Macedonia Hesitates, But Crisis Persists

  • Share
  • Read Later
SRDJAN SUKI/AFP

Macedonian soldiers take a rest next to their tank during a ceasefire

The deadline set by the Macedonian government for Albanian separatists to lay down their arms expired at midday Thursday, and yet there's been no sign of government forces preparing for the promised offensive to "eliminate" the rebels. Why is the government hesitating?

Dejan Anastasijevic: The deadline came and went, and despite President Trajkovski giving the rebels a "final warning" on Wednesday, the government is still hesitating to fulfill its threat because of the dangers that face it in launching an offensive. The Macedonian security forces are not well-equipped or trained for an anti-guerrilla operation to drive the guerrillas out of their strongholds in a series of villages in the mountains, and it would be a disaster for President Trajkovski if his forces suffered heavy losses. And if they inflicted civilian casualties in the villages where the rebels are hiding, his new government would collapse, because the ethnic-Albanian parties would walk out — and that could be the prelude to the breakup of Macedonia.

So instead of launching an offensive they threatened, the government is now saying they want to allow one more chance for peaceful solution, and allow the insurgents more time to digest the lessons they should take from what has happened in the Presevo Valley region of southern Serbia, where Albanian separatists were forced by a combination of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo and Yugoslav army to leave the area. This was a very clear message that NATO's tolerance of the Albanian insurgents is declining fast. And the Macedonian hopes that once they realize this, the insurgents here will follow the example of their kin in Serbia and back off without much resistance.

Are the rebels in Macedonia likely to back down?

The rebels have said they intend to stay in their positions in the hills, which the government has said is unacceptable. Trajkovski remains cautious because an offensive is a high-risk strategy. The situation could quickly deteriorate either if his own forces suffer losses, or if there are civilian casualties. So he postponed taking action, hoping that he won't have to. But with no sign of retreat by the rebels — there were even reports of skirmishes last night — Trajkovski faces a serious dilemma. Risky or not, he will have to do something in the next several days or he'll lose face and the situation will quickly deteriorate.

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 whether the government forces can mount a successful operation against rebel strongholds in the mountains. 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. But the government's credibility is also threatened if it hesitates too long, 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. And most observers had seen this government as the last chance of avoiding a collapse of Macedonia as a multiethnic state. So even now that the deadline has passed peacefully, the future hangs in the balance.