Macedonia: A Mess of NATO's Making?

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The myths of the Kosovo war are fading faster than you can say "Madeleine Albright," and nowhere more so than in Macedonia. The next great Balkan war may have begun in that territory last week, launched by many of the same ethnic-Albanian guerillas alongside whom NATO fought in Kosovo. NATO is correctly denouncing the guerrillas as "extremists" whose violent separatism must not be allowed to succeed, but it remains doubtful whether the alliance will be willing to back that position with decisive action to prevent the next great Balkan tragedy. It's worth remembering that during the Kosovo war, U.S. politicians were comparing the KLA to the Founding Fathers, and promising that the key to Balkan stability was the removal of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, and with him the dream of a "Greater Serbia," is history, but the Balkan wars, plainly, are not. The KLA and their dream of a "Greater Albania" are still very much alive.

And, of course, the latest crisis was incubated right under NATO's nose in Kosovo, and the alliance failed to nip it in the bud. Indeed, the more blunt-spoken observers of the region may be tempted to conclude that it's a crisis that NATO inadvertently facilitated by its failure to properly rein in the KLA after driving the Serbs out of Kosovo.

Macedonia was the first republic to have broken away from the old Yugoslavia, and the only one to have managed the feat without bloodshed. The bloodshed that has now begun, in confrontations between Albanian nationalist guerrillas and Macedonian security forces (and, occasionally, NATO troops too) all along the border, has been exported from Kosovo. Macedonia's Albanian minority may have long felt a sense of grievance, but has, until now, expressed it through the country's political system. That was before elements of the KLA began infiltrating from Kosovo and launching hit-and-run attacks against the Macedonian security forces, promising Albanians that, like in Kosovo, the path of violence would yield results. Their objective is to partition Macedonia, breaking off a chunk of territory on its western border as an Albanian enclave that would join with Kosovo and Albania. And early signs are that the fighting is fast eclipsing those on both sides of the ethnic divide who counsel dialogue and moderation. Those who have covered all of the Balkan tragedies until now see last week's events as the opening bars of the next one.

Wishful thinking?

NATO is plainly alarmed, as well it should be, since the disintegration of Macedonia will not only create the demeaning spectacle of another preventable human tragedy unfolding right under the noses of thousands of alliance troops, it could well spark a wave of new wars throughout the region. Yet it may have been the Western alliance's reluctance to act decisively against the violent element among in Kosovo's Albanian separatists that has left NATO confronting an even bigger problem in Macedonia.

NATO's fundamental weakness in the Balkans derives from the fact that it wants to enforce the peace without exposing its own personnel to any risk. That, and some wishful thinking about the region's political dynamic. At the end of the Kosovo war, Washington had tried to reinvent the KLA, which only months earlier it had labeled "terrorists," as the men in the white hats. And even when it was plain that elements of the guerrilla force were engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's remaining Serbs, the alliance declined confrontation. But NATO was in a no-win situation. The KLA had fought for independence for Kosovo, which the West opposes for fear of encouraging a new round of wars over borders in the Balkans. But the fight for independence and "Greater Albania" never ended for many former guerrilla commanders. When KLA elements started a new insurgency in the Presevo Valley area along the Serbia-Kosovo border, NATO tried to tighten border controls but pursue the problem to its roots inside Kosovo — indeed, in the ultimate irony, the alliance now appears inclined to allow the selfsame Yugoslav army it drove out of Kosovo back into the officially demilitarized Presevo area to quell the insurgency (a policy made palatable to its authors by the fact that Milosevic has been replaced by a moderate nationalist government).

Fear of domestic backlash

When the insurgency in Macedonia began, NATO troops actually helped government troops recapture the village of Tanusevci from the rebels. But while the alliance has vowed to police the border, the Macedonian insurgency has moved further inland, where NATO has no plans to go.

The primary reason NATO has failed to aggressively stamp out the new insurgencies is fear of exposing its troops in Kosovo to the wrath of the KLA. The blowing up of a busload of Serb civilians under NATO escort two weeks ago with a sophisticated radio-controlled device was a reminder to the alliance that Kosovo's men of violence could make life very uncomfortable for the peacekeeping troops, should they choose to. And throughout the Kosovo conflict, the guiding principle for NATO forces has been to avoid taking casualties. President George W. Bush is already beginning to scale back the U.S. presence in the Balkans by pulling troops out of Bosnia — it's easy to imagine how that trend may be accelerated by a couple of troops coming home from Kosovo in body bags.

Still, NATO may no longer have the luxury of avoiding confrontation with the KLA and its heirs if it is to avoid a new flare-up in the Balkans. The alliance's instinct will be to press for a political solution. But the guerrillas have no interest in anything less than partition, and any solution that appears to reward their strategy of violence will almost certainly prompt nationalists elsewhere in the region to let their Kalashnikovs do the talking. The question NATO now faces is whether keeping its own troops out of danger is more important than the responsibility it has assumed for keeping the peace in the Balkans.