Balkanalysis.com

Macedonia

Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

A Balkan Trial by Fire

By Chris Deliso

Brief overnight showers in Macedonia offered a temporary reprieve from weeks of relentless heat that have contributed to a surge in forest fires, as is common in summer- both here and in other regional countries. While overcast skies last week seemed to augur rainfall most nights, in the end there was no precipitation- only lightning strikes that were blamed by authorities for at least one blaze.

During several days this week, the skies over Skopje were busy with military and police helicopters en route to battling blazes in border villages and inaccessible mountain ranges. However, while the fires have reportedly started to abate, shifting and intense winds keep firefighters occupied, and vast acres of desolation are left where forests once stood, here and in other regional countries.

Despite the typically arid weather that makes the Balkans eternally susceptible to forest fires, the majority of cases can be blamed on the human factor. Both intentionally and unintentionally, people still cause fires in the region, something that has implications for everything from the environment and economy to human security and international politics.

The failure to proactively address this problem, on a national and international level, remains a frustration which tends to dissipate as temperatures cool, though it is a chronic and persistent one. It is bemoaned and lamented in summer, quickly forgotten in fall, and ignored altogether until the next year by the general public.

Nevertheless, fires do represent a common security threat, the combating of which everyone would agree to be in the common interest, any national, religious or party differences aside. In this light, fighting fires does provide one possibility for regional security cooperation, one that could unite sometimes antagonistic neighbors and help to diminish existing differences over time.

The Damage

In the summer of 2012, hundreds of fires have been registered in countries including Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Croatia. In mid-July, a large fire was also put out near the central Bulgarian historic town of Veliko Tarnovo, by Bulgarian and Macedonian firefighters. Around the same time, fires also vexed near the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, and in Bosnia.

On July 18, Greece declared a state of emergency for the country’s third-largest city, Patras in the Peloponnese, where fires led to evacuations and came within 6 miles of the city. In southern Greece and in Crete, some 75 fires were reported at that time, with planes grounded in the cash-strapped country and the government forced to ask for help from the EU. By July 20, other blazes had impacted the capital itself, and the new Minister for Citizen Protection, Nikos Dendias, was cited as saying that Greece “was not ready for the forest fire season and faced a shortage of operational aircraft,” while “the government has already asked for water-bombing aircraft from Spain and Italy to help control the wildfires.”

On July 24, two Macedonian firemen died trying to put out a blaze near Strumica, which burned 50 acres of land. Another firefighter was killed in the line of duty in Croatia, where fires were burning in Istria, on Rab and Mljet islands, near Pula in the northern Adriatic and Sibenik in Dalmatia, reported the Croatian Times. All in all, in Croatia 1,400 tourists had to be evacuated, adding to the multi-million-euro economic losses.

On August 3, fires continued near the Macedonian villages of Dolno Dupeni, Grupcin and Nivicino. On August 8, three hotels had to be evacuated in Kardamaina, on the Greek island of Kos, opposite Turkey, when a fire broke out. Fires at the same time also erupted in Korinthos and Megalopoli in the agricultural Peloponnese, forcing highway closures, and on the northern Greek peninsula of Athos (as will be discussed further below). At the same time in Bulgaria, over 300 fires, mostly in the southern Rhodopi Mountain area, were reported by police as having been put out.

Although Macedonia has taken efforts to re-organize its fire protection services, this could not help prevent the most tragic of recent blazes, in the nature reserve of Jasen, from the southern (Makedonski Brod) side. This vast wilderness area houses rare endemic species and attracts tourists and hunters, while also doubling as a rural retreat for the president and high-level guests. The park is one of the most actively-managed in the country. In introducing new measures to combat fires, the government has announced that people must avoid certain wooded areas.  As of August 17, planes were still trying to douse the flames here and elsewhere in the country.

Causes and Implications

As elsewhere in the world, simple carelessness – such as a dropped cigarette butt – is a factor in many fires in the Balkans. Insufficient education and poor practices, such as the custom of burning trash (including plastics) can cause great unintended damage when fires grow out of control, as was seen in the Strumica fire.Yet there is no Balkan Smoky the Bear, no media or educational campaigns on any meaningful level today.

Farmers burning fields for crops can also cause problems if winds change and fire spreads. Macedonian authorities also accuse people wishing to cover up illegal logging sites by burning land, and even using fire to hasten the growth of a certain kind of valuable mushroom, which can then be sold.

Fires are also set for deliberate reasons, unfortunately. These range from simple malevolence to calculated gain- such as burning forested areas to make space for construction later on. The latter has been frequently pointed out in the case of Greece in recent years.

Wildfires in the Balkans cause millions of euros in damages each year. Another economic aspect of forest fires in the Balkans is their perceived usefulness for business growth or, in other words, greed. A few years ago, back when Costas Karamanlis was still in power, dramatic wildfires that raged in the hills over Athens and singed the edges of the city were presented as the work of greedy property developers looking to clear space for construction in high-value areas near the Greek capital.

At the time, the prime minister vowed that the land would be restored to its original existence as a forest. However, with Greece in the throes of austerity measures and an uncertain economic future, in which a cheap land grab from outside investors is expected through 2013, it is unclear whether Karamanlis’ promise will be respected.

Diplomatic and National Security Implications

There are more high-level state security aspects to fire and its legendary nature in the Balkans, too. At the end of 2011, a former Turkish prime minister made waves when he hinted that Turkish intelligence had used arson as a tactical weapon against Greek islands during the tense period in 1995-96 between the countries.

