A Learner's Lexicon

Macedonia's 'Liberation' Army

An UCK guerrilla looks at the ruins of his house, which was destroyed by Macedonian bombings in May 2001 (Photo: AFP).

For months, a guerrilla organization operating in Macedonia has been known by the same abbreviation as the one that fought the Serbs in Kosovo. Confusion over what to call these rebels in Macedonia is part of the general difficulty in getting a clear picture of their origins, structure, and goals.

Even their name is confusing: The UCK, a guerrilla organization operating in Macedonia, uses the same abbreviation as its predecessor in Kosovo. The Macedonian UCK stands for Ushtria Clirimtare Kombetare (National Liberation Army) while the Kosovo group’s full name was Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (Kosovo Liberation Army). The Macedonian press refers to the rebels as “Albanian terrorists,” while Albanians, depending on their political views, call them “fighters” or “freedom fighters.” Western diplomats and international organizations have created their own neutral abbreviation: EAAG (Ethnic Albanian Armed Group). This confusion over the name is emblematic of the difficulty in getting a clear picture of the group’s origins, structure, and goals. Much of the information about the UCK is very difficult or impossible to verify. What follows, therefore, is rather provisional in character.

It is generally agreed that the similarities between the two UCKs extend beyond the abbreviation of their names. Their ideological and organizational roots are identical, and the Macedonian UCK can be seen, in many ways, as an attempt to copy the original Kosovo organization. When the first nationalistic uprisings against Yugoslav domination broke out in Pristina in the early 1980s, Albanian intellectuals, with support from the diaspora, founded the Levizja Popullore e Kosoves (LPK), the Popular Movement of Kosovo. This represented a fusion of various Marxist-Leninist splinter groups, held together by a rediscovered Albanian nationalism and forming a politically militant grouping. The movement’s first president was Fazli Veliu, from the village of Zajas, near Kicevo, in Macedonia. He was the spiritual leader and co-founder of the UCK in Kosovo and, six years later, in Macedonia. The founding of the Kosovo group took place in his house in 1993. Today, the 56-year-old former teacher, who was imprisoned under Tito for 14 years for political crimes, and his LPK oppose not only Serbian domination but also the Albanian “parallel state” that was set up in the early 1990s by Ibrahim Rugova to resist Serbian repression.

This conflict between Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo, which has been politically rather moderate and had very little power for a long time, and Veliu’s LPK with its parallel organization runs like a thread through the recent history of the region and did so even during the struggle against the Serbs. Their differences are based partly on political goals but more on the means to be used in the struggle and the desire to attain personal and political power and influence.

Political and military initiatives before and during the war in Kosovo favored the more militant leadership of the LPK and the UCK, but that changed dramatically in the local elections in Kosovo in the fall. The parties created out of the UCK, namely Hashim Thaci’s PDK and Ramush Haradinaj’s AAK, experienced a bitter defeat in the elections. The majority of Kosovo’s Albanian population preferred to entrust the state and social structures to Rugova rather than the two former fighters.

The political defeat of the militant wing of the political establishment in Kosovo led to a strategic new arrangement. A decision was taken to heat up the activities in the Albanian border regions of southern Serbia and Macedonia; this would provide, so the thesis went, more political negotiating room by broadening the instability of the region. The hope was that the Albanian communities on both sides of the border would become more active and make the old borders seem inappropriate. This required a respected leader, who could operate either in Kosovo or in Macedonia; it did not matter which.

The international community didn’t seem to want the Albanian communities unified in some kind of “Greater Albania,” so the political leadership of the UCK worked to achieve an international protectorate of Albanian communities in Macedonia, no doubt with the longer term goal of secession. Kosovo was the model, especially for military tactics, using pinpricks to provoke excessive reactions on the part of the Macedonian security forces, which would then bring in Western “humanitarian intervention.”

The relatively moderate demands of the UCK, namely equal rights and security for the minorities, were aimed at achieving respectability in Western eyes. They also set the agenda for the legitimate Albanian parties in Macedonia. The activities of the Macedonian UCK, founded in the fall of 1999, ran into opposition, not so much from the Macedonian authorities as from the elite of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). The DPA resisted the agitation and competition from the UCK under the political leadership of Ali Ahmeti, the nephew of Fazli Veliu. When the Macedonian counteroffensive started recently, DPA leaders had to work hard to keep their membership in line. They have been rather successful, as there hasn’t been a mass flow of Macedonian Albanians into the UCK ranks.

In 1998, there was a new coalition government in Skopje. The strongest Macedonian party, the VMRO, and the strongest Albanian party, the DPA, divided up the most important administrative posts along the country’s ethnic lines and agreed to leave each other alone. This agreement, a kind of armistice, led to a feudalization of the country: In the interest of short-term interethnic peace, each party ruled in its territory. A year later, fighting broke out in Kosovo, and western Macedonia—controlled by the DPA—began to serve as a logistical base, providing equipment and fighters. An important source of UCK recruits is the Macedonian Albanians who fought in Kosovo. This group also attracts experienced UCK fighters who didn’t get into the police force or the so-called Kosovo Protection Force. But the UCK’s military strength is usually overrated. Its success is primarily due to the weakness of the Macedonian security forces. Publicly available estimates of their numbers vary between several hundred and several thousand. Independent, well-informed sources speak of three units, which have a hard core of 30 fighters each and at most 100 additional, less-well-trained men.

No one knows whether the field commanders are relatively autonomous or whether the command structure is centralized. The fact that individual groups continuously break the armistices that have been brokered suggests autonomy. Yet Ali Ahmeti seems to be the generally accepted leader. The military capabilities of each group are limited, and an operation is considered large if it involves at most 40 men. Most of the time they rely on hit-and-run tactics, like those in Kosovo. They set up ambushes in impassable terrain and carry out sudden attacks on police units and soldiers.

The UCK has entrenched itself in a few, usually still-inhabited villages that it can hold without difficulty. The government forces face a dilemma: Either risk heavy losses among their poorly trained troops in heavy street fighting—which would provoke anger among the Macedonian population and riots, as happened in Bitola—or reduce these villages to ruins and ashes by bombardment from a safe distance, thereby killing Albanian civilians and enraging the Albanian and Western media.