Better to Act in Macedonia Than Wait for Worse

Misha Glenny International Herald Tribune
The International Herald Tribune

LONDON Forget Kyoto. Forget missile defense. Macedonia is the headline that has shot up the troubled agenda of U.S.-European relations as President George W. Bush tests the mood on his get-to-know-you-tour.
Last week, European Union and Balkan diplomats offered U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a frank assessment of Macedonia's fragile security and raised for the first time the possibility of a much more robust NATO response to the crisis in order to halt the slide toward civil war.
For the last 10 days, EU representatives have been looking aghast at the deteriorating situation in Macedonia. Despite efforts led by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy supremo, no political solution to the crisis has proved workable. On the contrary, each new initiative appears to collapse within days, undermined by the guerrilla struggle of the National Liberation Army. It is impossible to address the mainstream Albanians' legitimate grievances in such an atmosphere, or to reassure the Macedonians about the country's territorial integrity.
Macedonia's coalition government is largely dysfunctional. Differences between the two parliamentary groupings of Albanians and Macedonians widen by the day. Every day the Albanian guerrillas make further territorial gains. The NLA is using tactics often associated with the Serbs in Bosnia during their infamous offensives of 1992 and 1993. They take control of villages that surround cities like Kumanovo and Tetovo. They then cut off water and electricity supplies to tens of thousands of civilians, both Albanian and Macedonian. And they have threatened to attack the capital, Skopje, its airport and Macedonia's only oil refinery nearby.
EU, UN and OSCE diplomats working on the issue have concluded that swift NATO action in Macedonia is essential to prevent another major catastrophe in the region. They have urged EU defense and foreign ministers over the past week to present a clear proposal to President Bush at his meetings in Brussels and Gothenburg.
The EU officials believe that Mr. Bush will need a lot of persuading, but they point out that the Macedonian crisis threatens both NATO's troops in Kosovo and wider European security. Most immediately, almost the entire logistical operation for the NATO-led force in Kosovo is dependent on air, road and rail links that cross right through the areas of conflict in Macedonia. Second, thousands of refugees are streaming into Kosovo, undermining NATO's vital force protection regime.
But the conflict has wider implications. Serbia and Bulgaria are watching nervously the development of a security vacuum in the most crucial strategic territory of the southern Balkans. Although desperate to stay out of the conflict, they may feel compelled to secure their interests with some form of military intervention.
Destabilization of Macedonia will be a welcome boost to the criminal mafias that make vast sums of money from racketeering and smuggling operations that bring cigarettes, drugs, illegal immigrants and prostitution into the European Union.
Meanwhile, an appalling humanitarian catastrophe hangs over both Albanians and Macedonians.
This is a European problem in the first instance. And the Europeans must be sensitive to American's caution and concerns about any further involvement in the Balkans. But to save Macedonia does not require anything like the major operation mounted to wrest Kosovo from Serbian control in 1999.
Macedonians are not Serbs – their military capacity is slight and their treatment of the Albanian minority in a decade of independence is simply not comparable to the horrors meted out to the Kosovo Albanians before 1999.
A strong NATO presence to persuade the NLA of the futility of armed struggle is all that is needed to get Macedonia's process of political dialogue back on track. The costs will be minimal compared with those that would be caused by the disruption and destruction of the full-scale civil war that is heading toward Macedonia like an express train.
The EU should present the case forcefully to President Bush, who should give it his undivided attention. The writer is author of "The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999." He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.