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Is There a Good Terrorist?

Summarizing what he told me, I would say that the now forty-two-year-old Ahmeti drew two main conclusions from the Kosovo war. First, you could win more by a few months of armed struggle than Albanian politicians had achieved in nearly a decade of peaceful politics. As in Kosovo, so in Macedonia. Second, that you could do this only if you got the West involved. That was the great tactical goal—and the great unknown. He told me that when the insurgency took off in February, “I knew that without the help of the West we couldn’t win. But we didn’t know how much they would help….” So he had to do everything possible to bring the West in. That meant being deliberately restrained in both their goals and their methods. This was Albanian Macedonia’s chance. This was Ali Ahmeti’s chance.

GOALS: Whatever the tangle of biographically conditioned motives—and human motives are often unclear even to ourselves—one also has to look at the proclaimed goals of a terrorist goal or movement. Sometimes, as in the case of al-Qaeda or the German Red Army Faction, the overall goals are so vague, apocalyptic, and all-embracing that they could never be realized in any real world. But sometimes they are clear and—as much as we deplore tactics that shed the blood of innocents—in some sense rational objectives, which may sooner or later be achieved in the real world. The KLA wants independence for Kosovo; the IRA, a united Ireland; ETA, independence for the Basque Country, and so on.

The NLA was remarkable for the clarity and relative modesty of its proclaimed goals. From the outset, its leaders insisted that they only wanted what Albanian Macedonian politicians had been arguing for since Macedonia became independent in 1991: equal status and equal rights for the Albanian Macedonians. Albanians should be recognized as a constitutive nation of the Republic of Macedonia. The Albanian language should be accepted as an official language, in parliament and the public administration. Albanians should have the right to higher education in their own language. Albanians should be proportionately represented in the bureaucracy, the courts, and, especially, the police, who should stop harassing them. There should be more devolution of powers to local government—with obvious implications for those areas with an Albanian majority. But Macedonia should remain a unitary, multiethnic state.

Compared with the demands of the KLA, Bosnian Serbs and Croats, the IRA, or the ETA, these look as if they were drafted by Amnesty International. Most Western representatives regard them as reasonable, and believe that the Macedonian state should have conceded most of them years ago. Now you may say: but these demands are tactical, designed to ap-peal to the West. Certainly they are. Altogether, I found Ahmeti guarded, elusive, even evasive on these political questions—which is to say, he spoke as a politician. Like the old Marxist-Leninist comrade that he is, he stuck firmly to the party line: equal rights in a unitary, multiethnic state, nothing more! But, it seemed to me, he did so with some personal conviction—and good arguments.

Why, I asked, could one not envisage a federal solution for Macedonia? He smiled: “In a country with just two million people and 25,000 square kilometers?” It would be ridiculous. Federalism would mean new territorial borders and competition between the constituent parts. How could you draw the lines in a country where Albanian and Slav Macedonians live so mixed up together? “Either we’re in the twenty-first century and thinking of integration into Europe, or we do it as they did one hundred years ago….” Putting his hand on his heart, he said, “My country is Macedonia.”

Not all his colleagues agree. I spoke to another NLA commander, Rafiz Aliti, known as “Teacher” because he was, until the spring uprising, the village physical education teacher. He told me that he favored the federalization and “cantonization” of Macedonia. A unitary state could not work. If the Macedonian side did not implement the mid-August “framework agreement,” which on paper fulfills the Albanians’ moderate demands, then they would go to war again. And this time it would be a war for territory. What territory? “The territory where Albanians live.”

Yet there is a substantial body of evidence that most of the Albanian political elite in Kosovo and Macedonia have agreed that the medium-term strategic goal should be different in each place: independence for Kosovo, equal rights in Macedonia. And, incidentally, not Greater Albania for either. Not for the foreseeable future anyway.

There is a very good reason for Albanian Macedonians to take this gradualist path. According to the Macedonian authorities, some 23 percent of the Macedonian population is Albanian, but unofficial estimates put the number as high as 35 percent. The “framework agreement” provides for a new, internationally supervised census, and it will be interesting to see what figure it comes up with. Whatever the result, everyone knows that the Albanian Macedonians have many more children than the Slav Macedonians. At current birth rates, the Albanians will probably become a demographic majority in about 2025. And then the majority might elect the sixty-six-year-old Ali Ahmeti president of Macedonia…

METHODS: This is the single most important criterion. An old man who stands on a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner in London of a rainy Saturday afternoon demanding that the Lord raze to the ground all branches of Marks & Spencer is not a terrorist. He is a nut at Speakers’ Corner. The Scottish National Party has goals much more far-reaching than the NLA—it wants full independence for Scotland—but it works entirely by peaceful, constitutional means.

Does the individual or group use violence to realize their personal or political goals? Is that violence targeted specifically at the armed and uniformed representatives of the state, or does the terrorist group also target innocent civilians? Does it attempt to limit civilian casualties while spreading panic and disruption—as Irish paramilitaries have sometimes done, by telephoning bomb warnings—or does it aim for the mass killing of innocent civilians, as al-Qaeda plainly did on September 11?

