It was a perfect spring day this March when they laid to rest the young ethnic Albanian guerrilla Daut Sulejmani. It was warm, the breeze rippled across the rolling hills of the Presevo Valley, and soldiers from the US Army watched from the brow of the hill, less than a mile away. Behind a row of the ashen-faced women of Daut’s family stood two hundred armed Albanian guerrillas. A guard of honor fired above the open grave and angry orators lauded Daut’s martyrdom at the hand of “barbarian Slavs.”
Daut was sixteen. He was buried in his home village of Dobrosin, which lies just over the border from Kosovo, inside Serbia proper. The funeral took place on March 24, two years to the day after NATO began its punishing bombardment of Yugoslavia in response to the mistreatment of Albanians in Kosovo by Milosevic’s forces. Seventy-eight days later Serbian soldiers, police, and civilians began their historic retreat from the province. It was the final nail in the coffin of the nationalist dream of Greater Serbia.
Why, two years later, was I attending Daut’s military funeral? If I was to believe everything I read in the European and American newspapers, the reason was simple. The West had created a monster. Yes, we had severed the head of Greater Serbia only to discover that Balkan nationalism is hydra-headed. In its place we now stood confronted by the evil specter of rabid, expansionist Albanian nationalism, which aimed to create either a Greater Albania or at least a Greater Kosovo.
But something jarred. It was like the story of Daut’s death. No one seemed clear about how he had died. There was talk of a Serbian sniper who had shot Daut in violation of a cease-fire. A day or two later another story began to emerge. Daut had not died at the hands of a Serb. He had shot himself in an accident. Tragic, but not quite so glorious. As always, things are never quite so simple in the Balkans. And so it is with the story of “Greater Albania.”
Albanians complain that history is not fair. Following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 an Albanian state emerged, more or less within its current borders. The problem was that these borders left considerable territory with large Albanian populations, such as Kosovo, outside the new state. Some were left in northern Greece, the rest in the lands which were to become part of Yugoslavia in 1918. In 1941 Fascist Italy created the first and only Greater Albania, which included most of Kosovo and the Albanian-inhabited regions of western Macedonia.
After World War II the old Yugoslav borders were restored. The Albanians of Albania were sealed in behind the frontiers of a Stalinist state while Albanians in Yugoslavia were treated with suspicion by the Communist authorities. Still, by the mid-1970s most of them lived in the increasingly autonomous and self-confident southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Largely run by Albanians until Milosevic imposed direct Serbian control over it after 1989, Kosovo was a natural magnet for Albanians from other parts of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia eventually collapsed, families suddenly found themselves divided by new borders, especially the one that now existed between Kosovo and Macedonia.
As rampant nationalism took hold throughout former Yugoslavia, it is no wonder that some began to talk of a Greater Albania. The surprising thing though was just how few they were. Virtually all Albanians talked of Kosovo’s eventual independence but few were interested in any formal connection with Albania—which, until 445,000 of them were forced to flee there during NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, they did not even know much about.
In March, with Jean-Baptiste Naudet, a friend who works for the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, I climbed a towering hill of rubbish in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, most of whose citizens are ethnic Albanians. The Kosovo border is only ten miles away, but still twelve hours’ walk across the mountains. The Macedonian security forces lounged behind their armored personnel carriers in the streets and said we could not drive through their last checkpoint. That meant we could not drive up into the hills behind the town to find the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA), which says it is fighting for Albanian rights in Macedonia.
We asked local Albanians the way and they pointed upward. We got lost, and had to make our way over the piled-up garbage and walk for several hours in order to get behind the Macedonian lines to see the NLA. When we arrived in the village of Sipkovica we could see across a valley the guerrilla stronghold at Selce. We clambered down the hill and crossed the river on the valley floor, only to be sent back by the guerrillas we encountered below Selce. They were abrupt and tense. A twenty-four-hour Macedonian cease-fire was to run out that night and they were in no mood to talk to journalists.
Back in Sipkovica, men stood in the streets in anxious knots, whispering and worrying. We met the mayor, Zulqufli Ajvazi, who explained that he was arranging for people to sleep in cellars. At this point a black-clad NLA man angrily took him aside. Our interview was over. Mr. Ajvazi stared at his feet. “I’m sorry, we are not allowed to give any more information,” said the mayor’s translator, who normally works as a concierge at the Marriott Hotel at Heathrow Airport. He had just come back because he was worried about his daughter.
