Will Macedonia unravel?

Imagine 26 million Cuban refugees on the shores of Miami, and you'll understand how NATO's mission in Kosovo has destabilized the region.

Published May 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Throughout the Bosnian war, European and American policy makers trying to resolve the conflict were at least as worried about the possibility of the fighting spreading south to Kosovo and Macedonia as they were about securing a peace agreement. I remember at the height of the siege of Sarajevo in 1993 being told by a senior American official that "what's going on here is going to look like a walk in the park if things blow up down there."

It seemed like a callous remark at the time, and no doubt in human terms it was. But Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, and NATO's sluggish and ham-fisted response to it, has shown how well-founded the anxieties of Western diplomats were. The long-anticipated slide into general war in the south Balkans, that chronicle of death foretold, could not only destroy what is left of the former Yugoslavia, but destabilize Greece and Turkey as well. We are moving rapidly from human catastrophe -- first of the Bosnian Muslims and now of the Albanian Kosovars -- toward political apocalypse. And nowhere is this clearer than in Macedonia.

Whatever Macedonian officials claim, the creation of their state in 1992 was always more of a testimony to the inability of anyone -- including themselves -- to come up with a viable solution for the constituent republics that had made up Yugoslavia than it was the establishment of a viable entity. Macedonia is tiny, landlocked and, economically, to the extent that its economy can still be said to exist in any modern sense, largely dependent on neighboring Serbia. In the seven short years of its existence, it has been coveted by Bulgaria (which claims that ethnic Macedonians are in fact Bulgars), undermined by Greece (which objects even to Macedonia's name, which is why official international documents refer to FYROM, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and repudiated by the quarter of its population that is ethnically Albanian and has more interest in belonging to some ethnically homogeneous Albanian state -- greater or otherwise -- than in Macedonia as it currently exists.

In short, even before the current crisis, Macedonia was largely being kept together with smoke and mirrors. It existed because everyone feared the consequences of its ceasing to exist, rather than because anyone could come up with a convincing rationale for it. But though its economy was in freefall and its political institutions ramshackle to the point of incoherence, Macedonia somehow survived.

Until Operation Allied Force, that is. The war between NATO and Yugoslavia has changed all the political equations in the south Balkans. It is possible, of course, that if NATO is successful militarily and if the money is appropriated for some kind of Marshall Plan for the south Balkans that would, before all else, focus on rebuilding Kosovo and refloating Albania and Macedonia -- the two neighboring states that have lost the most in the war -- the conflict could actually end up being positive for Macedonia. But the odds are wildly against this.

As anyone who has visited the Macedonian refugee camps over the past six weeks can attest, the anger felt toward the refugees -- not just by Macedonia's unreformed, brutal and corrupt police forces but by ordinary Macedonians -- is bitter and deep-seated.

No matter how badly stretched their small country is by the influx of more than 100,000 Kosovar Albanians, there is no denying that the Macedonians have behaved extraordinarily badly. Refugees at the border are routinely abused and sometimes horribly mistreated. People who have been raped or seen relatives killed by Serbian forces are humiliated by the Macedonian border guards in ways that suggest a policy decision, rather than a few thugs with badges who have abused their authority. When the refugees come across the border, they are frequently locked in buses for hours on end, without water or toilet facilities. More systematically, the Macedonian government has done its best to stymie efforts of NATO and international humanitarian agencies to expand the refugee camps that have been built to accommodate the tens of thousands of Kosovars who need shelter, food and medical attention.

And yet for Macedonia, the crisis is not simply a humanitarian emergency but a demographic earthquake. The refugees represent 10 percent of the Macedonian population -- the equivalent of 26 million immigrants arriving in the United States in a little more than a month. Anyone who recalls the collective panic in South Florida during the 1980 Mariel boatlift of 100,000 Cubans would be hard-pressed to make the case that the Macedonian reaction is somehow inexplicable or uniquely awful. And the Cubans did not represent a tipping of the ethnic balance in the United States the way the Kosovars do to ethnic Macedonians, who rightly believe that the allegiance of the ethnic Albanian population in their country is contingent at best. It is one thing for Albania to take in as many refugees as want to come -- for though they strain that country's resources, they represent no political peril. The situation in Macedonia, however, is utterly different.

It is important to ask what Americans or Italians have done in similar situations. The United States put a picket line of ships in the Florida Strait to prevent more Haitian boat people from landing on American shores. The Italian occupation of Albania in 1997, ostensibly undertaken on humanitarian grounds, was actually designed to staunch the flow of Albanian refugees across the Adriatic. To put it starkly, refugee crises almost invariably bring out the worst in the citizens of the host country.

But the particular problem with the arrival of the Kosovar refugees in Macedonia -- and it is one that threatens to completely alter the equation on which Western policy makers have based their decisions about Kosovo and about prosecuting the war against Yugoslavia -- is that it is likely to have dire and almost incalculable political consequences for the region as a whole. One likely scenario has Milosevic continuing to push Kosovars into Macedonia on the assumption that, if he does so long enough, the country will explode and NATO will have to make a deal with him. Whether Milosevic is right or wrong remains to be seen. But it is not a bad bet. In any case, it is one of the cards he has left in his hand to undermine the efforts of the NATO alliance, which has consistently underestimated his ability to counter its efforts.

Support for Milosevic is already deepening in Macedonia, as it is in Greece and Russia. There are frequent pro-Milosevic rallies in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, drawing not only the country's small Serbian minority but ordinary Macedonians in great numbers.

To watch these crowds wave the Yugoslav flag, hold up pictures of Milosevic and wave the three-fingered Serbian nationalist salute with passion and abandon is to see the face of the next stage of the crisis. Already, there have been a few attacks on foreign diplomats and aid workers, and many acts of sabotage against NATO installations -- most of which have been covered up.

If NATO can end the war quickly and bring the refugee crisis to a close, then the old fears of the conflict spreading from Kosovo to Macedonia (and involving Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria) may prove to be unfounded. But the anxieties that American diplomat expressed to me half a decade ago in Sarajevo were valid then and are valid now. NATO is in a race against time, not only against Slobodan Milosevic and his criminal soldiery, but against historical tensions that have been jarred loose once more.

By David Rieff

David Rieff is the author of "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," and the editor, with Roy Gutman, of the forthcoming "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

MORE FROM David Rieff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------