NATO Must Do More in Macedonia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Macedonia’s peace agreement is signed and within a few days, barring further hitches, 3,500 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops will be on the ground to collect the ethnic Albanian rebels’ weapons. But no one who cares about the future of the Balkans is breaking out the champagne. Too many on both sides of the divide are only too keen to continue the struggle, and the NATO mission, as presently constructed, has neither the mandate nor the capacity to create sustainable peace. This is Macedonia 2001, but it looks unnervingly like Bosnia 1992.

More is at stake here than the breakup of a small, impoverished country, and all the human misery that could go with it. Collapse in Macedonia would likely delay achievement of a stable, multiethnic Bosnia; damage prospects for peacefully negotiating Kosovo’s final status; jeopardize Serbia’s democratic transition; and significantly damage NATO’s credibility in Europe and beyond.

United States and European Union negotiators recognize this, and have worked overtime to craft a settlement that keeps Macedonia intact, increasing the rights of the ethnic Albanian minority in line with international standards. The agreement signed last week is a good one. It would give Albanian, the language of about one-third of the population, wider official status. It would increase ethnic Albanian numbers in the police force, especially where most Albanians live. It offers greater government decentralization, and other measures intended to give a fairer deal to the Albanian minority, while maintaining a unitary Macedonian state. But the agreement is a very uncertain foundation for peace. Told for 10 years that their country was a Balkan success story, ethnic Macedonians are resentful at being told to transform it at the behest, as they put it, of a few hundred “terrorists.” Many are convinced that making Albanian, which few of them speak, an official language will result in their inability to get public-sector jobs in their own country. Longer term, ethnic Macedonians fear that higher Albanian birth rates will leave them in the minority.

Meanwhile, the claims of ethnic Albanians for increased minority rights are compelling, and their sense of second-class citizenship intense. Although the majority of ethnic Albanian civilians have so far chosen not to take up arms and fight, the increased role of armed Albanian militants is squeezing out the moderates with whom the West expects to work in implementing the agreement. The extremists are mistaken if they think the international community will ever support a quest to split the country, but their dreams are alive. The momentum of disintegration has been increased by the flight of citizens from their homes, roughly 10,000 a week in July. More than 150,000 — that is, more than 7% of the population — have fled since February.

The violence of the past weeks makes it highly questionable whether hard-won negotiating compromises can be preserved. The recent appearance of a hitherto unknown rebel force, the Albanian National Army, suggests that the ethnic Albanian militants have splintered into multiple groups. What is to be feared now is the classic pattern familiar from Middle Eastern headlines as well as earlier Balkan conflicts: extremists doing their worst precisely when peace appears tantalizingly close.

The temptation for the West to walk away from this whole messy problem is great. But that is simply not an option. The trouble is that the present NATO mission is not a credible option either. It is an obvious political compromise — the product of a desire to be seen to be doing something, combined with a lack of will to do anything really useful.

The present concept is for a 30-day mission to collect rebel arms voluntarily deposited. But even if carried out without serious incident, this is not going to be sufficient for either side to gain confidence in the other’s good faith. The ethnic Albanian rebels are bound to withhold a significant proportion of their weapons, and the ethnic Macedonians are bound to accuse them of doing so. All the preconditions will be there, in a month’s time if not much sooner, for a resumption of full-scale hostilities.

As difficult as this will be to achieve politically, NATO’s mission simply has to be recast. The force has to be strong enough, and stay around long enough, to see the Aug. 13 agreement through to parliamentary ratification and full implementation by both sides, with the conditions created in which displaced citizens can return home.

To achieve this, there are two absolutely essential tasks for NATO. The first is to disarm and demobilize the rebels — not just symbolically, but in a way that gives ethnic Macedonians the confidence that this has actually happened. Part of this job is to seal the border with Kosovo a good deal more tightly than it is at the moment. The second is to give ethnic Albanians, in turn, confidence that ethnic Macedonians won’t take advantage of the situation to resume military assaults.

Expanded Western involvement in Macedonia, with diplomacy and financial commitment matched by appropriate military muscle, will be a very hard sell. But the alternative is all too likely to be full-blown civil war, with a mass of larger consequences. After a decade of international involvement in the Balkans, neither our own interests nor those of the region’s peoples will be served by allowing extremist Albanians or hard-line ethnic Macedonians to pull the rug out from under the country’s last, best hope for a multiethnic future.

