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"Making a Real Peace in Macedonia"
Comment by Edward Joseph, published in the New York Times on 31 August 2001


AUG 31, 2001 Making a Real Peace in Macedonia By EDWARD P. JOSEPH

KOPJE, Macedonia -- Lord Robertson, the unflappable secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is rarely at a loss for words. But he was struggling to find them when asked this question at a press conference hailing the Aug. 13 political agreement between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians: "Doesn't the agreement reward violence?"

The difficult truth is that it was violence by ethnic Albanians that generated the flurry of international efforts to redress minority grievances in Macedonia. Now the question is whether the international community will see the agreement through — or again wait for conflict to force it into action.

For the moment, unified by lack of enthusiasm for a third Balkan engagement, the Western powers are wagering that the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army will surrender an adequate quota of weapons and the Macedonian majority will follow through on granting amnesty to the rebels and more rights to Albanians. With a momentum for peace established, NATO hopes to declare victory and go home in a couple of months.

But these moves will not, by themselves, get Macedonia off a war footing. Macedonian Slavs are convinced that the N.L.A. has far more than the 3,300 weapons it has admitted having — and that it has ready access to more. The coy smiles of N.L.A. soldiers, who show no anxiety about being left "defenseless" when NATO leaves, suggest that this skepticism is well founded. Furthermore, many Macedonians believe that their Albanian co-citizens wish to use NATO as a buffer force, the ultimate goal being to gain territory.

Indeed, NATO enters the country perceived, among Macedonian Slavs, not as an entirely honest broker but as biased toward Albanians. This is a serious perception for Macedonians, and hard-liners among them remain eager for a military solution to "terrorism." Some, indeed, hope NATO will leave soon, as promised, so that such a solution can begin.

As for the Albanians' future, some of the reforms in the agreement that most affect Albanians will take months to receive democratic approval and years to realize. Meanwhile, there will be plenty of opportunity for Albanians to suffer the depredations of Macedonia's notorious police force.

In short, NATO, if it follows only its declared plan, will probably leave Macedonia with a seething conflict that could keep the region mired in instability. Western ministries are deluding themselves if they think that NATO can escape both Macedonia and the responsibility for failing to keep it from lapsing into open war.

Still, the situation is far from hopeless. The lesson of international intervention in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo is that the most critical period comes immediately after an agreement. If people expelled during the fighting do not quickly return home, the situation calcifies and few go back — or, as in Bosnia, they return very, very slowly.

In Macedonia's case this would be fatal. Failure to return Macedonians to Albanian-dominated areas will be seen as de facto partition. Macedonians will abandon the framework agreement, and minorities on both sides will feel pressured to flee.

If the international community acts now with even a smattering of the urgency it showed during the Kosovo crisis, the framework agreement could put Macedonia, and even the region, on the path to stability. NATO has shown it can get the parties to stop shooting and pull back their forces — without having to deploy troops as a peacekeeping buffer.

But a security vacuum exists nonetheless. Earlier this week, I watched as Macedonian refugees visited their burned homes in Leshok, a village under the control of the Albanian rebels. Many wanted to return but feared to do so because Macedonian police were not present. And Albanians in neighboring villages said these same police were responsible for the destruction of their homes.

NATO cannot be a policeman, but it must stay on to back the work of advisers from Western police forces, who are desperately needed to oversee joint Macedonian and Albanian patrols in areas of conflict. At the moment, the urgent need for international police — they are called for in the framework agreement — is going unanswered.

Lord Robertson insists that the 3,300 weapons to be surrendered by the N.L.A. represent its full arsenal and that the rebel army intends to disband. If this is the case, NATO should have no problem accepting the additional role of seeking out and seizing whatever other weapons may exist. Nor should NATO balk at overseeing the disarmament and demobilization of Macedonian paramilitaries.

One additional step could help NATO make the paper peace a real one: deploying a force along the borders with Albania and Serbia. This would allow Macedonians to feel confident that their borders are secure and NATO is not against them.

In turn, it would ease ethnic Albanian fears of an attack by their foes aimed at "recovering" territory currently controlled by the N.L.A. And it would show neighboring countries that Macedonia's borders are inviolable and that the framework agreement is indeed a foundation for a civic society, not a precursor to partition.

Achieving this would provide Lord Robertson with a convincing answer the next time anyone suggests that NATO only acts in response to violence — and not to prevent it.



Edward P. Joseph is the International Crisis Group's senior analyst in Macedonia.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information



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