Since the NLA had appeared in the hills above Tetovo there had been no electricity in the villages. That night, by candlelight, people talked a little more easily, since the NLA men were not around. “To hell with both of them!” said one man, meaning both the NLA and the Macedonian security forces. “All I want is a decent job, and money in my pocket,” said another. “Two weeks ago, the Macedonian police came hunting for arms,” said one man, “especially in the houses of those who fought in Kosovo.” But, he went on, “they beat people up, and ripped gold from the necks of our women. We’re Muslims. They can’t touch our women.”
None of the Albanian Macedonians I spoke to in Sipkovica seemed much interested in “Greater Albania.” One man said: “I went to Albania once. Awful! They are all thieves! Kosovars? Just as bad! Of course, we Albanians from Macedonia have a far higher level of culture than all other Albanians.” The next day, Jean-Baptiste and I tried to go to Selce again. A commander on a donkey told us to go away. We headed back down the valley toward Tetevo and, as we did so, the Macedonian cease-fire ended. Every few minutes a Macedonian shell hit the side of the steep hill above Tetovo where there is an ancient castle, from which the NLA was not firing back. But we were walking right into the Macedonian firing range. We turned away and climbed for a couple of hours. When we got to the top of a hill we watched the desultory shelling and listened to the BBC on the radio. Apparently this was an “intense artillery bombardment.” What, we wondered, was a light one?
Something odd was happening up here in the hills. The more we talked to the villagers the more it was clear that they were ambivalent in their support for the NLA. Unlike the early months of the Kosovo war there was no euphoria, but there was fear of both the Macedonians and the NLA. Meanwhile, the Macedonians were announcing a “final offensive” and the NLA was not fighting back. Why was this? Was it because they would kill Albanians in the city below if they did or was it because they did not have much to fire with? A few days later the Macedonians climbed the hills and the NLA ran away. Hardly anyone had died during the fighting. There were no massacres, no ethnic cleansing, and no mass graves. The Macedonians did not fall into the trap that the Serbs fell into in Kosovo; they have not burned villages and driven people into the arms of the guerrillas. They may yet do so, but for the moment this has not happened.
Some 1.95 million people live in Macedonia, which declared its independence from the old Yugoslavia in 1991. According to the 1994 census 22.7 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians, and they live mainly in the western part of the country and in Skopje, the capital. The census also recorded that 66.6 percent of the population were Macedonian Slavs. They are mostly Orthodox Christians, like the Serbs, while the Albanians are mostly Muslim.*
The Albanians claim that the census is incorrect and that they really make up 40 percent of the population. Foreign observers tend to put the figure at about one third. A new census was to have begun on April 1, but this has had to be postponed. Much of the quarrel between the two sides centers on the Albanians’ claim that the Macedonian constitution and its laws discriminate against them. For example, if you are an ethnic Slav Macedonian and live in Australia, you can become a citizen of Macedonia. But, the Albanians claim, at least 100,000 Albanians live in Macedonia yet don’t qualify for citizenship because they come from Kosovo or other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Only 3 percent of police are ethnic Albanians, and ministries and state institutions employ similarly small numbers of ethnic Albanians.
In January 1992 ethnic Albanian politicians held an illegal referendum in which Albanians voted for the political and cultural autonomy of “Ilirida,” the Albanian-dominated regions of the country. Although the project went no further, Slav Macedonians have always feared that, whatever the local Albanians may say, the long-term ethnic Albanian goal is secession and union with a future independent Kosovo or even with a Greater Albania.
Despite this, and despite several outbreaks of protest and periodic arrests for alleged conspiracies, the relationship between Macedonia’s Slavs and Albanians, while never very good, has never sunk to anywhere near the levels of visceral hatred that existed between Serbs and Albanians in neighboring Kosovo. Indeed, although Macedonian Slavs and Albanians live more or less separate but parallel lives, and Albanians complain that they are second-class citizens, an ethnic Albanian party has, since 1991, been represented in government. Until 1998, though, it was arguable that its presence was more symbolic than real.
A change came after the elections in November of that year. In a hitherto unimaginable shift, Macedonia’s hardcore Slav nationalist party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, entered into a coalition government with the more nationalist of Macedonia’s two main ethnic Albanian parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), which is led by Arben Xhaferi, a fifty-three-year-old former journalist. Until then the party of their new Macedonian partners had treated Albanians as a mortal threat, describing them in terms similar to those used by nationalists in neighboring Serbia. And until the coalition was formed, Mr. Xhaferi’s party had talked of making Macedonia a federal state, a move that Slavs believe would simply be a steppingstone to secession by the Albanians. But now proposals for federalization were put aside, along with the more extreme language of Macedonian Slav nationalism. Progress began to be made in improving conditions for Albanians in Macedonia, but evidently this progress proved too slow for some. Abedin Imeri, the head of the Tetovo branch of the DPA, told me: “Yes, we participate in government but we are not equal. We only stay because we think it is the only way to reach a solution. On the other hand we have to listen to the voices of those who are firing from the mountains. We have to sit down and discuss things but we must not ignore them completely. After all they are Albanians and quite a few of them.”
