How NATO Failed Macedonia

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There is more than a little irony in the fact that Macedonia came apart at the seams in the same week that Yugoslavia moved to send Slobodan Milosevic for trial in the Hague. Milosevic may be history, but Macedonia now appears irrevocably bound to repeat the horrors of the Balkan wars of the last decade. Milosevic, of course, has had no hand in the Macedonian tragedy. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for NATO.

The Western security alliance's overriding concern throughout its tenure as the Balkan constabulary has been the safety of its own personnel. And in a mean frontier town, a sheriff whose priority is keeping out of harm's way is always in danger of being ineffective — or worse. NATO feared that aggressive peacekeeping and enforcement would provoke attacks on its troops not only in Macedonia but back in Kosovo; by dithering — and legitimizing the rebels by pushing the Macedonian government reluctantly into cease-fire agreements — it has all but ensured the territorial divisions it desperately wanted to prevent.

The Macedonian mob that drove President Boris Trajkovski from the parliament building late Monday was enraged that NATO and the European Union had forced him to adopt a new cease-fire with a rebel movement that NATO's own leaders had dubbed "terrorists," "extremists" and "murderers" only a few weeks ago. But the mob wasn't simply calling for a more robust counterinsurgency effort against the ethnic-Albanian guerrillas that had menaced the capital for weeks; they were baying for blood and vowing to drive all ethnic Albanians out of the city. If that hatred translates into random attacks on ethnic-Albanian communities, a civil war will have begun that will ultimately carve up the territory and force NATO into yet another permanent peacekeeping mission.

A territorial division, of course, is exactly what the guerrillas want, despite all protestations to the contrary. The idea that the hard-eyed men in the hills have launched an armed insurgency in order to achieve constitutional changes and greater civil rights for Albanians in Macedonia is, frankly, preposterous. This was no mass civil-rights movement that bumped into an unyielding state and then took the fateful decision to respond to violence with violence. This began with small bands of armed men dispatched from NATO-controlled Kosovo by the advocates of a Greater Albania (comprising Albania, Kosovo and those pieces of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and even northern Greece populated by Albanian majorities), and has ripened into a situation dangerously close to civil war.

These insurgents, calling themselves the National Liberation Army, launched attacks on government forces, hoping to provoke a ham-fisted response that would drive Macedonia's Albanians — who have plenty of political, economic and social grievances — into the movement's arms. They also hoped to repeat the success of their de facto parent organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which managed to provoke such extreme brutality from the Serb authorities that NATO eventually intervened on the Albanian side.

Guerrilla warfare is not a tactic of civil-rights movements; it is a tactic used by liberation movements whose objective is to free a particular piece of territory from the control of an existing authority, and (replace it with a new ruling authority). There is plenty of significance in the rebels calling themselves the National Liberation Army, not least because the acronym, in Albanian, is UCK — the same as the KLA. NATO's firm opposition to any further redrawing of Balkan borders prompted the NLA to hurriedly proclaim itself a civil rights movement, but its strategy and tactics — even its negotiating positions — make clear that the objective is to divide Macedonia on ethnic lines.

That, of course, is precisely what NATO has hoped to avoid throughout the past decade. But the fact that such an eventuality now appears to be upon us is in no small part a product of NATO's failure, out of concern for the safety of its own personnel, to do two things: Tackle the Albanian extremism incubated in its Kosovo protectorate, and lend a firm hand to Macedonia's efforts to stop it from taking root.

NATO was certainly well-advised to press Macedonia to begin addressing the grievances of its Albanian minority — after all, it is those grievances that have created fertile soil for the extremists to grow their insurgency. NATO was also aware that the ham-fisted Macedonian military might make a mess of a counterinsurgency campaign against the lightly-armed but mobile guerrilla forces and cause civilian casualties that would irreversibly radicalize the Albanian population.

Sound advice, but what about the guerrillas? And what about the possibility that the Macedonian majority, faced with an armed insurgency that neither NATO nor their own government appears capable of ending, might begin casting about for a Milosevic of their own?

The combination of NATO's squeamishness and the opportunism of the ethnic-Albanian politicians in Skopje has created a situation where the guerrillas are increasingly being treated as a legitimate party to an armed conflict. That situation was once intolerable to both NATO and the majority of Macedonians; now the alliance appears to have rethought its position.

By essentially elevating the status of the NLA to that of a legitimate protagonist in Macedonia's future, NATO and the European Union may have already effectively conceded the carving up of Macedonia on ethnic lines. And that's another great victory for the hard men in Kosovo dedicated to the pursuit of a Greater Albania through guerrilla warfare. By looking more to the safety of its troops than the accomplishment of its mission, NATO has made sure it will remain reluctantly engaged in the Balkans for the next decade — with the real victims the region's long-suffering people.