By Gareth Evans. Mr. Evans, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, is president of the Brussels based International Crisis Group. Macedonia’s peace agreement is signed and within a few days, barring further hitches, 3,500 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops will be on the ground to collect the ethnic Albanian rebels’ weapons. But no one who cares about the future of the Balkans is breaking out the champagne. Too many on both sides of the divide are only too keen to continue the struggle, and the NATO mission, as presently constructed, has neither the mandate nor the capacity to create sustainable peace. This is Macedonia 2001, but it looks unnervingly like Bosnia 1992.

More is at stake here than the breakup of a small, impoverished country, and all the human misery that could go with it. Collapse in Macedonia would likely delay achievement of a stable, multiethnic Bosnia; damage prospects for peacefully negotiating Kosovo’s final status; jeopardize Serbia’s democratic transition; and significantly damage NATO’s credibility in Europe and beyond.

United States and European Union negotiators recognize this, and have worked overtime to craft a settlement that keeps Macedonia intact, increasing the rights of the ethnic Albanian minority in line with international standards. The agreement signed last week is a good one. It would give Albanian, the language of about one-third of the population, wider official status. It would increase ethnic Albanian numbers in the police force, especially where most Albanians live. It offers greater government decentralization, and other measures intended to give a fairer deal to the Albanian minority, while maintaining a unitary Macedonian state. But the agreement is a very uncertain foundation for peace. Told for 10 years that their country was a Balkan success story, ethnic Macedonians are resentful at being told to transform it at the behest, as they put it, of a few hundred “terrorists.” Many are convinced that making Albanian, which few of them speak, an official language will result in their inability to get public-sector jobs in their own country. Longer term, ethnic Macedonians fear that higher Albanian birth rates will leave them in the minority.

Meanwhile, the claims of ethnic Albanians for increased minority rights ar e compelling, and their sense of second-class citizenship intense. Although the majority of ethnic Albanian civilians have so far chosen not to take up arms and fight, the increased role of armed Albanian militants is squeezing out the moderates with whom the West expects to work in implementing the agreement. The extremists are mistaken if they think the international community will ever support a quest to split the country, but their dreams are alive. The momentum of disintegration has been increased by the flight of citizens from their homes, roughly 10,000 a week in July. More than 150,000 — that is, more than 7% of the population — have fled since February.

The violence of the past weeks makes it highly questionable whether hard-won negotiating compromises can be preserved. The recent appearance of a hitherto unknown rebel force, the Albanian National Army, suggests that the ethnic Albanian militants have splintered into multiple groups. What is to be feared now is the classic pattern familiar from Middle Eastern headlines as well as earlier Balkan conflicts: extremists doing their worst precisely when peace appears tantalizingly close.

The temptation for the West to walk away from this whole messy problem is great. But that is simply not an option. The trouble is that the present NATO mission is not a credible option either. It is an obvious political compromise — the product of a desire to be seen to be doing something, combined with a lack of will to do anything really useful.

The present concept is for a 30-day mission to collect rebel arms voluntarily deposited. But even if carried out without serious incident, this is not going to be sufficient for either side to gain confidence in the other’s good faith. The ethnic Albanian rebels are bound to withhold a significant proportion of their weapons, and the ethnic Macedonians are bound to accuse them of doing so. All the preconditions will be there, in a month’s time if not much sooner, for a resumption of full-scale hostilities.

As difficult as this will be to achieve politically, NATO’s mission simply has to be recast. The force has to be strong enough, and stay around long enough, to see the Aug. 13 agreement through to parliamentary ratification and full implementation by both sides, with the conditions created in which displaced citizens can return home.

To achieve this, there are two absolutely essential tasks for NATO. The first is to disarm and demobilize the rebels — not just symbolically, but in a way that gives ethnic Macedonians the confidence that this has actually happened. Part of this job is to seal the border with Kosovo a good deal more tightly than it is at the moment. The second is to give ethnic Albanians, in turn, confidence that ethnic Macedonians won’t take advantage of the situation to resume military assaults.

Expanded Western involvement in Macedonia, with diplomacy and financial commitment matched by appropriate military muscle, will be a very hard sell. But the alternative is all too likely to be full-blown civil war, with a mass of larger consequences. After a decade of international involvement in the Balkans, neither our own interests nor those of the region’s peoples will be served by allowing extremist Albanians or hard-line ethnic Macedonians to pull the rug out from under the country’s last, best hope for a multiethnic future.

Published in the Wall Street Jounral, US Edition

Mr. Evans, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, is president of the Brussels based International Crisis Group.

For more in-depth analysis, see the

ICG website.  

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