A meeting nearly two weeks ago between NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and Macedonia's government leaders erupted into a verbal jousting match that has exposed just how tenuous NATO's mission is here and how easily the country will slip into war if NATO forces withdraw as planned in two weeks.
According to an official who attended the meeting, Lord Robertson accused Prime Minister Ljubco Georgevski, and his interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, of building up paramilitary forces that threaten the safety of his troops. The prime minister lashed back, accusing NATO of having a secret agenda here. Robertson suggested that Macedonians might have more confidence in NATO if the prime minister's spokesman would stop telling lies about its mandate. The prime minister threatened to walk out, and Mr. Boskovski, a former sweetshop owner and member of the special forces in Croatia, exploded, telling Robertson that he and his aide should be declared persona non grata in Macedonia, and NATO should be sent to The Hague.
Such is the tenor of Macedonian-NATO relations these days. An ominous security vacuum fast approaches with NATO moving into the third and final phase of its narrow mission to collect weapons from Albanian rebels as European Union ministers debate whether to send a small force to protect the unarmed international monitors who will be scattered across the country.
What's clear on the ground here is that Boskovski does have special forces he has prepared to exploit that vacuum. They're called the Lions, which is the symbol of the ruling VMRO Party. And they've been training at the Center for Strategic Studies on the outskirts of Skopje. As one moderate Macedonian security official in the government said, Boskovski has threatened to use them "to clear the terrain on the Sar mountains" where the villages of Albanian rebels-turned-civilians are concentrated.
"And you can imagine how they are going to do that," the worried official said.
"There's been a history of this paramilitary phenomenon throughout the Balkan conflict," says a Western diplomat. "It's the dark side of this part of the world."
Many Macedonians, however, feel this is exactly how it should be - that Macedonia's security forces, whoever they are, should take back control of the country from the rebel Albanians.
The problem, says a NATO official, "is that they are totally outside the chain of command pursuing Boskovski's own agenda, and even the police general has no control over them."
What's more is that if such a plan is executed, Albanian rebels who have demobilized and crossed the mountain border into Kosovo out of fear of retaliation have promised to return in greater numbers.
Then last week, in the old stone-walled cellar of Boskovski's grand Skopje home, surrounded by Orthodox religious icons, antique pistols, and portraits of Macedonian revolutionaries, the minister of interior sipped his mountain tea and said that even though everyone is against him, God is on his side. Robertson, he said, would soon apologize to him when he realized his missionaries had given him false information. "Find me at least three members of paramilitaries who are controlled by me and who are not regular members of the Macedonian security forces, and I'll arrest them and resign," he said.
A 40-minute drive west out of Skopje takes you to the Sar Mountain valley villages where the words of Macedonia's ministers are starkly rebuked. There, the Lions are defending two strategic Macedonian villages, Zhilce and Ratae, which are surrounded by Albanians. If these villages fall, says Zoran Dalevski, a plain-speaking young Lion leader in his warrior wear - camouflage jumpsuit and green stocking headcover, "the Albanians will control this entire region," from Tetovo to the border with Kosovo.
A farmer and activist with the ruling VMRO party, Zoran Dalevski, who goes by the name Zoki, was trained as a parachutist in a diversionary unit with the Yugoslav People's Army and fought in Croatia. All winter, he says, he was planting seeds in his native village not far from Bitola with his Albanian partner - the local activist from the hard-line Albanian party, DPA. "Now, we pass each other like strangers," he says.
Like most of the Lions, he doesn't have much respect for the Macedonian Army and refused the call-up all year. "They're doing their job like a humanitarian organization and just losing time," he says. Others say the chain of command is too strict, and by the time you have permission to fire back at the Albanians' National Liberation Army, you're dead.
Boskovski's special brigade is different. Its command structure is fast and simple; its tactics aggressive. (Their salary, he says, is supposed to be $700 a month but he has yet to be paid.) It was created, he says, by Major Goran, a former member of the regular special police forces who quit after the government ordered them to retreat from a village they'd recaptured. "Goran is our God," says Zoki. "And then we're under Boskovski."
