attention on Albanian nationalism. There are as many Albanians living in the states immediately surrounding Albania — Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, southern Serbia and northern Greece — as there are in Albania itself, and many of them believe it is natural that they should all be part of a single country. Of course to make that happen would require dramatic redrawing of borders, which could only really be achieved through war. The nationalists believe that, with NATO's help, they won the war in Kosovo and were looking for a rerun in Macedonia. So far, it has not gone as well for them. But the recent defeats in Macedonia and southern Serbia are unlikely to make them give up the idea for good. So this is a question that the international community may have to address in the future.