Missing the Boat In Macedonia

If ever there was a conflict that Washington should have seen coming, this would seem to be it. Macedonia is not some mysterious, impenetrable land, like North Korea, where good intelligence is hard to come by. Thousands of GIs and scores of U.S. intelligence agents have been on the ground in that Balkan nation since 1993, when the West first became seriously concerned that Yugoslav fighting would spill over into Macedonia. The U.S. embassy in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, is chock-full of experienced Balkan hands. Hundreds of journalists like me made Skopje our base for covering the 1999 war in Kosovo. Every conceivable non-governmental organization, from Doctors Without Borders to UNICEF, has staff people working in Macedonia.

And yet virtually none of us–not the journalists, the diplomats, humanitarians, or spooks–saw this war coming. True, the future is always unknowable. But in this case, a crystal ball wasn’t needed. The warning signs were there for all to see. We just failed to interpret them correctly.

Indeed, a year and a half before the fighting broke out, Macedonian newspapers were running front-page stories about armed Albanians training in the Sar Mountains near Macedonia’s northwestern border with Kosovo. The guerillas even gunned down four Macedonian police officers 13 months before the recent fighting broke out, and issued official communiqus calling themselves the “Albanian National Army. Few in the West noticed, and those who did discounted the significance. By December of last year, U.S. government officials were becoming concerned about reports of increased arms flowing from Kosovo into Macedonia. But no one seems to have put two and two together.

No one, that is, except John Schindler. A Balkans expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Schindler published an article in Jane’s Intelligence Review on Nov. 1, 2000, basically predicting the clashes that would break out three months later. How could Western intelligence analysts and diplomats have missed this?

After numerous interviews with U.S. diplomats, western monitors, intelligence analysts, and other officials involved in Macedonia, I think there were four reasons. First, the situation in the Balkans in general, and in Macedonia specifically, seemed to be improving. Democratic forces had ousted Slobodon Milosevic from power in Serbia. Moderate Albanians defeated former guerrillas in recent Kosovo local elections. Most Albanians gave no sense that their grievances would bubble over into unrest. Indeed, in the past two years, Albanians had seen their share of influence in Macedonia’s government grow, including taking the helm of five government ministries.

Second, Western officials discounted predictions of an Albanian insurgency because, aside from Schindler, those making the predictions were the “bad guys: Macedonian Slav nationalists who were openly hateful towards Albanians and, in some cases, linked to Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade. Meanwhile, the “good guys, Macedonia’s Albanian and Slav moderates, were downplaying and even denying the existence of the guerillas. Reports of an organized Albanian militant group in Macedonia were seen as pure propaganda created by Serbia’s intelligence services.

Third, most Western officials, journalists, and others had bought into the notion that Macedonia represented a multi-ethnic success story. The State Department’s yearly human rights report on Macedonia portrayed it–accurately–as one of the more gentle governments in the region. Those impressions were buoyed by the limited evidence of hatred and street violence in Macedonia compared to Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo; its lack of police state excesses; and general easy-going manner. Macedonia seemed to be a living refutation of the idea that “ancient ethnic hatreds doomed the Balkans to war and partition. Today, after five months of skirmishes between separatists and the military, the Macedonian citizenry still hasn’t taken up arms. But the violence has deeply soured inter-ethnic relations, and if political leaders can’t reach a peace settlement, Macedonia seems fated for a breakup or partition.

Fourth, and perhaps most crucially, Westerners, especially in government, had deep institutional reasons for wanting to believe that violence wouldn’t erupt. It would have meant pressure for the United States and NATO to get more involved in the region at a time when all the political pressure–especially with the probability of the Bush administration coming to power–was toward disengagement.

Though the facts were there, Western intelligence analysts and diplomats fell prey to what the AEI’s Schindler calls “willful disbelief. Schindler says he spoke with some U.S. officials in the weeks before the fighting began, but that in general they dismissed his warnings as alarmist. “They saw the facts but hoped for the best.

Laura Rozen is a freelance journalist who has covered the Balkans since 1996. This article was supported by a grant from the Western Policy Center.

Laura Rozen is a freelance journalist who has covered the Balkans since 1996. This article was supported by a grant from the Western Policy Center.