Preventive Action in Macedonia

By Alice Ackermann | 1998-05-01 12:00:00

The violence in Kosovo has again shone the spotlight on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a country of two million inhabitants, which once formed the most southern republic in the old Yugoslavia. Adjacent to Kosovo, multiethnic Macedonia is constituted by 66% Slav Macedonians, close to 23% Albanians (the dominant ethnic groups) and smaller numbers of Turks, Romas (Gypsies), Serbs, and Vlachs. Residing along the borders with Albania and Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are the most problematic ethnic group because of their size and their distinct grievances. Having suffered discrimination in the former Yugoslavia, especially throughout the 1980s, ethnic Albanians in the new Macedonia have demanded nation-status, specific language and educational rights, and an end to discriminatory practices in the legal professions, the military and police, and governmental service.

In September 1991, when the country proclaimed its independence, Macedonia was often the focus of dire predictions. When the war broke out in Croatia, observers contended that Macedonia would also be consumed by the bloody confrontations raging to its north. Those voices warning of the impending violence grew louder as armed conflict erupted in Bosnia in April 1992. By then, fear of a spillover of war was widespread. The possibility of military intervention by Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, the unrest in Kosovo, plus tensions between Slav Macedonians, ethnic Albanians, and ethnic Serbs over their place in the new state, threatened to turn Macedonia into another battleground.

Miraculously, Macedonia has survived so far without major eruptions of ethnic violence. Why there was no violent conflict in Macedonia was the subject of a video documentary we concluded in 1997. Intrigued by the question why Macedonia was able to secede peacefully, we arrived in the Republic of Macedonia during the summer of 1996. Our film was to document how Macedonia, through a series of preventive measures, succeeded in keeping violence at bay. What we discovered was that numerous players were responsible for this outcome: political leaders, international organizations, non-governmental agencies, individual citizens - all of whom formed a wall of prevention. The credit is theirs that Macedonia not only defied its bloody past, but also became one of the relatively successful applications of preventive diplomacy in Europe.

Sending a Preventive Force

Of these groups making preventive efforts, perhaps the best-known is the United Nations. In December 1992, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to send a U.N. preventive force to the Republic of Macedonia. It followed the urgent appeal for U.N. assistance by Macedonia's President, Kiro Gligorov, first in 1991, then again in late 1992. Soon thereafter, Macedonia became the site of a U.N. peacekeeping force, making this the first solely preventive mission in the history of the United Nations. Concerns over a potential spillover of the war in Bosnia, increasing unrest in Kosovo, and growing ethnic tensions between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians made Macedonian leaders anxious for international assistance in the management of these regional and domestic sources of conflict. Along with other organizations, such as the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and numerous non-governmental institutions, the U.N. assumed a crucial role in maintaining the peace.

The peacekeeping mission, later renamed the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP), arrived in Macedonia in early January 1993, shortly after the Security Council authorized it. Canadian peacekeepers first manned the observation posts, and were later replaced by Scandinavian U.N. soldiers. In July 1993, the U.N. preventive mission received a contingent of more than 500 U.S. soldiers, bringing the total to more than 1,000 personnel. American participation increased the deterrent function of the preventive deployment force, whose mandate was subject to renewal every six months.

The immediate task of the U.N. preventive mission was to monitor Macedonia's border with Albania and Serbia, a largely mountainous region of about 500 km of frontier. The U.N. mandate, carried out through fixed and temporary observation posts, the patrolling of border crossings, customs stations, and villages, proved critical for averting numerous crises over recurring border encroachments by small Serbian military contingents, especially along the Macedonia-Kosovo divide.

Over time, the U.N. added a civilian mandate to its military one, calling on UNPREDEP's chief of mission to use his offices to facilitate political dialogue between the conflicting ethnic Albanian and Macedonian parties. A humanitarian component provided the so-called third pillar of the U.N. mission in Macedonia - the facilitation of social development programs and assistance in humanitarian relief projects.