But there is a logic to the Lions formation. At the end of July, the Albanians launched an offensive in this region. One village after the next fell as the Army and police ran away. Zoki says that at the time, the Lions were protecting the prime minister and the Parliament from an attack by Macedonians enraged with the government. "They provoked us and said, 'Go protect Macedonians,' and they were right. So we pressured our commanders. 'Either send us, or we go on our own.' "
For 17 days, they fought with no reinforcements just 50 meters away from the NLA. When they asked the Army for help, nobody came. "We weren't well trained," says Zoran, "but a lot of us are a little 'gone,' and we held it."
Since then a siege mentality has settled on the villages. "We've lost all trust in the organs of the state," says the soft-spoken mayor, Petre Antovsky. And as a panicked report of a kidnapping comes in over the radio, sending Zoran off to his jeep and out to the fields, the mayor says the psychological pressure is wearing on everyone. "If the Lions didn't come, we would have shared the same fate with the other Macedonians who fled from this area."
The alarm is a false one, but as dusk approaches, an exchange of gunfire breaks through the pastoral landscape. Standing at the front line in Zhilce - just an open patch of cornfields - and watching NATO helicopters flying overhead, Zoran says that the Lions are preparing themselves to retake this territory as soon as NATO leaves. Otherwise, he says, under the agreement the police will all be Albanian and the villages will fall without a bullet.
And if NATO doesn't leave? "Then NATO must expect terrorist attacks against them by our romantic 18-year-olds and a few of us old Hajduks" - the traditional name for outlaws and rebels against the Ottoman Empire. "Maybe I'll have a few lucky strikes against NATO," he says. "And they'll sing a song for me and I'll be a legend."
Across the cornfields, in villages along the road leading to Kosovo, the Albanians are handing in their weapons, hoping NATO won't leave, and predicting Zoran's scenario. Almost as soon as the peace agreement was signed, Hoxha - a non de guerre - who was a high commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, became a depressed and frustrated man.
"This was the most absurd war, which no one needed from the very beginning, and now it has the most absurd ending," he said sitting in a café near his native village above Tetovo. Though glad for the peace he said, "Whoever heard of a war for rights? A war is fought for division."
Hoxha is a complicated figure in the current Macedonian crisis, one who began his double life back in the early days of Yugoslavia's dissolution. At home around Tetovo, he played a kind of village fool performing bawdy comedy skits, hanging around the underworld, in the predominantly conservative Albanian region. He was marginalized by the community, few paid much attention to him. Which left him at liberty to pursue his real life - traveling all over the former Yugoslavia and in Western Europe to train himself in the politics and tactics of guerrilla warfare, crossing mountain borders in disguise with former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaqi, who was also a student at the time, and planning for the day when Kosovar Albanians would rise up against the repressive regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Later came his third life, pursuing a PhD in Vienna in Balkan history and politics. With his gold rimmed spectacles and academic pedantry, his professors never suspected what he was up to. Until NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, when he called one of his professors by satellite phone from the mountains to tell him he wouldn't be coming back. Then when NATO troops entered Kosovo in June of 1999, Hoxha said his job was done. He was going back to Vienna to finish his PhD, and from time to time would give Hashim Thaqi political advice. At the time he joked that the 50,000 KLA soldiers who don't speak Albanian (i.e. KFOR) would educate the Albanians in civil society and democratic policing.
When fighting broke out here in February, he lobbied hard to stop it, believing it was not in the Albanians' interests, but rather a stepping stone for Ali Ahmeti's political career, the leader of the NLA. But when it spread to his village, he came home. "I don't represent a single element in this war. I'm not a commander. I'm not in the NLA. I just came to stop stupidities from happening," he said, referring to attacks on civilians. Once the war was under way, however, he too was swept up in it.
Now, like many Albanians in the hills, he has little faith that the accord can be implemented without further conflict, particularly the inclusion of Albanians in the police force. Weeks before the Lions became a big public issue, he said, "The Macedonian government will invest a lot of money to enlarge the special forces, in the name of anti-terrorist fighting and not in the Army because its powerless against the NLA. And you'll see, there'll be just a tiny number of Albanians. And what do you think these units will be used for?"