Fears of a new upheaval in the Balkans are being fueled by a resurgence of violent acts
There are worrying signs of unrest in the FYROM-Kosovo-southern Serbia triangle. Murders of Serbs are becoming a daily event in Kosovo. In Presevo and Bujanovac, there is evidence of suspect movement by ethnic Albanians trying to change the demographics of villages and towns. And in parts of FYROM where ethnic Albanians live, armed members of the self-proclaimed Albanian National Army have reappeared, abducting police officers and making bomb attacks on government targets. Are we facing new upheaval in the volatile western Balkans that might spark off armed clashes leading to instability and even the collapse of the fragile status quo in the region? Different circumstances It is far too early to make such a claim. Circumstances are not the same as those that led to the ethnic-Albanian uprising in Kosovo and FYROM. And the international community is in no mood to tolerate – much less to encourage – nationalistic bullying by the ethnic Albanians, who will not keep quiet unless their demand for the independence of Kosovo is satisfied. Moreover, Washington and Brussels have their plates more than full, with interest focused on the Middle East and greater diplomacy needed in Palestine, Iran and Iraq. Balkan issues have ceased to be a top priority on the international agenda, as they once were, with Javier Solana racing to avert the worst whenever a problem cropped up. But the balance on which the peace imposed by the West depends is still fragile and the danger of episodes, such as those in Kumanovo – with armed Albanians entrenching themselves in villages, claiming «free zones» and their compatriots murdering children in cold blood in Kosovo – could very easily dynamite the peace and threaten regional stability. International diplomats in Skopje, Belgrade and Pristina view the violent incidents in FYROM, Kosovo and southern Serbia, which they do not consider unrelated, with interest and concern. They link the unrest with the coming talks between the Serbs of Belgrade and the Albanians of Kosovo which were mandated by European Union leaders at the Halkidiki summit and are due to start next month in Brussels. Nobody expects anything substantial to emerge from the talks, apart from the fact that the two opponents will sit down together for the first time since the war and probably talk about so-called low-profile issues. There will be no mention of the burning issues, such as the future regime in Kosovo or the return of thousands of Serb refugees. The Albanians won’t discuss anything but independence and when it will be given to them, while the Serbs won’t hear of it, saying that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia. But there is growing conviction in both western Balkan capitals and the West that the situation in Kosovo cannot remain as it is today. This has given rise to thoughts among the Serb leadership of the possibility of discussing partition as a less painful outcome than complete secession. The discussions are certainly known to the Albanians, who are doing everything they can not to allow Serb refugees to return home, but to get those few who have remained to leave Kosovo. It is to this plan of terrorizing people into fleeing that the Serbs attribute the barrage of murders of their compatriots in recent weeks in Kosovo villages, even though the UN civil administration in Pristina hastens, after every such event, to speak of an «an isolated incident.» Ethnic Albanians in FYROM and southern Serbia will not be indifferent to any developments concerning the future regime of Kosovo. In any case, they never considered the status imposed after the wars of 1999 and 2001 to be definitive. The pack of cards may be shuffled dangerously if Kosovo becomes an independent state. The appearance of armed ethnic-Albanian groups in FYROM, who undoubtedly have their base in Kosovo, perturbs both the government and diplomatic missions. Although attempts are being made to play the matter down, everyone admits that the situation may become even more dangerous. The self-proclaimed Albanian National Army has shown by the recent events in Humanovo – where, in effect, it seized and held three villages for several hours – that it can easily act in areas populated by ethnic Albanians and make bomb attacks even in the city of Skopje – such as the recent attack on a court – and also abduct police officers. The official government line on these groups, with which which Western diplomats so far concur, is that they are gangs of organized criminals who are completely apolitical and must be dealt with mercilessly by the police. But such analyses were made of the KLA groups of Ali Ahmeti in 2000, which eventually proved to be an organized military operation that was not connected to organized crime but did have political goals. «We certainly must not underestimate the presence of these groups but we must not exaggerate either,» an EU ambassador in Skopje told Kathimerini. «In any case, it seems to be an explosive mixture that we hope will not develop,» he added. Sources tell the authorities in Skopje of a few dozen – some say a few hundred – well-armed men who come and go in Kosovo and who are connected to the gun and narcotics trade, with a few «commanders» who appear from time to time and proclaim goals of national liberation. Their political leaders seem to be Idayet Bekiri – president of the National Unity Party, the nationalist party in Tirana, whom the Albanian government has declared persona non grata because of his extremist activities – and Gafur Abduli, who is already in an Albanian prison for the same reason. Former warlords, and first among them Ali Ahmeti who turned out to be a moderate, have repudiated the so-called Albanian National Army. But that is not the case with the other large Albanian party of Arben Xhaferi, the Democratic Albania Party in FYROM. Xhaferi has lost political ground to the former KLA leader and is using extremist rhetoric, refusing to condemn the murders and abductions and has not hesitated to raise issues such as the secession of areas populated by ethnic Albanians from FYROM. The activities of these groups might have passed unnoticed, classified as smuggling, had it not been for overriding suspicion among the two ethnic groups, had the the Ohrid agreement proceeded more quickly and had the outstanding Kosovo issue, which is an emotional one for all Albanians in the region, already been settled.