The former prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, told the Turkish media Birgun that this had occurred, but later claimed he had been misinterpreted. As was recounted in the Balkanalysis.com 2011 Year in Review e-book, this disclosure caused a wave of indignation from Athens, but also a cryptic warning from Leonidas Vasilikopoulos, the former Greek intelligence chief, who noted that the timing of the statement should be factored in as well when assessing the claim. Yet Vasilikopoulos did state that the NIS had suspected Turkish attacks at the time but had no proof.

The Greeks have previously accused Turkey of setting fires in Greek territory to cause economic losses, out of intimidation or sheer spite. Facing the islands, the outlying Anatolian peninsulas are heavily if covertly militarized, though there is no real need for complicated covert operations in order to cause trouble. It would be a relatively simple procedure for a Turkish ‘tourist’ to take the daily ferry to, say, Samos, set fires and return home in time for dinner, simply traveling on regular civilian ferries. Greek experts have also alleged that Turkey pays illegal immigrants to set fires in Greece, however, this is also hard to prove.

National security issues may also be involved with Greece’s latest big blaze, on August 8 near the town of Ouranoupoli, at the base of the third leg of the Halkidiki Peninsula (Athos), though with possible different antagonists involved. Fire Brigade statements cited by the Associated Press claimed that the fire started near the Serbian-sponsored Hilandariou Monastery, which suffered extensive fire damage in 2004 and is still being renovated. The present fire destroyed at least 3,700 acres of forest.

According to GreekReporter.com on August 11, authorities “were searching for a suspected arsonist from Lithuania” who had been staying at one of the Mt Athos monasteries and had disappeared. Fortunately, the fire did not damage the historic monasteries but it did cause damage in the Ouranoupoli area and resulted in temporary evacuations.

Subsequent information gathered by Balkanalysis.com indicates that the man was a seasonal worker staying on Athos, and that his motive remains unknown, while police are also on the lookout for a Georgian citizen also believed to be involved with the fire, which blotted out the sun and left a smoky scent in the air as far west as Kassandra (the first of the three Halkidiki pensinsulas).

Greek authorities have not stated whether either of the men were directly responsible or what their motivation could have been. While religious pilgrims are given one free night of accommodation per monastery with a mandated stay of four days (though this can be extended with the permission of the individual monasteries), seasonal workers are typically occupied at a specific monastery for odd jobs over a longer period of time.

Entry to the monastic part of the Athonite Peninsula is strictly regulated, with all who enter having to provide full passport information in advance in order to get the diamonitirion (entrance permit).

Entry is made by ferry only and, given the depth of woods, it is unlikely that a perpetrator would try to escape overland after setting a fire. The ferry stop for Hilandariou is one of the closest to the Ouranoupoli side of the peninsula, meaning that it would afford the quickest means of escape back to ‘civilization’ on one of the daily ferries, though one first has to take the bumpy access road to get to from the monastery to its port.

Diplomatic, Security and Political Aspects of Balkan Wildfires

The relative inability of individual states to deal proactively with forest fires on their own has also left room for other international actors to use the issue as an opportunity to project power in the region.

For example, a recent SETimes.com article noted that Russia is using its air force in Serbia at a joint base for ‘civilian protection’ to aid in fire-fighting efforts. It quoted PM Ivica Dacic as saying “the Serbian-Russian Centre for quick response in case of fire, flood and earthquake is open for all countries in the region that have a need for co-operation in order to fight emergencies,” and noted that a Russian military aircraft would be stationed there from August 18. Dacic also noted that it would use “Russian ‘Kamov’ helicopters, which carry 5 to 7 tonnes of water.”

The creation of this base is old news, but the fact that Russia is contributing on a higher civilian and military level with Serbia – even though largely as a symbolic gesture – is one of those things that jolts Western diplomats; in short, it provides a very low-cost power investment for Russia in the Balkans that can be presented as an utterly magnanimous gesture.

Dealing with fires also highlights existing diplomatic differences, in sometimes unhelpful ways. For example, while Macedonia customarily pledges help to Greece in the case of fires there, such offers are declined or ignored for diplomatic reasons, even though offered aid from non-bordering states further afield – such as Serbia, Russia or Cyprus – is warmly accepted by Athens. This reaffirmation of diplomatic disdain over logistical efficiency indicates the effect of politics over the common good on a regional level.

This also has meant that non-NATO member states are playing a visible role in providing fire security, despite the fact that all the regional countries that have not already joined the alliance aspire to do so. Whether the present KFOR detachment in Kosovo would be violating its local ‘mandate’ if it were to assist in putting out regional fires is not clear, though such assistance could certainly not come at the expense of its duties in Kosovo, considering that the country has generally stabilized.

Conclusions

From the above, it can be concluded that for at least 30% of the time in any given year, national and regional security in the Balkans involves protection from fires. These fires are only predictable in general terms (i.e., that they have and will continue to occur) though not geographically. It can also be concluded that even in 2012, this clear public safety threat is still intimately linked with human greed, political and diplomatic influence, and possibly even asymmetrical warfare in some cases.

Despite the uncertainty of where and when fires will occur, therefore, the past and present pattern of activity indicates that regional states have some degree of capability, should they be so inclined, in dealing with the threat. Developing communications networks and industrial and technological capacities can help to forecast, gather intelligence and ideally pre-empt fire threats. And, while certain countries such as Serbia seek to be the epicenter of regional crisis response, long-standing rivalries and individual egos indicate that such plans would have limited success and possibly continue diplomatic divisions. A more neutral, internationalized body, or else a decentralized model, could provide a mechanism for increasing security against fires- a common enemy of anyone present in any of the regional countries.

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