In Skopje, the Macedonian capital, I went to see Adelina Marku, who used to be Mr. Xhaferi’s spokeswoman but now runs her own software business. She comes from Debar, which lies close to the border with Albania. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Yugoslavia, Debar, whose population is heavily ethnic Albanian, was cut off from many of the nearby villages, which now lie in Albania. Her father is a judge, but as she told me with some passion, when her father is in court, and even if both sides in a dispute are Albanian, everyone has to speak Macedonian. So, I asked her, wouldn’t Albanians in Debar like a Greater Albania? “Of course they want that,” she blurted out. But, in a view I was to hear echoed among Albanians everywhere I went, she went on to say, “We have to face reality. It is too late for that, so what is important now is to make borders unimportant.” (Indeed that phrase “to make bor-ders unimportant” is much heard now in the Balkans from people who want both ethnic unity and an end to fighting.)
In some ways the emergence of the NLA in Macedonia has less to do with relations between Albanians and Slav Macedonians and more to do with relations among Albanians. Looking back two years we can see that the Kosovo war polarized Macedonia, with Slavs supporting the Serbs and Albanians supporting their ethnic kin in Kosovo. But the government did remarkably well to survive the conflict, which also saw the influx—and then rapid return—of some 242,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees. What changed?
Saso Ordanovski, the editor of Forum, a liberal Skopje magazine, articulates the view of many Slav Macedonians when he says the real problem is that Kosovo is in chaos and this chaos is being exported to his country, either by extremists who want to create a Greater Albania or Greater Kosovo or by criminals for whom “chaos makes more profit.” Of course no one denies that there are extreme nationalists who would like to unite all Albanians in one country or that there are plenty of Albanian gangsters who profit from the lack of adequate political institutions in Kosovo; but the roots of the NLA are deeper and far more tortuous than this.
On January 26, 2000, two ethnic Albanian brothers were killed by the Serbian police in Dobrosin, Daut Sulejmani’s village, just inside the Serbian border. Dobrosin lies in the Presevo Valley, inside what is called the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ), a five-kilometer strip that was originally set up in 1999 to separate NATO-led forces in Kosovo from Yugoslav security forces in Serbia and Montenegro. Only lightly armed Serbian police were allowed in the GSZ. Soon after the brothers were killed, Albanian guerrillas calling themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) appeared in the village. These are the names of three districts in southern Serbia where there are 100,000 or so Albanians. Politically they were linked to the Popular Movement for Kosovo, the LPK, a tiny party of deeply committed ethnic Albanian nationalists which had, however, been instrumental in creating the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1993.
With the creation of the GSZ, an effective power vacuum was created inside a substantial chunk of this Albanian-populated region. Immediately outside it, tensions were also heightened with the arrival of Serbian troops and police who had just been pulled out of Kosovo. On a high, and convinced that the West was behind them whatever they did, former KLA men, including those who came from the Presevo Valley, decided to create their own force—the UCPMB. “It is an open secret,” said a former ranking LPK man, Pleurat Sejdiu, now co-minister of health in the UN administration in Kosovo, “that they are fighting for the land [in Serbia] to be part of Kosovo in the future.” But the point was also strategic. The Kosovars were already thinking of a territorial deal with the Serbs by which they would gain the Presevo Valley and lose ethnically Serbian areas in the north of Kosovo.
Today there are people, especially foreigners, who will tell you that the US funded, trained, and helped the UCPMB. But if you ask them for evidence they can point to none. By contrast it seems plausible that until October 5 of last year, when Mr. Milosevic fell, US troops who control this part of Kosovo’s border may have been less than diligent in choking off supply lines to the UCPMB because anything that helped destabilize Milosevic was deemed to be a good thing. Rumors of US help to the UCPMB were also encouraged by the guerrillas themselves because they knew they would gain recruits if it was believed that they had covert US approval. I asked Jonuz Musliu, the head of the UCPMB’s political arm, if the US had not been particularly tough in closing the border until Milosevic fell, and he replied that if I thought this I “would not be wrong.”