Ahmeti and the NLA deliberately chose violence. The lesson they learned from Kosovo was: if you play your cards right, a little well-calculated violence achieves what years of nonviolent politics had not. Which, once again, it did. But, Ahmeti and others claim, they never targeted civilians. They observed the Geneva Conventions, were mindful of the Hague Tribunal, and so on. Most international observers agree that the NLA did much less harm to Slav Macedonian civilians than the KLA did to Serbian civilians in Kosovo. This was especially true in the areas most directly under Ahmeti’s command. But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented several cases of kidnapping, torture, and abuse by members of the NLA.

I spoke with a group of young Slav Macedonian men who had fled from their villages in western Macedonia. However, they had done so—even by their own account—after themselves having taken up arms against the NLA. They told the dreadfully familiar story of how neighbors who had lived and worked peacefully together for years suddenly turned guns on each other (as in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, as in Croatia…). According to the Macedonian government, some 70,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes as a result of the fighting. International observers suggest the number is much lower. They also say that the worst damage to civilians was done by the Macedonian army and security forces. The guns of an incompetent army indiscriminately pounded rebel villages—the textbook way not to fight an insurgency. Paramilitaries called the Lions, working, as in Milosevic’s Serbia, under the interior ministry, attacked Albanians in the shadows. And there is no doubt that ordinary Albanians have for years been subjected to harassment by a police force that is overwhelmingly Slav Macedonian.

Coming down from my mountain meeting with Ahmeti, our car was stopped by a man in the uniform of a police major and a paramilitary soldier with a large wooden cross around his neck. The major verbally abused my interpreter. When I tried to intervene, saying (rather pompously) that I had that morning spoken to President Traj- kovski and I was sure the President would wish us to be given fair passage, he said to my interpreter, “Tell your man I don’t give a fuck about the President.” When I smiled, he said, “Tell him to stop smiling.” This Macedonian policeman was a fine propagandist for the Albanian cause.

Afterward, my Albanian driver was physically trembling with rage. “You see how they treat us,” he cried, in his broken German. “If I had not seen the policeman waving us down at the roadside, they would have shot us. That is not korrekt.” Not korrekt, indeed.

This was a messy little low-level civil war, in which neither side was very korrekt and neither very brutal, by the low standards of the Balkans. The NLA started it, but the Slav Macedonian side behaved rather worse during it. This brings us to our last criterion: context.

CONTEXT: Basic Principle 1.1 of the Framework Agreement for Macedonia says, “The use of violence in pursuit of political aims is rejected completely and unconditionally.” An ad-mirable principle. But not to be taken too literally. After all, in bombing Afghanistan, America and Britain are pursuing political aims through the use of violence. You may say: but that is justified by all the time-honored criteria of “just war,” and legitimated by international coalitions, organizations, and law. Anyway, to use political violence from inside and against a legitimate state is a quite different thing. But who decides if a particular state is legitimate?

Even within an internationally recognized state, there can be such oppression that armed resistance may be considered legitimate. This is the claim expressed with incomparable force in the words that Schiller puts into the mouth of Stauffacher in his Wilhelm Tell. When the oppressed man can find justice in no other way, says Stauffacher, then he calmly reaches up into the sky and pulls down his eternal rights that hang there, inalienable and, like the stars, imperishable. When no other means remains, then he must

needs take up the sword.6 Such, perhaps, were the Polish uprisings for freedom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such was the American War of Independence.

It therefore matters hugely what kind of state you’re in. It is one thing for groups like the IRA and ETA to use political violence in states like Britain or Spain, where the means of working for peaceful change are equally available to all in a mature democracy. It is another thing for Palestinian groups to use political violence against an oppressive military occupation in the Gaza strip or the West Bank. Another again for the ANC against the South African apartheid regime. Yet another for the violently repressed Kosovo Albanians to take up arms against the Milosevic regime in Serbia. We may want to uphold the universal principle “No violence!” but we all know that these are, in political fact and in moral content, very different things, and some violent political actions are—shall we say—less unjustified than others.

So far as I know,” President Boris Trajkovski smilingly informed me, “world leaders are all praising Macedonia.” Well, I have news for President Trajkovski (who is a nice, decent, personally uncorrupt, and well- intentioned man, but not perhaps pos- sessed of the world’s strongest intellect or character). They’re not. In private, many of them are cursing it. I remarked to a very senior Western negotiator who has had much to do with Macedonia that I had never encountered a more pigheaded, shortsighted political elite than the Slav Macedonian one. “Amen to all that,” the negotiator said, “except that I would question your use of the word ‘elite.’” Just as they fought the war against the NLA in a way that rebounded against themselves, so they are still—at this writing—pigheadedly holding out against amendments to the constitution that most international observers regard as wholly reasonable.

A particular sticking-point is a wording in the preamble that refers (in my official English translation) to “the historical fact that Macedonia is established as a national state of the Macedonian people….” Understandably, the Albanians don’t like this reference to a national state, especially since the word for “people” in this context is narod, implying ethnic community, rather than the broader and more civic nacija. The Slav Macedonian side agreed to a rewording in the summer peace deal, but now the parliament is threatening to renege on it.

