Macedonia has yet to face up to what happened in its 2001 conflict with Albanian rebels, says Biljana Vankovska, an advocate for Balkan reconciliation initiative RECOM.

BIRN: Johan Tarculovski was the only ethnic Macedonian convicted by the Hague Tribunal of war crimes after his police unit killed Albanian civilians during the 2001 conflict, but he was greeted with a government-backed celebration in Skopje last month after being released early. What did that say about reconciliation efforts in Macedonia?

Biljana Vankovska: “The welcoming party for Tarculovski is in fact the best indicator that we have lost all these ten years since the conflict in vain, at least when it comes down to actually facing the past.

“Macedonia not only had an agreement with the Hague Tribunal and cooperated with it, which means it made an obligation, but also Johan Tarculovski was convicted and served two-thirds of his sentence. However, we saw that for the majority of Macedonian citizens, for the ethnic Macedonians, this was irrelevant and for them; by getting out, he became a hero, a martyr. Even the legitimacy of the victims was questioned.

“There’s a flipside of course, two sides to every story. On the other hand, [Macedonia’s ethnic] Albanians, at least those who participated in the conflict, or those [now] in the government who are responsible in one way or another, were not held accountable for the crimes committed. There was even a political agreement in the parliament to interpret the law on amnesty, which confirmed an inappropriately broad amnesty for war crimes as established by the international law. This means a political end was put to a story about perpetrators and victims, and without them there is no reconciliation.”

BIRN: In Macedonia you are known as an advocate for the reconciliation initiative RECOM, whose aim is to promote the creation of a regional commission tasked with establishing facts about war crimes and human rights violations in the Balkan wars. So far you have met numerous politicians. What is your impression, is their support real or just rhetoric?

Vankovska: “Declarative political support for RECOM is usual everywhere in the region. All of us, public advocates for RECOM, are facing the same problem. We receive only declarative support, which is at this moment almost unanimous among heads of state.

“Now comes the real test, and that would be the formation of a regional experts’ group made of representatives, personal envoys of the region’s heads of states. For the first time they would sit together at the same table and discuss the document that the RECOM coalition prepared, the rulebook for the future regional commission. We want to make them take some action. That will be a long process. At this point, even a symbolical act such as this one is important. It does not mean the end, on the contrary, it’s just the beginning of implementing RECOM.

“We faced a unique obstacle here, which existed until recently, and that was the silence in Serbia. The new development is that even the last president appointed a personal representative to the expert group for RECOM.

“Concretely in the case of Macedonia, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone I talked to, both on the Macedonian and Albanian side, showed interest. No one refused to meet me, and all of them even demonstrated a high level of awareness what RECOM was all about and they all had a stance, a reason to back RECOM. All right, Macedonians had one position, Albanians another, but it seems to me that there was at least a wish list on both sides.

“The problem in Macedonia is that this issue is, in most cases, being suppressed, cast aside most of the time, except when someone needs to score political points by exploiting the war stories from 2001. The welcoming party for Tarculovski was one such case when I think we have had political misuse of a Hague convict.”

BIRN: In 2011, the Macedonian parliament voted for an amnesty over four cases of war crimes allegedly committed by Albanian rebels. One of them was the case tackling the fate of 12 Macedonians kidnapped during the conflict and presumed dead. In its last report on human rights in Macedonia published in April, the Council of Europe suggested that this investigation must not be stopped. Does this give new hope to families of those kidnapped?

Vankovska: “According to the signals we received from the outside, from the international community, both from government and non-government organisations such as Amnesty International, for example, we have had a unanimous agreement. And this definitely confirms that from international law’s standpoint, the amnesty is inadmissible.

“It is true that the families of the kidnapped may be the most vulnerable group we have to discuss. The least that must be done is to find out the truth about the place they were buried so that their families can pay respects or at least have closure in that part of their life.

“For now I don’t see any progress in the Macedonian judiciary. It seems we will have to work on several fronts in order to send this unambiguous message: the least that the state owes to the victims of the conflict are the facts that reveal what happened and how in cases of kidnapping, murder or torture.

BIRN: Because of your public stance, you are often the target for attacks coming from all sides. The last fierce criticism came after you said that the welcoming party organised for Tarculovski was not right. Are you discouraged by this?

Vankovska: “I have been in some kind of a sandwich [between different sides] for years or in a position which does not fit the mainstream opinion, so I got used to it. In fact, it is the duty of a public intellectual. They do not have the right to complain about their position, because they themselves open up unpleasant issues which the politicians and public do not want to see, and reconciliation is obviously one of the most painful issues.

“In that sense, I understand the attacks that ensued after I voiced my stance on Tarculovski’s welcoming party, but I was unpleasantly surprised by the viciousness and sheer number of attacks coming from politicians, media and people that I don’t even know. But it won’t have any effect on my job.”