Can Macedonia be Saved? And Will NATO Save It?

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Cars, set on fire by nationalist protestors, burn in Skopje, Macedonia

The Macedonian conflict borders on the absurd — at least through the prism of NATO's wishful thinking. The troubled Balkan nation appeared to accelerate down the slide towards full-blown civil war Monday as ethnic-Albanian rebels fought government forces for control over Tetovo, Macedonia's second city which is claimed as an unofficial capital by the rebels. At the same time, Macedonians driven out of their villages by rebel forces in a familiar spectacle of Balkan "ethnic cleansing" vented their rage on Western embassies — and, inevitably, a McDonalds — in the capital overnight. The facts on the ground suggest a rapid movement towards carving the country in two. But, according to the current official Western narrative of the conflict, the situation is deteriorating because of the government's rejection of a key aspect of a NATO-brokered peace plan: that Albanian be recognized as a second official language in public life.

The government rejects the proposal as a device that will turn Macedonia into a binational state, and ultimately lead to partition. The rebel National Liberation Movement insist they are simply an armed civil rights movement — think Dr. King with a Kalashnikov — whose ultimate objectives are simply to effect constitutional changes. On the ground, of course, they're behaving a lot more in line with their name, "liberating" chunks of territory from government control and effecting a de facto partition into rival zones of control. And that's why Macedonians on the street and in government are venting their rage not only at the rebels — but the wider ethnic-Albanian community and also NATO.

Macedonia has long been treated by the West as the model democratic citizen among the reprobate states and provinces of the former Yugoslavia. It was commended for its support of NATO during the Kosovo conflict, and had looked likely to be the first of the former Yugoslavian territories to make it into the European Union. When President Boris Trajkovski visited the White House in March this year, he and President Bush prayed together. And NATO's initial response to the Albanian insurgency was to dismiss the NLA as "murderers in the hills" (to quote the organization's secretary general, Lord Robertson) and vow to support the government while pressing it to make urgent reforms to improve the lot of the country's ethnic-Albanian minority.

But the persistence of the insurgency, coupled with the inability of Macedonia's politicians to agree on constitutional reforms and the Western alliance's own reluctance to stand up to armed Albanian extremism saw NATO shift its position. Western mediators have spent the past two months brokering cease-fire agreements that effectively legitimize the guerrillas, which will ultimately give the "murderers in the hills" a role in shaping Macedonia's future. The Macedonian government accuses the West of siding with the guerrillas; Western mediators protest they're maintaining neutrality — but it's precisely that new-found neutrality that has left the Macedonian establishment screaming betrayal.

Still, whether or not the Macedonians feel betrayed by NATO's cease-fire efforts may prove to be a moot point. Right now, the rebels are advancing on a number of fronts, looking to cement territorial gains. Government forces are launching fierce artillery assaults in their general direction, inevitably inflicting civilian casualties that will radicalize the wider ethnic-Albanian population. And back in Skopje, President Trajkovski faces mounting pressure from Macedonian nationalists baying for a military solution. The odds against the center holding are growing longer by the day.

The escalation of fighting in Macedonia poses an acute dilemma for NATO. After all, in most other Balkan conflict the question has been should the alliance send troops, but in Macedonia there are already considerable numbers of NATO troops — it's the logistical rear area for the entire Kosovo peacekeeping mission. So the question facing Western leaders if full-blown war breaks out will not be whether they should send soldiers, but what orders to give those who are already there.