In Macedonia, a Day of Reckoning Looms Large

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ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

An ethnic-Albanian rebel mans a position in a Macedonian mountain village

TIME.com: NATO on Tuesday allowed the Yugoslav army to drive Albanian separatist rebels out of their last strongholds in Serbia's Presevo Valley. And the alliance is also backing the Macedonian government's efforts to crush that country's Albanian nationalist insurgency. Much appears to have changed in the Balkans since the Kosovo conflict…

Dejan Anastasijevic: Yes, and of course the two situations are linked. The common denominator is that the attitude of the West towards armed Albanian separatists appears to have changed. In southern Serbia, NATO has invited Yugoslavia — now, of course, under democratically elected president Vojislav Kostunica instead of Slobodan Milosevic — to resume control of the buffer zone established at the end of the Kosovo conflict, and that sends a very clear message to the insurgents to disarm or leave the area, or else to face the Yugoslav security forces without any backup from NATO to protect them.

Here in Macedonia, the new unity government that includes the two main ethnic-Albanian parties — even if their participation is somewhat reluctant — has a lot of support in the population. But it faces a major test on Thursday at noon, when its deadline expires for the rebels to withdraw. If the rebels remain entrenched in the hills, the new government, including the Albanian parties, will have to decide on whether to launch the offensive they threatened.

We will have to see whether Macedonian security forces are actually able to eliminate the National Liberation Army (NLA) forces in the hills. There are some doubts about both the organizational level and the restraint of the Macedonian security forces. Taking the rebels out of the hills, where they are on favorable terrain, is a difficult undertaking, and the Macedonian army and police may not have the training or equipment for such a complex anti-guerrilla operation.

Being part of a decision to launch an offensive against rebels who say they're fighting for Albanian civil rights must be a difficult choice for the mainstream Albanian political parties…

Yes, although they're part of the new government, these parties favor a political dialogue with the rebels. But that's not the government's position. So there is still a question mark over whether the unity of the new government will hold. A lot depends on what happens after the deadline for the rebel withdrawal expires on Thursday. If the government manages a successful operation against rebel strongholds in the mountains, it will be a tremendous boost. But if it turns out to be a mess — either because of civilian casualties or because of substantial losses by the Macedonian security forces — the government may not survive. And if the government does nothing when the deadline expires, it loses face, because its very first act was to issue an ultimatum to the rebels. So the coalition government could fail either if its forces don't do enough, or if they overdo it. It needs the support of both ethnic communities in order to survive. A lot depends on how the offensive is carried out. So Thursday is a very important day for the Macedonian government.

Has NATO changed the political climate in which the Albanian insurgencies have flourished?

The climate is beginning to change, but it's going to be a process rather than an act. Until now, Albanian extremists mostly got away with both criminal activities and attacks against other ethnic groups in Kosovo or incursions into neighboring territories. But this is starting to change. The extremists suffered setbacks in southern Serbia as a result of NATO allowing the Yugoslav army back, and the peacekeeping troops have increased the number of arrests and interceptions of arms supplies from Kosovo. Still, it may be some time before the separatist groups are persuaded to seek peaceful ways of solving their problems.

But NATO is starting to send a message that its tolerance for new Albanian insurgencies is decreasing. The NLA in Macedonia, whose recently elected leader had been a senior officer of the Kosovo Protection Force under NATO's auspices, had calculated that if they could repeat the Kosovo Liberation Army's strategy of provoking a clumsy and brutal response from the authorities, they too could get NATO to come in and bomb their enemies. They certainly didn't believe NATO would move against them. But the climate is changing. Still, much hinges on what happens Thursday, and whether the Macedonian security forces are up to the complex mission they've been given.