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COMMENT: Risking the Next Round

Albanians warn of a fresh government military offensive once NATO disarms rebel units.
By Naim Maloku

Implementing the Ohrid accord for Macedonia will require strong will, honesty and transparency from both the ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Yet the different postures of both sides towards the conflict, and towards the agreement, raise serious doubts about whether the peace will hold.

Indeed, while obeying certain formal requirements of the treaty, both parties in the Macedonian conflict are also positioning themselves for renewed hostilities - only increasing the stakes for NATO's one-month deployment to disarm rebel Albanian fighters.

Albanians fear that the Macedonian authorities plan to take advantage of the disarmament, and NATO's presumed departure, to launch a fresh military offensive later in the autumn against a weakened opponent.

Macedonians, for their part, fear the capacity of Albanian rebels to re-form fresh groupings, under whatever set of initials, and with fresh arms if necessary, to continue fighting for more political concessions, after those already agreed at Ohrid are implemented by parliament.

Albanians find many reasons to doubt Macedonian good will. Following the killings of what Albanians are convinced were civilians in the village of Ljuboten in early August, they see the reluctance of the Macedonian authorities to launch a full investigation and punish those responsible as a sign that some in the Macedonian government might have backed the atrocity.

After the performance of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, who stormed out of the Ohrid signing when Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi spoke to journalists in Albanian, it is difficult to see how parliament will agree to the official use of the Albanian language, as stipulated in the agreement. Other crucial constitutional amendments must also be in doubt.

Recent reports that, after the signing of the peace deal, Skopje has renewed contacts with Ukraine, Russia and other countries to buy weapons only raises further questions about the Macedonian government's commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Attacks against NATO soldiers presumed to be by ethnic Macedonians, such as the killing of the British soldier in the first hours of the international deployment, only add to the concern.

The exaggerated demands by the Macedonians for the level of arms that need to be surrendered by the Albanians, put as high as 80,000, were an effort to freeze the implementation of the peace deal. Although NATO established a figure of 3,300, more squabbling over the number of weapons handed over is almost certain.

Meantime, the blockage of the border crossing at Blace from Kosovo appears to Albanians to be a conscious effort, as at the villages of Bitola and Prilep earlier, to prevent uprooted ethnic Albanians from returning to their homes.

All of these signals suggest that the government may be preparing for a new offensive after the Albanian rebel National Liberation Army, NLA, is disarmed. In any case, the strategy, Albanians fear, is to return to a policy of rejecting any compromise.

Such an approach by Macedonian politicians would, however, be naive and dangerous. Albanians signed the peace deal convinced that, once deployed in the country, NATO troops would not pull out within the mandated 30 days. Albanian leaders Xhaferi and Imer Imeri expect international forces to remain until a sustainable peace is achieved. This could, according to ethnic Albanians in Maceodnia, include some kind of international protectorate as elsewhere in the region and a mandate as long as a decade.

Yet such hopes are hardly realistic. The international community is frustrated with the large-scale civilian and military interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and is very hesitant to get dragged into another one. The Ohrid agreement is not backed up officially by the international community or any specific multi-lateral institutions. There are no penalties for parties which may break the deal. Though it seems likely that the 30-day mandate will be extended, Albanians hopes for a long-term NATO presence may not be realistic.

Albanians' views are coloured by what they see as the West's abandonment of the Albanians in the Presevo valley in southern Serbia. There, Albanian rebels consented to disarmament in exchange for a commitment for increased self-government, mixed police forces and other rights from the Serbian authorities. Albanians believe that the international community would be the guarantor. Many observers point to Presevo as an example of how disarmament can work. But Albanians are bitter, believing that many of the commitments for reform have not been kept.

This feeling helps explain Albanians' underlying scepticism over the Macedonia agreement - and makes the emergence of a breakaway rebel Albanian National Army, ANA, hardly surprising.

Since the NLA has committed itself to the Ohrid accords, the ANA could be employed to counter a Presevo scenario, putting up armed resistance in case the terms of the treaty are breached. But its communiqués confirm that it is hardly a proper military organisation, lacking serious structure, strategy or political leadership.

But considering the rapid growth of the NLA itself, the development of the ANA could also be quick. Efforts by ethnic Macedonians to block implementation of the accord would only help consolidate the new rebel grouping. Any act of violence against Albanians - whether civilians or disarmed NLA fighters - would bring more Albanians to the ranks of the ANA, or any other unit that might appear in future.

The best strategy to avoid further violence would be fully to implement the Presevo valley and Ohrid accords. Analysts in Pristina insist that strengthening Albanian self-governance in Kosovo and moving towards a final resolution of the status of the territory, would also go a long way towards undercutting any rebel Albanian groups.

These goals cannot be achieved without a long-term Western presence. Disarmament of the NLA followed by a quick pullout by NATO would only lead to more bloodshed. Renewed violence would give a fresh boost to radical Albanian military and political groups, not necessarily limited even to the ANA, and could well lead to a spill-over of the conflict into the Presevo valley.

Macedonia needs a sustainable peace. But it is illusory to expect that the same politicians who brought the country to the brink of civil war because they were so reluctant to resolve inter-ethnic issues will now be willing to implement the Ohrid accord. A true resolution of the conflict is unlikely to be achieved until a new generation of politicians, on both sides of the conflict, appears, and is ready to commit seriously to the establishment of a civic and democratic society for all citizens.

Naim Maloku is an analyst in Kosovo. He is also a member of the presidency of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), and was one of KLA commanders during the war.

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