Despite a Deal, Macedonia Peace Prospects Look Shaky

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ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

An ethnic Albanian man comforts the sister of a slain guerrilla suspect

At best, the "peace deal" being brokered in Macedonia is a misnomer. At worst it may be a recipe for marching NATO troops with a milquetoast mandate into the middle of another Balkan bloodbath.

Fierce firefights have raged across the country since last Wednesday's announcement that a "peace deal" will be signed on Monday, as Albanian nationalist guerrillas press to expand their range of operations despite NATO’s hopes of persuading them to disarm once a new political order has been negotiated. And the escalation of fighting threatens to turn Monday's political agreement — if the two sides are still able to sign by then — into a sideshow. The immediate problem may be that the agreement being painstakingly brokered by EU representative Francois Leotard and U.S. envoy James Pardew does not involve the ethnic-Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, whose insurrection has brought the former Yugoslav republic to the brink of civil war. It is, therefore, not a peace deal, but a political agreement between the country's main parliamentary parties to substantially expand the cultural rights of Macedonia's Albanian minority.

Peace separated from political reform

In essence, the Western-mediated talks have separated the issue of peace from the issue of political reforms, much to the chagrin of Macedonian nationalists. And the question of whether the current deal, even in the best-case scenario, leads to a suspension of hostilities may be decided primarily by those waging the war.

Macedonia's parliament will be given 45 days to adopt the political agreement expected next Monday. And during that time, NATO plans to coax the guerrillas into standing down and disarming. Of course, there are grounds to believe the guerrillas may be willing to do this: For a "Greater Albania" insurgency exported from neighboring Kosovo, they will have done extraordinarily well if they keep the deal. Most important, it will have made them an indispensable factor in the stability of Macedonian political life — this despite their habit of driving non-Albanians out of the villages they've captured. Guerrilla commanders could certainly make a case that they need to consolidate their gains and avoid forcing NATO into a fight. "Greater Albania" can wait as long as progress is being made.

Grounds for skepticism

But there are also strong grounds for skepticism over the rebels' intentions, despite the optimism of the mediators. An ambush near Skopje on Wednesday saw 10 government troops killed, while reporters in Tetovo reported that guerrillas had once again seized parts of the city in fierce fighting. On Tuesday, Macedonian police raided a house in the capital and killed five ethnic-Albanian men accused of being guerrillas. Despite the political talks, fighting rages on, and there are few signs that the guerrillas are preparing to disarm — or that government forces will tolerate any perceived attempt by the guerrillas to expand their presence. So even once the political deal is concluded, the potential for an escalation of hostilities remains high.

Moreover, recent history in the region may encourage the guerillas to believe that NATO's will can be bent. The fact that most of the weapons used in this insurgency came from Kosovo is testimony that the Western alliance may not have been entirely rigorous in its disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army or the policing of the KLA's heirs. More recently, when NATO mediators brokered an agreement requiring guerrillas in Macedonia to retreat from villages around Skopje, those insurgents carried their weapons onto buses ferrying them to a safe haven despite NATO's initial insistence that they could not board the vehicles armed. In other words, NATO doesn't have much of a track record of standing up to armed Albanian extremists, and a peace process in which compliance is entirely voluntary certainly provides plenty of opportunity to try and rewrite the rules.

The danger, of course, is that if NATO troops are sent in to supervise the disarmament process and its breaks down, they could find themselves in the middle of a shooting war. Being forced to retreat would be a humiliating defeat for the West; trying to enforce the peace could force a bruising showdown with Albanian nationalists throughout the region.

The agreement brokered by Western mediators may be an important step forward in providing a new political framework for coexistence between Macedonia's ethnic communities. But whether it's actually a peace deal remains to be seen.