Macedonia's transition to independence in the 1990's was peaceful. In breaking away from Yugoslavia, Skopje managed to avoid both military conflict and internal turmoil. Throughout most of the 1990s, Macedonia was praised as a model of inter-ethnic coexistence in the Balkans.
Although Albanians had always been included in government, the new state was very slow in addressing their concerns, which included systematic discrimination in the public sector and the provision (or lack thereof) of tertiary education in Albanian. Albanian grievances, combined with the drastic economic downturn of the 1990s, made for a combustible mix.
In the wake of national independence, ethnic Macedonians, the primary beneficiaries of four decades of industrial development, were suddenly left exposed to the rapidly declining fortunes of the region’s socialist-era state companies. The Albanian population, meanwhile – formerly excluded from the public sector and forced to rely on alternative economic strategies like labour migration and small-scale trade – now emerged much better equipped to survive the collapse of the socialist economy.
These divergent experiences explain the large differences in perception between the two communities: as to how and why the Macedonian state was failing, and who was footing the bill. With one foot abroad, the Albanian community saw the state as alien and unresponsive to its needs. Despite their relative prosperity, the Albanian viewpoint was coloured by a lifetime's experience of exclusion. For their part, ethnic Macedonians felt under siege, both socially and economically. The state was growing weaker, out of touch with developments in this post-socialist, post-industrialist society. As the economic privileges once tied to control of the administration disappeared, ethnic Macedonians were unable to comprehend the abrupt reversal of their fortunes.
The lack of political will – also among Albanian representatives in government – to address these inequalities opened the field to new actors willing to pursue their interests outside the political process.
In January 2001 a paramilitary group calling itself the National Liberation Army (NLA) began attacking police and army personnel and facilities. Its leader was Ali Ahmeti from Western Macedonia. After the killing of a policeman on 22 January 2001 in the predominantly ethnic Albanian village Tearce, the NLA stated in a communiqué:
"The Albanians in Macedonia have sought their rights through dialogue in a constitutional and peaceful way. Our demands have been ignored. The Macedonian Government has responded with a reign of terror… the NLA will fight until Macedonia constitutionally becomes a Macedonian-Albanian – or Albanian-Macedonian state… We are in favour of preserving Macedonia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Three weeks later, NLA forces took over the village of Tanusevci near the border with Kosovo. The Macedonian government claimed that the rebels were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who infiltrated the country from Kosovo. Macedonian security forces were sent to Tanusveci. One villager died and two Macedonian soldiers were killed. US NATO forces based in Kosovo took over part of the village.
The crisis escalated in mid-March, when the rebels attacked the police in Tetovo, the unofficial capital of the Albanian minority. A Government of National Unity was formed, promising to respond with tough action.
After several attacks on Macedonian security forces, Macedonians took to the streets of some towns, attacking and setting fire to Albanian-owned shops, mosques and houses. Such attacks took place mainly in Prilep, Skopje and Bitola.
After the rebels took over Aracinovo near Skopje on 8 June, Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, managed to secure a cease-fire. NATO forces evacuated the rebels from the area, but did not disarm them, causing an angry uproar amongst ethnic Macedonians. Ermira Mehmeti, then a student interpreter, now the spokeswoman of the largest Albanian party (DUI), remembers:
"Police reservists gathered in the centre of Skopje in front of the parliament. They were throwing rocks at the parliament. They were calling for the prime minister to address them. I guess they considered… what had happened in Aracinovo as an act of cowardice."
Radmila Sekerinska, then Vice President of the Social Democratic party, recalls the difficulties in the political process:
"Everyone wanted to see the hostilities end, but no-one was politically prepared to pay the political price for this. Politicians could stick to the line that ‘We are not negotiating with the insurgents or the terrorists or the fighters.’ Some people thought that just by sitting down and negotiating – four political parties and the president – we were already committing treason".
With the fighting in the background, peace talks between the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian political leaders were taking place. President Boris Trajkovski played a crucial mediating role. The talks, facilitated by the European Union, NATO, the US and the OSCE, led to an outline for a Framework Agreement. It called for an end to the conflict by way of disarming the NLA, offering amnesty for its members, and initiating a process to address ethnic Albanian concerns.
In July 2001, as the fighting intensified around Tetovo and later in villages near the northern city of Kumanovo, negotiations were shifted to a villa on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Under intense international pressure – from Javier Solana and NATO Secretary General George Robertson, among others – it appeared that an agreement was within reach. The fighting nearly derailed the talks, however. As Radmila Sekerinska describes:
"Just as the discussions had started, in a tragic incident on the road towards Tetovo policemen and soldiers were killed in an ambush […]. The population was shocked. I think everyone said, 'Okay, we are at war.' And there was this natural urge to give up and to say, 'Well, they have chosen war, and we will just have to accept that. We will have to be prepared, and we will have to do whatever we can to save the country.' The atmosphere in Ohrid was terrible."
Forces under the control of hard-line Minister of Interior Ljube Boskovski went on the offensive against the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, close to the site of the ambush. Though Boskovski’s forces claimed to be in pursuit of the NLA, ten civilians were killed in the fighting. (Boskovski himself was later indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He was acquitted on 10 July 2008.)
According to Sekerinska, thanks to the trust and confidence that developed between the parties, an agreement finally became possible.
"We trusted the politicians who signed the agreement. (We) didn't trust the NLA, but we trusted NATO and the EU and the US when they said: ’If you sign this, peace can return to Macedonia.'"
The Ohrid Framework Agreement was signed on 13 August 2001. NATO began to deploy an international peacekeeping force, though amidst strong feelings of unease among the ethnic Macedonian population. Sekerinska recalls the mood at the time:
"People said, ‘Look, all of these things in the Ohrid agreement are not supposed to be rejected – but did we have to negotiate them under the threat of arms? Maybe we would have reached the same decisions anyway, even without the casualties?’ That is a very strong feeling among ethnic Macedonians – that they were pressured into accepting a deal that was not fair."
The 3,000 troops of NATO’s "Essential Harvest" Task Force started collecting a limited number of weapons voluntarily handed in by the NLA. By September-October 2001, the level of violence in the country had greatly subsided. The Macedonian parliament formally ratified the constitutional changes agreed at Ohrid on 16 November 2001. President Trajkovski announced an amnesty for former NLA fighters.
A mission of international monitors was deployed to facilitate the return of displaced people. NATO forces continued to provide security until handing over to the first-ever EU military mission, Operation Concordia, in March 2003. Concordia lasted until 15 December 2003. "Proxima", the EU's second-ever police mission was active in the country until December 2005.