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Macedonia: 'The Threat of Civil War is Real'

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DIMITRI MESSINIS/AP

Macedonian protesters demonstrate in front of the Parliament building in Skopje

Monday night, Macedonians stormed their parliament building and forced the president to flee. They were protesting a cease-fire he'd agreed to, at the West's insistence, with ethnic-Albanian rebels. Is Macedonia's slide into a full-blown civil war now unstoppable?

Andrew Purvis: The protests were certainly extremely worrying. If there are further public protests in the streets of Skopje, then it may well be unstoppable — particularly if those spill across the river into the ethnic-Albanian side of the city. The protests at parliament were a venting of frustration at the government and at NATO. Although all NATO did was ferry the rebel fighters away from the town of Aracinovo, from which they could strike at Skopje, further up into the hills, that was perceived by the Macedonian Slavs as the Western alliance siding with the insurgents.

But NATO does appear to have changed its tune. A few months ago, the alliance was decrying the rebels as "extremists" and "terrorists." Now it has begun to treat them as a legitimate military and political forceů

Events on the ground have forced NATO's hand, and they're no longer treating the rebels as "murderers in the hills," which was the phrase (NATO Secretary General) Lord Robertson used to describe them earlier this year. NATO's intervention to broker the latest cease-fire was an attempt to reduce tensions that had been inflamed by the government offensive that started last Friday. But it appears the alliance misjudged the depths of frustration over the ethnic-Albanian uprising among Macedonian Slavs. Monday's protests started with police reservists, some of whom were given weapons over the past couple of weeks. It's certainly very difficult to find Macedonian Slavs in Skopje who are not fed up, and who don't back government efforts to seek a military solution. And that's obviously a worrying trend.

NATO's hopes still rest on a political solution being hammered out between the Slav-dominated parties and those representing the ethnic-Albanian minority. How are those talks going?

The talks have collapsed. The ethnic-Albanian parties have remained silent in recent days, and there is no communication with the Slav-dominated parties. (Britain's Foreign Secretary) Jack Straw was supposed to visit today to boost the political talks, but he canceled his trip. The West may be hoping for a cooling off period before getting the parties back to table, but the problem is that fighting is actually continuing.

If the rebels score more successes against the security forces, protests in Skopje will intensify. And the concern is that if those spill across the river — if Macedonian Slavs in their frustration with the uprising begin attacking ethnic-Albanian communities, that will be the beginning of a civil war.

NATO has said it will send in peacekeepers to supervise the disarming of the rebels once there has been a peace agreement. But what will the alliance do if there is no peace agreement?

NATO is still hoping that there will be an agreement, and that it will simply have to go in and supervise the implementation of that agreement. But if the fighting continues, presumably they'd have to move to a Plan B — a more robust engagement. NATO has a stake in Macedonia's security. The airport in Skopje is still the main supply and transit route for troops bound for the KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, and Macedonia remains an important logistical center of that mission. So although they haven't made it public, NATO is already planning a response if the security situation in Macedonia collapses altogether.

Have we passed the point of no return?

No. I don't think so. If there were substantial civilian casualties as a result of a government offensive or a successful attack on government forces that prompted protests and inter-communal violence, then we'd have passed the point of no return. What is worrying, though, is that the situation is being taken out of the hands of the politicians. Already, the two communities are extremely divided and deeply mistrustful. There's a real, dangerous and palpable frustration among Macedonian Slavs on the ground with the uprising, and the ongoing refusal of Albanian politicians to distance themselves entirely from the National Liberation Army.