Macedonia Quiet for Now on Kosovo's Independence

On the border with Kosovo, a Macedonian border police officer patrols a mountain road near the village of Tanusevci, 20 kilometers north of the capital Skopje. (Photo: STR /AFP-Getty Images)

In the few days following Kosovo's declaration of independence, Macedonia remains calm. But for how long?

Feb. 17 was greeted differently by the country's two major communities. Whereas Macedonians exercised restraint, Albanians rejoiced. Major celebrations were organized at the new Skenderbeg square in Skopje (old bazaar area) and in the center of Tetovo—speeches, dances, and the inevitable shooting in the air, but nothing out of the ordinary. A few cars were hit by (probably falling) bullets, but in any case less damage than from a new year of bigger football matches.

Newspaper space is crowded by Kosovo coverage, but the government continues its policy of silence.

"The government closely monitors the situation, and it will act in accordance with national interest" is the boilerplate statement to be heard by the spokespeople.

The elephant in the room, of course—is when? When will Macedonia recognize Kosovo? Although the government (probably rightfully) has not put its cards on the table, the question, "Will Macedonia recognize Kosovo?" has lost significance. There is little doubt that Macedonia will have to follow suit and at a certain point recognize its new neighbor. The government has long been reiterating that it would do what the international community does, and the United States and major European states have already stepped forward and recognized the province.

The fear, however, is the response from Serbia. Even if Serbia does not go with direct sanctions, and for now it is difficult to assess the full extent of the direct measures Serbia would be willing to take, Macedonia could be hurt economically in many ways. A gathering the other day the business community voiced the concern that Serbia could promote "indirect" sanctions against Macedonian businesses if the country recognizes Kosovo. Enough to stop cargo at the border on any excuse, and that is just the beginning.

For the time being, the government, as it tirelessly points out, is "closely monitoring" the situation. Defense Minister Lazar Elenovski stated the other day that "Macedonia's position on the issue was clear and that independence was acceptable." Government spokesperson Ivica Bocevski, however, hurried to state that "the statement was Mr. Elenovski's private position on the matter."

On the afternoon before "D" day, Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Taci came for a quick visit to Skopje on what the Macedonian government called an "informal visit." A day before, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski spoke with Serbian President Boris Tadic on the phone. Although no further official statement came out of those contacts, one can easily guess the ground those talks covered.

Of course, the sizeable Albanian community in Macedonia wants Kosovo recognized. Albanian political parties will be expected to insist on prompter recognition. Whereas the Albanian partner in government, the D.P.A. (Democratic Party of Albania) of Menduh Taci, could demonstrate more patience, the opposition D.U.I. (Democratic Union for Integration) would use the recognition issue as a political instrument.

Taci's D.P.A. said Macedonia would do what the others did: "We would not be the last ones to do it," Deputy Defense Minister Iliaz Halimi said.

The other major Albanian party, D.U.I. welcomed the independence and called upon the government to recognize it. Its leader, Ali Ahmeti, visited the graves of fallen guerilla fighters from the 2001 Macedonia conflict. "This is a great day. Our dream has come true," said Ahmeti for the occasion.

In the meantime, the political party of the Serbs in Macedonia has strongly condemned the declaration of independence. Its leadership went to Kosovo last Sunday to show support to fellow Serbs in the north.

The issue that resurfaced in Macedonia right after the declaration of independence is that of the Macedonian-Kosovo border. This border has stayed un-demarcated due to Kosovo's undefined status for years (Serbia insisted it was its border), and the issue has raised tensions several times in Macedonia.

The biggest Macedonian opposition party, the social democrats (S.D.S.M.) called upon the government to condition the recognition with demarcation of the border.

"The border can objectively be a factor of insecurity if we recognize Kosovo without a demarcation," stated former social democrat Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski.

The point view of the Albanian parties is that the border is only a technical issue and will be easily sorted out—according to D.U.I., after recognition.

A critical point along the border has always been the village of Tanusevci, the place where the Macedonian conflict began in 2001. The village, which is practically at the very border, has been declared "free" by a former guerilla fighter, commander Hoxha, who says the place is under his command. He announced he would hold a referendum to join the village to Kosovo. Hoxha says Macedonian police cannot enter the village.

Worries have already been displayed over the possible long-term consequences of Kosovo's independence for Macedonia. Only three days into the independence, the cake has not been eaten yet, talk of how "Macedonia will be next" has already begun. The dailies carried predictions by foreign analysts who warned of the risks to Macedonia from a possible de facto partition of Kosovo.

These risks have been well documented and analyzed in the past. It is no secret that the Macedonian conflict was a reflection of the Kosovo one. In the same vein, nobody should deny that Kosovo's independence will have huge impact on Macedonia.

This will definitely depend on what happens on the ground, especially in the northern part of Kosovo. According to some, partition is already an emerging reality there. On Tuesday, angry Serbs burned NATO KFOR (Kosovo Force) border control posts between northern Kosovo and Serbia. They said they wanted to move freely on their land.

Discussing these possible long-term risks is not exaggerated, even if a bit premature at this point in time. One needs to see how things will evolve on the ground.

For the time being, the Macedonian government continues to monitor the situation.

From Osservatorio sui Balcani.