NATO Steps Into the Balkan Breach

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400 British troops are preparing to deploy in Macedonia

NATO on Friday begins its most dangerous Balkan mission yet. But the danger facing the Western alliance in Macedonia is less physical than political. Some 400 British troops are due to be deployed in the former Yugoslav nation in advance of an eventual 3,500-troop contingent whose mission, innocuously dubbed "Operation Essential Harvest," involves collecting and destroying weapons voluntarily tendered by ethnic-Albanian guerrillas. They're not there to disarm anyone, NATO spokesmen insist, and they'll stay only 30 days. If the guerrillas choose to hang onto their weapons and the fighting starts up again, the Western troops will simply pack up and go home — possibly taking with them whatever credibility NATO may retain as a deterrent to further nationalist aggressions in the Balkans.

There is certainly no shortage of scenarios that could see a resumption of hostilities. After all, the peace agreement on which the whole operation is based was signed not by the guerrillas, but by ethnic-Albanian political parties who'd been part of Macedonia's democratic political process, rather than waging war in the hills. NATO leaders coaxed and cajoled the Macedonian authorities into accepting a deal to substantially improve the political lot of their Albanian countrymen, a deal the alliance hopes will persuade the guerrillas to lay down their arms — or, more correctly, turn them over to NATO soldiers. But the ongoing guerrilla attacks on soldiers and civilians have led many Macedonians to charge that the rebels are fighting to create a separate territory rather than expand their rights within the Macedonian state, and this has raised fears that the guerrillas may not intend to disarm. On the other side, allegations of execution-style killings of ethnic-Albanian men by Macedonian police in one village during last week's fighting highlight the danger that the conflict has already spawned intractable hatreds that will not be soothed by any peace agreement. New gun battles in Tetovo Thursday were a reminder that the fighting hasn't ended despite the planned NATO deployment.

Guerrillas' balancing act

But NATO is not sending its troops in as lambs to the slaughter. The rebels have so far proved politically adept at couching their demands within the frame of what might be acceptable to the West. For example, a separate Albanian territory in Macedonia was a non-starter, so instead the guerrillas announced that they were simply demanding greater civil rights in the Macedonian constitution. And that responsiveness to Western concerns makes them unlikely to resist disarmament altogether — after all, the current peace deal has been crafted precisely in order to remove the political grievances they cite in order to claim legitimacy for their insurgency. In a pointed message to the guerrillas last week, U.S. mediator James Pardew said the conclusion of the political agreement meant that there was now no longer any reason to fight.

At the same time, it's hard to imagine the rebels handing over all their weapons. Regardless of the political pronouncement of their NATO-sensitive non-combatant leaders, many rank-and-file fighters in the National Liberation Army make no bones about the fact that their objective has been to create an Albanian enclave joined to Kosovo as part of a "Greater Albania." NLA commanders may persuade their men of the wisdom of standing down right now, but the idea of handing over their entire arsenal is unlikely to have much appeal to the fighters — particularly since NATO will presumably act more forcefully to cut rebel supply lines from Kosovo. Instead, NATO will find itself vainly trying to adjudicate a dispute over the extent of the NLA's armaments — the rebels say they have 2,500 guns; the Macedonian authorities believe the figure is a lot higher.

NATO sends a message

NATO's early deployment, and its milquetoast mandate, may seem imprudent given the continuing potential for an escalation of violence — the alliance has sworn, perhaps for the benefit of edgy domestic constituencies, to keep its men far away from any situation that even looks like turning nasty. But, like NATO's promise to simply withdraw if fighting resumes, it's hard to take that at face value. For one thing, NATO troops have actually been in Macedonia all along — Skopje houses the major logistics base for the entire Kosovo peacekeeping operation, and they're not about to withdraw. The reason for the early deployment of the British troops may be to reassure the Macedonian authorities of Western support for the peace effort. Macedonia's parliament still has 45 days to adopt the agreement, and Western leaders will want to ensure that the government doesn't get cold feet.

The early deployment may also be a message to the NLA that NATO won't tolerate a continuation of the insurgency, now that the political grievances that ostensibly fueled it have been addressed. Even if the "Essential Harvest" mission is withdrawn, there are plenty of NATO troops in the region, and they've capable of giving the Macedonian government a lot more robust support than they have been up to now. What remains to be seen, then, is whether the NLA, or any faction among them, will choose to test NATO's will — and how the alliance will respond if its adopted role of Balkan enforcer is challenged.