Other preventive actors complemented the successful U.N. mission. ICFY's Working Group on Ethnic and National Communities and Minorities initiated negotiations between ethnic Albanian and Macedonian leaders over such issues as territorial autonomy and other cultural, educational, and language rights demanded by the Albanians in Macedonia. Its chair, Geert Ahrens, also persuaded Macedonia's ethnic Serbs to forgo secession in return for minor constitutional concessions. The Vienna-based OSCE provided early warning and preventive initiatives. It established a spillover mission in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, which was responsible for the monitoring of political, economic, and social conditions. The OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, conducted regular fact-finding missions and negotiated in several crises to defuse ethnic tensions, such as those that erupted over the illegally-operated Albanian-language university in Tetovo.

A few non-governmental organizations, both international and indigenous, explicitly became involved in long-term conflict prevention. Among these are, for example, the Washington-based Search for Common Ground, whose projects focus overwhelmingly on changing attitudes and values of conflict groups and teaching Macedonian citizens to combat ethnic stereotypes. Such long-term conflict management efforts on the grassroots level are significant for creating a culture of nonviolent conflict resolution and for supporting those international efforts which target the political elites.

These international and non-governmental organizations have supported the Macedonian government's reliance on political dialogue, accommodation, and power-sharing rather than on indifference or coercion to avert ethnic violence. Abstaining from inflammatory nationalist rhetoric has helped to minimize ethnic tension, and there are continuous searches for compromises on such unresolved grievances as that over higher education in the Albanian language.

Russia Would Object

During the past four months, growing violence in Kosovo between ethnic Albanians and Serbian authorities has threatened to throw the entire region once more into turmoil. Intervention by Albania or, worse, support by ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, especially those who are not participating in the government's power-sharing arrangement, will have disastrous consequences. In particular, Macedonia fears that ethnic Albanians might break the carefully nurtured ethnic balance by using the Kosovo incident to force territorial autonomy. In light of the Kosovo conflict and the continued ethnic tensions in Macedonia, the projected withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers by the summer of 1998 might be premature.

There are several remedies to this volatile situation. The best is to reconsider the extension of the U.N. mandate and allow peacekeepers to remain indefinitely in Macedonia in a preventive capacity. Another option is to create a European-based preventive peacekeeping force. Such a responsibility would probably be assumed by NATO because of its military capabilities, which have come to include peacekeeping. However, NATO has less experience with preventive peacekeeping than the U.N. and it will also be difficult to obtain the support of all NATO members for such a preventive force. Moreover, Russia, already opposed to the U.N. peacekeepers in Macedonia, would object to such a plan. Since neither the European Union nor the OSCE has a military component, both of these institutions remain confined to their diplomatic and monitoring activities, as the OSCE spillover mission in Skopje is already doing. It is also crucial to convince the Serbian leadership to engage in political dialogue with the ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo before all channels of negotiation close. That is more difficult to achieve because of Serbia's militant stance toward Kosovo Albanians and the gradual breakdown of nonviolent resistance toward Belgrade's direct rule over Kosovo.

What can be done at this point is to learn from previous U.N. success in preventive deployment, and to urge the Security Council to maintain peacekeepers in Macedonia over an extended period. With Bosnia far from politically stable, and with violence in Kosovo likely to escalate because Albanian protests are met with increased armed force by the Serbian government, the region might become engulfed again by bloodshed, as was much of the Yugoslavia of the early 1990s.

Alice Ackermann is a professor at the School of International Studies, University of Miami and the author of the forthcoming When Peace Prevails, a book on the same subject as this article.


Ackermann, Alice. (Winter, 1996). "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: A Relatively Successful Case of Conflict Prevention." Security Dialogue 27, no. 4, 409-424.

Ackermann, Alice, and Antonio Pala. (Spring 1996). "From Peacekeeping to Preventive Deployment: A Study of the United Nations in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." European Security 5, no. 1, 83-97.

Ackermann, Alice, and Sanjeev Chatterjee (1997). From the Shadow of History: A Video Documentary on Preventive Diplomacy in the Republic of Macedonia. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami.

For information contact A.Ackermann, School of International Studies, U. of Miami; email:

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

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