Macedonia: Filling the Security Vacuum
The war option has, for the moment, been checked, but Macedonia is very far from being at peace. Neither the agreement signed on 13 August 2001 by the four Macedonian governing parties – two ethnic Macedonian, two ethnic Albanian – nor the subsequent limited NATO deployment, nor the first-stage approval of necessary constitutional amendments by the Macedonian parliament on 6 September have yet given anyone confidence that peace is sustainable. The parliamentary vote, for example, came only after an acrimonious debate in which markers were laid down that ultimate approval of the legislative package could not be taken for granted.
Over the next three weeks, there is much that has to happen - with no mistakes of substance or slips in timing - if the agreement is to survive, and a ceasefire is to mature into lasting peace. Within the terms of the existing agreement the key tasks are these:
The NATO mission (Task Force “Essential Harvest”) has to complete the collection of the weapons voluntarily turned in by the ethnic Albanian rebels of the self-styled National Liberation Army (NLA). Parliament has to pass multiple constitutional amendments and new laws granting more political rights and local control to the ethnic Albanian minority. The international community has to deploy hundreds of civilian monitors and police advisers to assist in the return of tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons to scores of villages where control is still contested. The international community has to prepare for – and be prepared to deliver at – a donors conference promised to follow shortly after the collection of weapons and passage of the legislative package.
But this does not exhaust the list of what urgently needs to be done. For example, there has been no agreement at all yet – as there needs to be – on a plan for removing weapons from the estimated 3,000 well-armed ethnic Macedonian paramilitaries.
Above all, however, there has to be a decision soon on the extension and definition of a follow-on military mission. As matters stand, NATO is to leave Macedonia around the end of September, after collection of some 3,300 NLA weapons and the expiry of the mission’s stated 30-day time limit. Even under the best of circumstances – achievement of all the other steps listed above – this would leave a serious security vacuum, and one that would probably condemn the 13 August agreement to early failure. NATO’s sheer presence has been critical in maintaining a precarious cease fire: there have been hundreds of incidents in the past month which could have escalated into major conflict but did not. If NATO leaves, no other force is ready or able to play an equivalent stabilising role or, more specifically, to ensure protection for vital international civilian officials.
International thinking is changing rapidly. Officials on the ground in Macedonia appear to be significantly in advance of their governmental masters, but the latter, too, are increasingly acknowledging that some kind of follow-on force and new mandate will be needed. The question is whether it will be adequate to the task. At this point it is the Macedonian government itself which is most adamantly opposed to any expansion of the NATO mission.
Reaching agreement on a new NATO mission equipped with a sufficiently vigorous mandate will, more than any other single factor that can be influenced by the West, determine whether there is to be war or peace in Macedonia. The clock is ticking on that challenge.