Macedonia's perception gap

Beliefs, expectations, and perceptions, no matter how distorted, motivate people. Militant leaders know this well, and use it to start and maintain armed activities.

Take Macedonia. So far, the international community and NATO haven't slowed down the growing division between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. But they have succeeded in unifying both communities around the belief that the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) enjoys NATO's support. Several recent events have strengthened this notion.

For example, both the ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians are convinced that NATO can, but doesn't want to, cut off the NLA's supplies from Kosovo. In addition, both groups see the fact that the Albanian guerrillas have been using modern weapons as a sign that NATO must be supporting them.

Similarly, average ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians agree that the international community has changed its attitude toward the combatants. At the start of the insurrection, the United States and the European Union condemned the guerrillas. Now both sides are treated the same. This conveys the message that the international community has recognized Albanian extremists as fighters for the legitimate rights of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, and the country's official security forces have been seen as an obstacle to achieving them.

Ironically, this situation resembles the international community's earlier relations toward Kosovo and Serbia, where in the beginning, armed activities of the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were treated as problematic. Nonetheless, later the KLA and the Albanian people who joined it were successful in persuading the international community to accept their actions as justifiable and even to provide military support in their favor.

Ethnic Macedonians and Albanians don't see the international community taking tangible action to oppose NLA violence. It wasn't so long ago that NATO undertook concrete military action in Kosovo, openly siding with the Albanians against Slobodan Milosevic.

However, when Albanian extremists use violence in Macedonia, NATO and the international community have not expressed readiness to undertake military action to show they're opposed to this violence. To make matters worse, NATO's evacuation of NLA fighters from the village of Aracinovo is also perceived by both communities as a clear indication of NATO support of the Albanian side. These mixed messages have had a devastating impact on efforts to defuse the violence in Macedonia.

As part of their carrot-and-stick approach, the international community threatened to restrict economic aid to the Macedonian government. The citizens of Macedonia interpreted such threats as detrimental to the interests of ethnic Macedonians and favorable to the Albanian extremists.

At one point during the negotiations, the international facilitators proposed changing the status of the Albanian language in the Constitution of Macedonia - after they had reached consent solely with the Albanian representatives - placing the responsibility for the talks' failure on the Macedonian side. Both communities perceived this proposal as pro-Albanian, not only because of the built-in concessions, but also because it appeared that NLA agreement was more important than Macedonian concerns.

Even now, after the ethnic Macedonian and Albanian political leaders have signed the framework agreement, the fighting hasn't ended. Neither ethnic Albanians nor ethnic Macedonians believe NATO will disarm the Albanian guerrillas. Both communities are convinced that insisting on voluntary disarmament reflects NATO's unwillingness to confront their allies, thus resulting in a mere continuation of the deliberate failure to disarm the KLA after the war. It is again interpreted as a sign of support for the NLA and their demands.

The international community and NATO officials have blamed ethnic Macedonian political leaders for creating the false image that they are allies of the NLA and enemies of the Macedonian government.

But it is high time for the international community and NATO to accept at least some responsibility for these existing perceptions - foremost because they contribute to the deepening gap between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians. These perceptions put an additional burden on the country's moderate ethnic Albanians. Now, they urgently need a clear message from the international community to help them decide between two options: One is to support the peaceful solution and openly distance themselves from all militant groups. The other is to continue to offer support to these groups, in an attempt to avoid being labeled as traitors in a struggle for the Albanian national cause.

Violeta Petroska-Beska is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace. The views are her own.

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