Despite New Cease-fire, Macedonia Crisis Persists

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A refugee flies the Macedonian flag as a convoy of refugees leaves Skopje

Western diplomats may have brought Macedonia's flat-lining cease-fire back from the dead for the umpteenth time, but few are optimistic about the prospects for saving the patient. Ethnic-Albanian guerrillas began withdrawing Thursday from territory they seized in and around the second city of Tetovo, and plans were underway to bus back some of the Macedonian civilians forced by the rebels to flee their homes. And while that may have averted the immediate threat of an inevitably bloody offensive by the Macedonian security forces to drive out the insurgents, the latest cease-fire may be little more than a holding pattern until the next outbreak of fighting. The larger objective of a political accord to facilitate peaceful coexistence between the Macedonian majority and the country's ethnic-Albanian minority appears more remote than ever.

NATO secretary general Lord Robertson and EU security chief Javier Solana arrived in Skopje Thursday in a bid to restart political talks, facing a government increasingly hostile to what it perceives as Western bias towards the insurgents. Indeed, the Macedonian government had made clear that it had no interest in further discussion with Western mediators unless rebel forces retreated to positions they held when the last cease-fire was signed on July 5. The guerrillas have done so, under the weight of Western pressure, but there's no reason to believe they won't simply press forward again a week or a month from now.

Trashing the Mac in Macedonia

The bitterness engendered by the conflict militates against the government backing down from its rejection of Western-authored constitutional changes designed to improve the position of ethnic-Albanians in Macedonia — specifically, the proposal that Albanian be recognized as a second official language in public life. Macedonia's Slavic majority sees that proposal as a reflection of an agenda to ultimately split Macedonia, which they believe is the ultimate objective of the rebel National Liberation Army. And the trashing of Western embassies and a McDonalds outlet in Skopje earlier this week was a stark reminder that ordinary Macedonians no longer trust Western mediation efforts.

Peace talks between the government and mainstream ethnic-Albanian parties that had participated in government are to resume Friday. There are no direct talks between the government and the rebels, although representatives of NATO countries have served as go-between and brokered cease-fires. But while at the formal diplomatic level the conversation is about creating a more multicultural constitution, events on the ground are pointing in the opposite direction. The idea that hard-eyed men who have faced each other over Kalashnikovs will put all this nastiness behind them as soon as the constitution is revised is growing more fantastical by the day. Even more so the notion that a band of guerrillas propelled to center stage solely by virtue of their implacable brandishing of arms (and who have already demonstrated a proclivity for ethnic cleansing) will suddenly become model citizens of a multiethnic democracy once they have the right to use their native language in public life. And the insurgency has spawned a growing intolerance among the Slavic majority of Albanian demands; an intolerance that will increasingly preclude the acceptance of broad political changes offered in response to the NLA's campaign of violence.

Guerrillas hold the initiative

Thus the daunting challenge facing Robertson and Solana. Moreover, the initiative remains, as ever, in the hands of the guerrillas. Their strategy of seizing new territory, holding it to the point that the army threatens to turn the conflict into a full-blown civil war, and then withdrawing at the urging of alarmed NATO representatives, has moved the guerrillas inexorably toward center stage. Once decried by NATO as "murderers in the hills," they have now become a de facto negotiating partner of the Western alliance. Of course NATO isn't talking about including them in political talks just yet — it's hoping to broker a deal among the Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political parties that have all participated in the country's democratic system until now. But from the guerrillas' point of view, it's only as long as they're waging war that anyone's even talking to them. And that isn't exactly an incentive to turn over their weapons and go home, even if a deal could be reached in Skopje.