When military men use the adjective "final" to describe an offensive not yet launched, their intention is usually simply to raise morale. And the Macedonian military's operations around Tetovo moving reinforcements and a handful of archaic tanks into city and pounding the surrounding hillsides appear to be aimed primarily at reassuring Macedonia's Slav majority that the separatist rebellion would not be tolerated. The Macedonian army is neither trained nor equipped for the counterinsurgency operation required to dislodge the guerrillas from the high ground, and might suffer heavy casualties if they tried to charge up the hillsides into the villages held by the rebels. Having reinforced the town of Tetovo to stop the rebels swarming down and claiming it as the capital of the Albanian political entity they're trying to create in Macedonia, government forces are more likely now to settle in for siege, surrounding, harassing and containing the guerrillas while NATO forces along the Kosovo border stem the flow of men and weapons to the insurgents.
The standoff around Tetovo may prove to be a crucial test for the rebels. The Macedonian government, backed by NATO, has denounced the insurgency as an export from Kosovo rather than a primarily indigenous affair. Still, observers have been shocked at the extent of support the insurgents appear to have garnered from ordinary ethnic-Albanians in Macedonia, and both the minority Albanian and majority Slavic Macedonian communities appear to have been radicalized by the events of the past week. But unless the rebels can make good on their promise to open new fronts of battle elsewhere in Macedonia, the combination of attacks by government forces, the promised chokehold by NATO and sheer attrition could snuff out the insurgency.
To open new fronts, of course, the rebels would require the active support of Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian community, which while feeling a collective sense of discrimination and grievance, has until now pursued its interests within the body politic of Macedonian democracy. Even some of the political parties that have represented them in Skopje, however, have lately been calling for the creation of a separate Albanian political entity within a Macedonian federation an option the government rejects as the first step towards annexing part of Macedonia into a "Greater Albania" along with Kosovo.
In the coming weeks, then, much will depend on the choices made by Macedonia’s Albanian leaders. The mainstream parties have urged the rebels to lay down their weapons, but they have also warned that they cannot support a government counter-offensive which results in civilian casualties. But if the confrontation continues to escalate, their relationship with the government in Skopje may become untenable. If the rebels find enough support among ordinary Albanians in Macedonia to extend their insurgency beyond Tetovo and its surrounds, civil war will have become a reality. And that would inevitably force NATO, against all its instincts and inclinations, to escalate its own involvement. The reason is not only because of the insurgency's roots in Kosovo the policing of which, is, after all, NATO's responsibility but also because Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and the Kosovar Albanians, among others, all maintain an active interest in the fate of the fragile Macedonian state. A full-scale war over Macedonia's borders is very unlikely to be confined to Macedonians.
With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade