The peace agreement is signed, NATO’s deployment seems imminent and European dignitaries are headed home. Nevertheless, no one who cares about the future of the Balkans is breaking out the champagne. Refugees are still on the move; reports of clashes continue; moderate options continue to disappear. This is Macedonia 2001, but it looks unnervingly like Bosnia 1992.
More is at stake here than the breakup of a small, impoverished country. 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 even put question marks over NATO and EU enlargement.
United States and European Union negotiators recognize the stakes, 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 Monday would give Albanian, the language of around 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 alone has little chance of bringing real peace. Its signing was delayed five days because Albanian rebels retaliated for the deaths of five of their number and Macedonian government forces responded with a long weekend of air and ground attacks. The Macedonian government in particular felt that it would be difficult to sell the agreement to their constituents without a display of strength on the battlefield. The cease-fire called on August 12 to sign the agreement was broken immediately in the days that followed and remains fragile.
What we are seeing 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 tactic has been especially potent in Macedonia where both sides are still tempted to believe they can win a war, and moderates are thin on the ground. Now there is every reason to fear that many ethnic Macedonians and Albanians are simply no longer interested in living together.
Told for 10 years their country was a Balkan success story, Slavic 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, a language few of them speak, an official language will result in their inability to get public-sector jobs in their own country. Longer-term, Slavic Macedonians fear that higher Albanian birth rates will leave them in the minority.
The claims of ethnic Albanians for increased minority rights are compelling, and their sense of second-class citizenship is intense. Although ethnic Albanian civilians have by and large 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 momentum of disintegration has been increased by the flight of citizens from their homes — roughly 10,000 weekly in July. More than 150,000 — that is, more than 7% of the population — have fled since February. Both sides have encouraged population shifts to create ethnically “pure” territories, a (thus far) less savage version of what was practiced in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The violence of the past weeks makes it highly questionable whether hard-won negotiating compromises can be preserved. The appearance over the past six months of a hitherto unknown rebel force, the Albanian National Army, suggests that the ethnic Albanian militants are splinte red into multiple groups, possibly with varying agendas and depths of roots in Macedonia itself and Kosovo. The bottom line is that both sides still appear eager to recapture or “liberate” more territory, and let the agreement’s implementation wait.
No Longer Sufficient
That is a mistake for the Macedonian government, which will encounter more ethnic Albanian opposition over time if it does not act in the spirit of Monday’s agreement; and it is a mistake for ethnic Albanians, who must understand that the international community will not support any quest to split the country.
The temptation for the West to walk away from this messy problem is great. But that is simply not an option. NATO’s current plans — a first installment of which was agreed to yesterday and which calls for the Alliance to enter Macedonia, oversee disarmament and leave quickly — are no longer sufficient. NATO must now consider dispatching a serious force to Macedonia, even before a firm cease-fire is in place. And it must move immediately to close Macedonia’s border with Kosovo and stop the flow of weapons.
All Necessary Force
It is difficult to see how either side will ever gain enough confidence in the other’s good faith unless NATO abandons the stance that it will not stay longer than 30 days in country and will not do more than collect those arms that are voluntarily given to it.
NATO’s active presence is necessary to provide the security assurance required to see the August 13 agreement through to parliamentary ratification and its implementation by both sides. It must be prepared to use all necessary force to make that assurance real. The West must recognize that resolution of the crisis requires a robust, long-term NATO presence, intimate Western involvement in helping to guarantee implementation of agreed reforms, and considerable financial commitment.
A course of expanded Western involvement in Macedonia poses major risks, and is politically difficult. But the violence of the past week has shown that the potential for a full-blown civil war, with regional consequences, is very real. After a decade of international involvement in the Balkans, neither our own interests nor the region’s peoples will be served by allowing extremist Albanians or hard-line Slavic Macedonians to pull the rug out from under the country’s final hope for a multiethnic future.
Published in the Wall Street Journal Europe (Thursday, August 16, 2001)
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