NATO Throws a 'Hail Mary' into Macedonia

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French NATO soldiers of the 2nd infantry regiment of Foreign Legion

Think of it as the "If-you-build-it-they-will-come" approach to peacekeeping. NATO troops continued to pour into Macedonia Wednesday for "Operation Essential Harvest," ostensibly a 30-day mission in which 3,500 alliance soldiers are to destroy weapons voluntarily handed over by ethnic-Albanian guerrillas. But while the NATO force has become the focus of efforts to end the insurgency that brought the country to the brink of civil war, it has no peacekeeping mandate and the disarmament process is an entirely voluntary affair not covered by any peace deal. Indeed, NATO's official position has been that if the guerrillas choose not to hand over their weapons and the fighting resumes, the Western alliance will simply pack up and leave.

To call "Operation Essential Harvest" a gamble would be an understatement. Much of the peace process of which it is part has been fudged in order to create momentum. Indeed, the NLA has not actually been party to Western-brokered talks between the government and ethnic-Albanian political parties over constitutional changes that expand the cultural rights of Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian minority. The guerrillas, though, claim to have been fighting for the same things, and have promised, in principle, to hand over their weapons in light of the politicians' agreement. Still, everything from the size of the guerrillas' armory to the timetable for the surrender of weapons is disputed, and there is no formal agreement against which such disputes can be mediated.

Disputes over weapons, timetables

The Macedonian government insists the guerrillas have 85,000 guns; the National Liberation Army insists its arsenal comprises 2,000, and that's as many as it plans to hand over to NATO troops. Moreover, the NLA insists it will do so only after the Macedonian government has implemented the constitutional and political changes agreed to with ethnic-Albanian political parties, whereas the government expects immediate disarmament. And with Macedonia's parliament due to ratify the political agreement within the next 30 days, the whole peace deal could collapse if there are no signs of disarmament in the next two or three weeks.

There are certainly plenty of people on both sides of the divide who would welcome the deal's demise, preferring to settle matters on the battlefield. Fighting has continued around Tetovo, a region in which the NLA's commanders are reputedly more hard-line than some of their comrades elsewhere in the country. And the razing of a centuries-old Orthodox monastery in their zone of control earlier this week underscores the deep nationalist hatred driving at least a section of the rebel movement — after all, blowing up a church is not exactly consistent with the claim to be fighting simply for better representation of ethnic-Albanians alongside Macedonians in the country's institutions.

Among the Macedonian majority, however, the peace deal is regarded with skepticism, if not hostility, and there, too, nationalist elements have sought to respond to the insurgency by stirring up inter-communal violence against non-combatant Albanians. If the rebels hang onto their guns, passing the peace deal may be a tough sell.

So what's NATO doing there?

There may yet be some method, though, in NATO's fudging of the unresolved issues. For one thing, squeamishness in Western capitals about another Balkan peacekeeping mission may require such palpably deceptive promises as a 30-day limit on the deployment — after all, it's easier to cajole alliance members into expanding the terms of the mission once the troops are already on the ground. The early deployment may well be a primarily symbolic gesture, designed to generate psychological momentum behind the peace process.

NATO's arrival certainly paints the guerrillas into a political corner, by making clear that the West now believes that whatever justification the rebels have claimed for their insurgency has been removed by the political changes. Since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the West has soured on any further redrawing of Balkan borders, and NATO's initial response to the Macedonian insurgency was to denounce the NLA as "murderers" and "terrorists." The guerrillas insisted, however, that they were fighting not to carve out a separate Albanian enclave in Macedonia, but to achieve greater civil rights alongside Macedonians. NATO's deployment, in support of a political deal according those rights, is, in one sense, a calling of the NLA's bluff. Then again, the risk-averse Western alliance showed little vigor in carrying out its mandate to disarm Albanian nationalist guerrillas in Kosovo or to clamp down on those guerrillas' ethnic cleansing of the province's remaining Serbs and on their export of nationalist insurgencies into Serbia and Macedonia. Which may mean there may be more than a handful of nationalist guerrillas in Macedonia who see NATO as a paper tiger.