Since the fall of Milosevic everything has changed along the border. The West’s main concern is now to help shore up democratic forces in Belgrade. As a result the UCPMB has found itself dragooned into peace talks with the Serbs; and in areas where it is not active the Yugoslav army has been invited back to police the GSZ. So now, with Serbs hemming him in on three sides and a stricter US-controlled regime on the border, the UCPMB’s Commander Leshi, who heads the delegation now talking to the Serbs, is full of phrases designed to please the Western ear. On his desk he has two flags, an Albanian one and a Stars and Stripes. Asked if he and his fellow ethnic Albanians could make a deal with Serbian authorities, he told me: “If you have all of your rights, then frontiers are not important. If the Serbian side accepts that, then that’s okay, but if they don’t, then we’ll ask to be attached to Kosovo.”
It is easy to be cynical and think that men like Commander Leshi would say such things to a Westerner. But there is also another interpretation. As my friend Jean-Baptiste kept insisting as we traveled together: “The film script has changed. Everything has changed since the fall of Milosevic and people like Commander Leshi have got the message. The script is now, ‘human rights, minority rights, and no change of borders,’ and those who don’t get the message are going to lose everything.”
Could it be then that the NLA in Macedonia is the creation not of ideologues of a Greater Albania, but of losers who have not understood that the script has changed, that fighting for ethnic separatism now has no chance of Western support? Many of the founders of the KLA were members of the LPK. Several key members of the LPK were Macedonian Albanians. They included Fazli Veliu, the LPK chairman through much of the 1990s, and Bardhyl Mahmuti, a key organizer and fund-raiser who lived in exile in Vevey, Switzerland. In 1993 a meeting of ethnic Albanian activists took place in Kicevo in western Macedonia, Fazli Veliu’s hometown, and there a decision was made to move toward active armed resistance. The result, in August of that year, was the formation of the LPK and in turn the KLA. Among those present at the Kicevo meeting was Hashim Thaci, later to emerge as the political head of the KLA, and Ali Ahmeti, Fazli Veliu’s nephew.
After the Kosovo war, men like Bardhyl Mahmuti said that the LPK had served its purpose and should now be disbanded. Mahmuti is now secretary-general of Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which has absorbed many former top LPK people. By contrast, a hard core of LPK members decided to keep the old party alive. These men had a major part in setting up both the UCPMB and the NLA. So did some former LPK men in the Kosovo Protection Corps, which was set up in 1999 as a civil emergency force but absorbed a good part of the former KLA military leadership. In Macedonia the political leader of the NLA is Ali Ahmeti, who did much to arrange supplies for the KLA during the Kosovo war. Ever since the end of the Kosovo war many of the Macedonian Albanian LPK men had been agitating to start a conflict in Macedonia. Most of their old comrades, now in powerful Kosovo parties or even in the civil administration, tried to dissuade them, arguing that a new war would not be in the interests of Kosovo. Bardhyl Mahmuti, who has since called for the NLA to lay down their arms, says: “I tried but I failed.”
Of course the reason why the Kosovar political leaders wanted to dissuade their former comrades—who now find themselves the losers of Kosovo politics and unable to return safely to Macedonia—from starting a war was simple. They feared that if they started a conflict in Macedonia this would do tremendous harm to Kosovo’s image, even more harm than the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars has already done; and this would mean that Kosovo would be accused of undermining the peace in the Balkans. The consensus among practically all powerful countries that Kosovo cannot be independent would be strengthened. And that is exactly what has happened.
In all their official declarations, however, the NLA leaders say that they want only rights for Macedonia’s Albanians and not the breakup of the state. Even Emrush Xhemajli, the head of the LPK, says the same thing. Some newspapers have described him, along with his friend Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander and now a politician, as one of the godfathers of the Macedonian conflict. He may be, but when he invited me to lunch in Pristina, he was charming and careful not to say one word that might be construed as giving backing to the idea of a Greater Kosovo or Greater Albania. “In July 2000 our party decided to accept the principle of European integration and not to demand border changes.” He added: “As far as I know there is no military solution in Macedonia. Albanians there want constitutional reform and everyone supports that, but Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski declared that he is against changing the constitution or making Macedonia a bilingual state, and so, in that way, the state may dissolve.” If that sounds like a threat, I suppose it is meant to.
Curiously, the fact that US troops did little or nothing to stop the first buildup of arms and men moving from Kosovo to Macedonia has already been seized upon by conspiracy theorists and the Macedonian authorities as proof that something odd was afoot. But there is no evidence that this laxity had an ulterior motive, as may have been the case when US troops allowed supplies to reach the UCPMB guerrillas over the Serbian border. Indeed British officials, among others, speak scornfully of the behavior of US troops in Kosovo, saying that they are so concerned with “force protection” that they are scarcely able to do much else.
