Macedonia is perched between peace and war. During the past week, a fragile cease-fire gave way to intense fighting in the town of Tetovo even as negotiators struggled to close a deal between Macedonia's Slavic majority and an ethnic Albanian minority that represents close to one-quarter of the country's 2 million people. After months of sporadic warfare between Macedonian forces and an Albanian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (NLA), a palpable mistrust is spreading between Macedonian Slavs and the Albanian minority. The sinews of ethnic tolerance holding Macedonia together are being stretched precariously thin.
It is too soon, however, to conclude that Macedonia will follow in the footsteps of the other former Yugoslav republics and head toward widespread war and ethnic partition. For reasons of both history and political culture, multiethnic society has a fighting chance of surviving in Macedonia. As its Macedonian and Albanian leaders search for common ground, the United States and its European allies should invest heavily in strengthening the country's firewalls against ethnic conflict. The beneficiary would be not just Macedonia, but a Balkan peninsula that could well be engulfed in war should Macedonia unravel.
As Ottoman rule in the Balkans faltered during the early years of the 20th century, Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians all laid claim to the people and land of present-day Macedonia. Although Macedonians attained the upper hand and eventually established a sovereign nation-state, their neighbors continue to question the country's origins and tell its peoples that "you are us," rather than the usual Balkan refrain of difference and exclusion. As a result, Macedonia is still in a formative stage of nation-building. Its nationalism is more moderate and benign than the kind that infected Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.
Firewalls against ethnic violence also stem from Macedonia's military weakness. Macedonia was the only republic to withdraw from Yugoslavia peacefully, and the Yugoslav army took along almost all its arms when it pulled out in 1991. Accordingly, Macedonia distanced itself from the nationalist drum-beating that soon followed throughout the rest of the former Yugoslavia.
A demilitarized society has also helped promote peaceful coexistence between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Although the current crisis has prompted rearmament and mobilization, many soldiers lack discipline and are poorly trained and equipped. Macedonia simply does not have an army that is chafing at the bit to go to war.
Social and cultural separation between Macedonians and the Albanian minority has, paradoxically, reinforced ethnic tolerance. Even in mixed cities like Skopje, the capital, the two communities keep their distance; intermarriage is rare. Although segregation has fueled discontent by instilling among Albanians a sense of being second-class citizens, it has also enabled both communities to retreat into the security of their preexisting social separation.
Macedonia is also benefiting from an improving neighborhood. Slobodan Milosevic is now in The Hague; Serbia is no longer fomenting ethnic hatred throughout the Balkans. Croatia is governed by a moderate regime. Although Athens continues to claim that Macedonia is a term belonging to Greece's northern province, Greece is now the top investor in the country, and its political ties with Skopje have strengthened considerably.
Despite these factors working in Macedonia's favor, the continuing fighting is testing the limits of the country's barriers against ethnic conflict. Macedonia's ethnic Albanians are not yet ready to take up arms. They do have a host of legitimate grievances, including limited access to higher education and public-sector jobs. Their per-capita income is lower than that of Macedonian Slavs. But the Albanians are much better off than their brethren in Kosovo or Albania proper. They also control 25 of the 120 seats in parliament and comprise almost one-third of the cabinet; some hold ambassadorships and other high posts.
The problem is that the continuing violence is gradually poisoning intercommunal relations. Support for the NLA is growing within the Albanian community, and attitudes are hardening among Macedonians. Riots and attacks on Albanian shops have occurred in both Skopje and Bitola. Even among the capital's cosmopolitan elite, ethnic battle lines are being drawn.
Holding back these escalating tensions and building on Macedonia's potential to survive as a multiethnic state will require more engagement by the international community. U.S. and European envoys are already pressing local leaders to find a diplomatic solution, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has agreed to send in troops after a deal to help disarm the NLA. But additional steps are needed.
The United States and its allies should intensify efforts to counter organized crime in Kosovo, a major source of the NLA's money and arms, and to interdict the flow of weapons across the border into Macedonia. In addition to disarming the rebels, NATO should be ready to keep lightly armed patrols in tense cities like Skopje, Bitola and Tetovo to deter violence and buy time for mounting passions to subside. However much President Bush might want to lighten the U.S. load in the Balkans, now is not the time for U.S. disengagement.
If NATO is to take on these tasks, there must first be a political compromise. On the surface, the main Macedonian and Albanian parties seem miles apart. The Macedonians favor a civic definition of citizenship and a political system based on individual rights without regard to ethnicity. The Albanians have supported constitutional and political changes that will protect their collective ethnic rights.
The only viable solution is the compromise toward which both parties seem to be edging: a political system that is civic in name, but provides communal protections in practice. That means a constitution revised to make Macedonia a nation-state of its citizens, not its different ethnic groups. But it also means implementing an ambitious program of political affirmative action for ethnic Albanians, one that will succeed in raising their voice, social status and prosperity.
Legislative innovations that fall short of collective rights can provide Albanians the protections they deserve without crossing the red lines drawn by the Slavic Macedonian majority. Changes in parliamentary procedures should be used to grant Albanians more control over education and local government. Skopje must also decentralize decision-making and send more tax revenues to the local level. Albanian should be recognized as an official language in municipal organs and as an optional language in the national parliament.
In return for measures that will encourage ethnic Albanians to become political Macedonians, the Albanian community needs to acknowledge the Macedonian character of the country. The new state-sanctioned Albanian-language university that is opening in Tetovo, for example, should ensure that its graduates are fluent in Macedonian, the only way to guarantee them upward mobility and promote their sense of belonging to the Macedonian state.
If Macedonians and Albanians are to reclaim and strengthen the multiethnic tolerance that is now slipping away, they have no choice but to head down this path of compromise. The alternative is not just the bloody unraveling of Macedonia. Its partition would likely reawaken the historical claims and nationalist passions of its neighbors, making all too real the prospect of a wider Balkan war.