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the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48,
Macedonia's 'Liberation' Army
A Learner's Lexicon
Neue Zürcher Zeitung
(conservative), Zurich, Switzerland, June 20, 2001.
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.
UCK guerrilla looks at the ruins of his house, which was destroyed
by Macedonian bombings in May 2001 (Photo: AFP).
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 groups 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 groups origins, structure, and goals. Much of
the information about the UCK is very difficult or impossible
to verify. What follows, therefore, is rather provisional
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 movements 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
This conflict between Rugovas Democratic League of Kosovo,
which has been politically rather moderate and had very little
power for a long time, and Velius 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 Thacis PDK and Ramush Haradinajs
AAK, experienced a bitter defeat in the elections. The majority
of Kosovos 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 didnt 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
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 hasnt 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 countrys 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 Macedoniacontrolled
by the DPAbegan 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 didnt get
into the police force or the so-called Kosovo Protection Force.
But the UCKs 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
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 fightingwhich
would provoke anger among the Macedonian population and riots,
as happened in Bitolaor reduce these villages to ruins
and ashes by bombardment from a safe distance, thereby killing
Albanian civilians and enraging the Albanian and Western media.