Still, the interesting result of what, until now anyway, has been little more than a phony war in Macedonia is that Kosovo has seen its dream of independence fade from view, at least for the while. By contrast, serious talks between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanians on the future of Macedonia have begun with high-powered backing from the EU and the US. Those talks would probably not have started unless the NLA had shocked all concerned.
The prerequisite to creating a Greater Kosovo including parts of Macedonia or a Greater Albania has, of course, to be an independent Kosovo. The fact (and one that Kosovars are only just beginning to understand) is that there is not going to be one any time soon. One of the main reasons for this is that a UN Security Council resolution would be required to create a new state, and that would need the votes of Russia and China. They won’t support Kosovo’s independence because of the repercussions this might have for Chechnya and Tibet.
So Kosovo will linger in an international no man’s land. This autumn the province should have elections for a province-wide assembly, but no one yet knows what its powers will be. One thing seems certain: the election campaign is bound to concentrate on Kosovo’s own problems, particularly its own prospects for independence, and not on demands for a Greater Albania. Most Kosovo Albanians I know realize that the events of the last two years have destroyed the sympathy that the world had for them during the Kosovo war. Since 1999, the failure of most prominent Kosovo Albanians to make convincing efforts to prevent revenge attacks and the ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma, and others from most of Kosovo has cost them dearly. Now, the adventurism of a relatively few Albanians in southern Serbia and Macedonia has delighted opponents of independence. Kosovo is taking the place in Western newspapers recently vacated by Serbia. In 2001, the Serbs who elected Kostunica are the good guys and Albanians are the bad guys. Western newspapers and TV reporters like things to be black and white.
I had not been to Tirana, the capital of Albania, for eighteen months, and I could hardly believe my eyes. There is construction everywhere. Huge apartment blocks are shooting up across the city, and, after many decades of poverty, all the economic statistics are pointing upward, too. According to the IMF, the economy is now growing at an annual rate of 7 percent. If there is one thing that Albania’s Albanians understand it is that if they want growth and prosperity, more war in the Balkans will certainly undermine their chances to have them.
Tirana’s voice does not count for much in Kosovo, or Macedonia for that matter, but it is not irrelevant either. As the conflict in Macedonia flared up, the Albanian government invited the main ethnic Albanian leaders from Kosovo and Macedonia to a “pan-Albanian” meeting in Tirana. “We told them they need to be active in stopping extremist acts,” Paskal Milo, Albania’s foreign minister, told me. (He had greeted me with a sigh: “I suppose you have come looking for the authors of Greater Albania?”)
According to Mr. Milo, the government in Tirana sees its duty as protecting the rights of Albanians outside Albania in much the same way as Hungary does for Hungarians in Yugoslavia or Romania; but that does not mean changing borders. “We don’t support that,” he said, “but we want these borders to become less important. We are thinking of joining the EU so we want this to be a region of cooperation. The philosophy of nationalism, of extremism, goes against the principles of a united Europe. The nationalists and extremists want to close borders and create small nation-states. For us that would be counterproductive.”
Following this conversation a cynical Western diplomat told me: “They’ll say whatever we want, followed by ‘where’s the cash?'” But I saw no reason to doubt that Mr. Milo meant what he said. The Albanian government has asked NATO to help it police its border in order to prevent its territory being used for attacks on Macedonia by the NLA.
No major party in Albania calls for the creation of a Greater Albania. Most Albanians just want their country to emerge from decades of poverty and oppression and become a normal place. Remzi Lani, the head of the Albanian Media Institute and an astute political analyst, told me: “If I said there were no people who dreamed of a Greater Albania I would be wrong. But it is not a popular idea. If the Security Council or an international conference offered us a Greater Albania we would not refuse it, but on the other hand we are not going to fight for it either.”
In Kosovo, in Macedonia, in southern Serbia, and to a lesser extent in Montenegro, there is an active “Albanian question.” But the teeth of a relatively few hard-liners can be drawn if Albanians feel their rights are represented in the countries in which they live, if they believe that Kosovo will, one day, be independent, and, most important of all, if they can prosper in a southeastern Europe where borders may soon come to mean as much as they do today between Germany, France, and Luxembourg.
In Macedonia the NLA still has the potential to shatter the hope that Macedonian Slavs and Albanians can sort out their differences before a real war breaks out, rather than afterward. But one thing is sure: none of the NATO nations or the other powerful countries involved in the Balkans are ready to endorse a change of borders. Serbs learned this the hard way, and Albanians say they understand it. The question now is whether intelligent leadership in Kosovo and on both sides in Macedonia can prevent the logic of war from tipping the region into yet more bloodshed.
—April 17, 2001
May 17, 2001