Extraordinary Western pressure—almost weekly visits by the EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana and NATO secretary-general George Robertson (who might have a few other things on their minds), the withholding of international aid to the crippled Macedonian economy until the amendments are passed—seems incapable of budging them. The sledgehammer is defied by the nut. And at lower levels, the bureaucracy, the army, and the police seem as stubborn, corrupt, and incompetent as their politicians.

There are explanations for all this. Looking back over the last decade one must have sympathy with Slav Macedonians too. There are peoples that aspire to statehood and peoples that have statehood thrust upon them. The Macedonians had statehood thrust upon them, as former Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991. Well into the twentieth century, all of the country’s four neighbors had claims on its territory: Serbia between the wars treated it as part of Southern Serbia, Bulgaria regarded it as part of Bulgaria (and the Macedonian language as just a dialect of Bulgarian), Albanian nationalists wanted great chunks of it for Greater Albania, and Greeks said Macedonia is really Greek.

None of these claims were fully, unambiguously laid to rest in 1991. Their already battered economy was then shattered and corrupted by Western sanctions on Milosevic’s Serbia, and a Greek blockade of international recognition for Macedonia because, said the Greeks, there is already a Macedonia in Greece. (Hence the state’s awkward international name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, though it calls itself plain Republic of Macedonia.) Then it had to cope with the vast Albanian refugee influx from Kosovo. Western promises of economic aid and investment have remained largely that—promises. Oh yes, and the Slav Macedonians will soon be a minority in their own country. A little existential Angst is understandable. This helps to explain, but it does not excuse. Most of the changes now being made (or not being made) under pressure from the NLA and the West should have been made years ago.

All that being said, the fact remains that the position of the Albanians in Macedonia at the beginning of this year was nothing like the one unforgettably evoked in Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. There were still possibilities for peaceful change. Established Albanian political parties were in the government as well as parliament (as they still are), and they were pressing for most of the same reforms. They were not getting there very fast (partly because both Slav Macedonian and Albanian Macedonian parties harbor impressive levels of corruption), but in time, with Western and especially European pressure, they would have got there. However relatively restrained the NLA was in its goals and methods, it willfully chose the path of violence when other paths were still open. As a result, it has accelerated the necessary reforms on paper, but it may also have impeded their practical realization. For the war has resulted in further alienation of the Albanian and Slav Macedonian communities, and political radicalization on both sides.


So: was I drinking whiskey with a terrorist? Well, certainly with a former revolutionary politician and a guerrilla leader who deliberately reached for the gun when other means were available. Perhaps the moderation of his proclaimed goals, and the fact that he tried not to target civilians, pulls him just the right side of the line. Just. Perhaps. Certainly, he has moved on to become an impressively consistent advocate of change through political negotiation inside an undivided, multi- ethnic state. So maybe it is all right to drink whiskey with a reformed terrorist? If it were not, the consumption of whiskey by world leaders would have been reduced by quite a few bottles over the last fifty years.

Will the United Nations give us some further guidance on this matter? For a long time, the UN has avoided any definition of terrorism. Recently, it has tiptoed toward one. A November 2000 report by the UN’s Sixth Committee came close to a general definition when it declared:

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political reasons are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be used to justify them.7

But that is unsustainably broad. Isn’t the Taliban a “group of persons” among whom we hope to provoke a state of terror? Who decides what is a criminal act?

Since September 11, support has been growing for a UN convention on terrorism. One wonders how useful any definition it comes up with can be, both because member states will have such widely differing views of what should count and because of the intrinsic difficulties for even the most neutral, independent analyst. Realistically, the best one can hope for may be that as wide as possible a spectrum of states, including states from different “civilizations,” in Samuel Huntington’s sense, may reach agreement on the description of as many particular cases as possible. At the very least, Europe and America should agree—which is by no means guaranteed, if one thinks of differing approaches to Iraq, for example, or to Israel and the Palestinian question. Even then, a common policy might not follow, but at least there would be a common analysis to start from.

To this end, my four headings—Biography, Goals, Methods, Context—may serve as a modest template, but the content in each case will be very different and there will be no universal guidelines for judging the combination. As the great Bishop Butler once unshallowly remarked, every thing is what it is and not another thing.

—November 1, 2001

  1. 6

    I cannot resist quoting these marvelous lines in full:

    Nein, eine Grenze hat Tyrannenmacht:

    Wenn der Gedrückte nirgends Recht kann finden,

    Wenn unerträglich wird die Last—greift er

    Hinauf getrosten Mutes in den Himmel

    Und holt herunter seine ew’gen Rechte,

    Die droben hangen unveräusserlich

    Und unzerbrechlich, wie die Sterne selbst—

    Der alte Urstand der Natur kehrt wieder,

    Wo Mensch dem Menschen gegenübersteht

    Zum letzten Mittel, wenn kein andres mehr

    Verfangen will, ist ihm das Schwert gegeben.

  2. 7

    I owe this quotation, and my summary of what the UN has done, to my Oxford colleague Professor Adam Roberts.

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