COMMENT: Removing The Causes Of War

Even if disarmament succeeds, the West must remain heavily engaged in Macedonia if the country is to avoid further bloodshed.

COMMENT: Removing The Causes Of War

Even if disarmament succeeds, the West must remain heavily engaged in Macedonia if the country is to avoid further bloodshed.

Once again a problematic agreement has been signed between warring parties in the Balkans, and NATO troops are mobilising for another mission. Six months of violence that resulted in some 100 dead brought Macedonia to the brink of a potentially catastrophic civil conflict. Is the war now really over?

This is the question that will dog everyone in the country - ethnic Macedonians, ethnic Albanians and international troops and diplomats alike - in the coming weeks and months.

The Macedonian conflict has resulted in fewer deaths than the other wars of the former Yugoslavia, excepting Slovenia. Yet the Ohrid agreement is viewed by all sides with considerable scepticism. And for good reason.

While Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and even Kosovo endured calamity, Macedonian officials boasted of their "oasis of peace". Western diplomats pointed to Macedonia as a success story. Preventive diplomacy was matched by a UN conflict prevention force, with a few thousand Scandinavian soldiers and a few hundred US rangers, to prevent the conflict from "spilling over". It seemed to work.

The other cause for optimism was the willingness of Albanians to participate in the Macedonian political system. This participation continued even though Albanian leaders did not hide their disappointment over the long delay in implementing reforms to improve Albanian rights. Albanians felt their position in Macedonia had been essentially inherited from the communist period, hardly a model to follow. Yet politics too, after a fashion, seemed to work.

Thus while blood was shed everywhere else in the process of forming new states from the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia offered a hopeful model of multi-ethnic coexistence.

This spring brought an end to the illusion - a rude awakening that was necessary for Macedonian and western officials alike. Before the fighting, there was no sign of a realistic agenda for addressing Albanians' concerns, either in Skopje or in the West.

At the start, ethnic Macedonian politicians argued that the conflict came exclusively from Kosovo. But as the violence spread to other parts of the country, it began to be seen that the Albanian rebellion was authentic, driven by the grievances of ethnic Albanians, up to one-third of the population.

At first, the goals of the conflict seemed hard to understand, too. Ostensibly it was aimed at changing the Macedonian constitution and improving Albanians' language and other rights. Many observers believed that the guerrilla groupings in fact desired to divide the country and create a Greater Albania.

But then, too, it came to be understood that what ethnic Albanians wanted was a change in the system - not window-dressing but a fundamental change. Shame that this was impossible without some violence, but that was simply the reality in the Balkans.

Overnight, the image of Macedonia as a success story was replaced with the ominous vision of a new regional catastrophe. Things would be bad enough between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Any destabilisation of the country could also re-ignite the historical rivalries that all neighbouring states have had on its territory, and which of course sparked horrible blood-letting a century ago.

Nevertheless, at first, both Macedonia and the West insisted that the crisis could be resolved without direct intervention by the international community. The frequent visits by NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana created the impression that their respective institutions were preoccupied with the problem. But their efforts did not seem to have been halting the logic of the deepening confrontation, which in the end risked following the pattern of the previous ex-Yugoslav wars.

Indeed, despite the low intensity and short time-frame of the conflict, war in Macedonia remains potentially the most dangerous, at least for the West. A failure in Macedonia - meaning the collapse of coexistence between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians - would have catastrophic repercussions for the entire region. The West's whole strategy of regional development, and all the achievements thus far in the former Yugoslav states, would be called into question.

If Macedonians and Albanians could not live together, then the inevitable question would arise: How could Albanians live with Serbs in Kosovo, or Bosniaks with Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to mention Serbs with Croats in Croatia?

Western "realists", such as former Balkan mediator Lord Owen, had a ready answer: a new international conference to redraw Balkan borders and create new nation states. Opponents countered that any such new borders would inevitably become only a fresh source for permanent conflict.

Despite these risks, the West remained engaged on the diplomatic front, but did not demonstrate an especially more forceful or coherent approach to ending the war. The voice of the United States was notably absent. And even now it is highly doubtful that the West comprehends the scale of the difficulty in stabilising the situation.

Clearly, the Ohrid agreement could not have been reached without the intensive mediation of the western diplomats James Pardew and François Leotard. Clearly, too, there would not even be a chance of Albanian disarmament without the deployment of 3,500 NATO troops.

Yet the month planned for the Essential Harvest disarmament period is no time at all. Even in the most optimistic circumstances, the Ohrid agreement would need two years to be implemented. Amending the constitution, creating new security structures, establishing new local institutions and, last but not least, legitimising a new government in early elections next January - all this will take care, patience and a lot of time.

Macedonia itself lacks the capacity, in political and security terms, to implement Ohrid. An abrupt departure by NATO, whatever the course of the disarmament, would leave behind a vacuum which could easily be filled by fresh armed conflict. This is especially the case as the country heads towards a period of political uncertainty, with deep-seated distrust among the ethnic communities, governmental and political parties' leaders likely to change and a possible crisis of authority.

The key must be not just to eliminate the weapons that brought the war but to eliminate the causes behind it. Unlike in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO, the EU and the US have a very limited political and military role in Macedonia. This is not enough to remove the threat of war. The answer to the question, is the war over, now lies not only in Skopje and the surrounding hills, but the capitals of the West as well.

Blerim Shala is editor-in-chief of the Pristina-based daily Zeri.

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