For more than six months now, Macedonia has been disintegrating, endangering its own people and its neighbors. Thanks to the heroic efforts of negotiators from the European Union and the United States, a political agreement to stanch the decay and begin rebuilding is now in place. But the trust and will to implement it are lacking.
That poses a serious problem for NATO, which has drawn up a plan confining itself to a 30-day presence collecting weapons. The dilemma is as much domestic as political, because it raises the question of whether troops go in to execute one part of an agreement, as is currently foreseen, or as part of an international commitment to do what it takes to make sure the agreement succeeds.
Even as negotiations for a NATO presence continue, evidence is mounting that the ethnic Albanian rebels have splintered into several groups, some of which may not be ready to stop fighting. It is also clear that the Macedonian government has done little to prepare civilians for the terms of the peace. Indeed, the political agreement was signed late in the day, with no live television coverage, out of concern for the reaction of a deeply divided public. Its ratification by Macedonia’s legislature is far from certain; Albanian insurgents for their part are likely to hold back weapons.
There are also serious practical concerns for NATO. NATO would have to enter an insecure environment, in which both sides are all too willing to shoot and at least some on each side believe they can prevail by force. Stopping the flow of militants and weapons from Kosovo will require a heavy troop presence and possibly dangerous exchanges of fire with militants who know the terrain well. If Macedonia’s inhabitants prove unable to rebuild their single state, and if destabilization from across Macedonia’s borders continues, a NATO presence could well turn into yet another international protectorate.
But there are also causes for hope. The political agreement itself offers strong protections for Albanian rights, and a blueprint for ethnic cooperation that could be successful not only in its own right but also as an example for others across the region.
Thus far civilians on both sides have shown a clear preference for nonviolent solutions, and there has been no rush to arms. Leaders on both sides have shown a great desire to avoid antagonizing the West — and, ultimately, to do what the West asks. Whatever their ultimate intentions, Albanian leaders recognize that there is no international support for partition and that continued warfare undermines international support for Kosovo.
The agreement’s failure would likely mean all-out war in parts of Macedonia, spilling over the border thanks to Albanian extremists in Kosovo and southern Serbia. Progress in Serbia would be slowed. The shock waves could help split Bosnia and have an uncertain but profound effect in Kosovo. The timetable for NATO forces to depart Kosovo and Bosnia would slip further back. And if a humanitarian crisis erupted in Macedonia itself, NATO — and thus the United States — would be unable to stand aside.
Against this backdrop, NATO’s plan to enter Macedonia for 30 days, collect any arms that combatants chose to hand over and then depart may do the trick. But few people believe that it will. NATO leaders need to revisit that plan now and make a critical choice.
NATO can go in under this plan, hope for the best — and do just enough to fail. Or NATO can deploy in larger numbers and aim to secure a dependable cease-fire, a tight closure of Macedonia’s border with Kosovo and serious implementation of the political agreement by both sides. Such a deployment would last longer than 30 days but would aim to turn its role over to civilian monitors once the elements of success were present.
Of course, this course of action is likely impossibl e without more extensive U.S. participation, not just potentially unpopular but a drain on scarce defense resources.
How, then, can we choose? There is no course without risks. Acting now for the longer term will be difficult in the short term. But failure will have its own costs — and they will, you can be sure, be far higher.
Published in the Washington Post (Friday, August 17, 2001; Page A23)
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a member of the executive committee of the International Crisis Group. Heather Hurlburt is deputy director of the group’s Washington office.
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