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Election Campaigners Ask If NATO Has Outstayed Its Welcome

Though campaigning for the Macedonian presidential elections does not officially start until October 1, the political debates are underway and the top topic is the continued presence of NATO forces in the country.
By Iso Rusi

The NATO troop contingent in Macedonia, supporting the KFOR force in Kosovo, has been reduced to a fifth of what it was a few months ago, but only now has the government, the opposition and the public begun to form a common front against the Alliance operations.


All six registered candidates, four of whom belong to the ruling coalition, are tracking a rise in anti-NATO feelings which came to light on August 28, when 26 year old Norwegian army captain Vesli Adun Kristijan was involved in a car accident.


Four were killed in the crash - Radovan Stojanovski, a minister without portfolio in the Macedonian government, his wife Rumena and his 11- year-old daughter Despita, and subsequently from injuries, driver Vosilav Pavlov.


NATO police tried to evacuate Kristijan, who was driving the wrong way down the motorway when the collision occurred, but there was nearly an armed standoff with Macedonian police when they tried to fly him out of the country. Kristijan was taken off a NATO helicopter and escorted to a Skopje clinic where he was placed in custody by a judge, investigating possible criminal charges.


Despite NATO's request to have him handed back over to the Norwegian authorities, he remains in custody in Skopje's investigative prison.


Macedonia agreed to the stationing of NATO soldiers on its soil as part of the implementation of the Rambouillet accords on Kosovo, which before and during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia, brought 30,000 foreign troops into the country. Now only the logistic support troops remain, about 7,000 soldiers.


Despite NATO's request to have him handed back over to the Norwegian authorities, he remains in custody in Skopje's investigative prison.


Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek has said that Kristijan's detention violates Macedonia's agreements with NATO on its operations, which stipulate that officers below the rank of major cannot be legally prosecuted in host countries. But the Macedonians insist on their right to investigate possible criminal offences and try suspects where necessary.


Skopje is growing weary of their guests: There have been about 140 traffic accidents, with 10 fatalities, involving NATO troops, and at least 50 other potentially criminal incidents involving NATO servicemen stationed in Macedonia.


At the same time there is a general conviction in Macedonia that the west has failed to fulfil the political and financial promises made to the Macedonian government during the Kosovo refugee crisis.


Newspaper headlines illustrate the mood in the country: 'We want to join NATO, but we don't want occupation' said one paper; another maintained that if Kristijan 'does not grow old in Idrizova' - Macedonia's biggest jail 'Macedonia will never be a state'.


The broadcast media vied to make the strongest denunciations. All the soldiers' sins were listed: fights in restaurants, a striptease in the fountain in the centre of Kumanovo, playing with pistols during a picnic at the famous Struga poetry evenings.


Since Kristijan's crash, KFOR servicemen have been involved in additional accidents. According to two policemen and guards, a KFOR helicopter dropped an unidentified container into Lake Lipkovsko, which provides drinking water for Kumanovo and the surrounding area. And a German KFOR lorry


driving in excess of the speed limit crashed into a bus waiting at the bus stop in a Skopje suburb. The spokesman for the main opposition party, The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), Nikola Popovski, adds that the problems are "a direct consequence of the failure of the Macedonian government to regulate relations with KFOR".


The parliamentary committee for internal affairs and security has urgently requested that the government formalises its relationship with NATO and the opposition also demanded a parliamentary debate on the behaviour of the NATO soldiers.


For its part the government continues to call into doubt NATO's agreements with Macedonia. Minister of internal affairs Pavle Trajanov even suggested after Kristijan's detention that the KFOR mission had no mandate to operate in Macedonia.


And deputy minister for foreign affairs, Boris Trajkovski, the presidential candidate from the strongest party in the coalition government, VMRO-DPMNE, said that the government would insist on strict rules regarding NATO duties, military traffic and the carriage of weapons through Macedonia.


Trajkovski, who achieved popularity during the refugee crisis with his condemnation of the behaviour of the west and its media, has called a series of meetings with representatives of the Alliance.


Similarly, another presidential candidate, Stojan Andov from the opposition Liberal Democrat Party, has called for NATO flights over Macedonia to come under its direct control and for KFOR vehicles to use its roads only with the specific permission of the government.


But NATO's ambassador to Macedonia, Hans Ajf of Germany, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the country that by joining NATO's 'Partnership For Peace' programme Macedonia also signed up to NATO's rules. In the case of incidents like Kristijan's accident, these rules place each soldier of the Alliance comes under the legal jurisdiction of their country of origin. This agreement with NATO extends to all soldiers of the Alliance who are part of KFOR.


In other words, if the unfortunate captain had been Russian instead of Norwegian, as Russia is not a NATO member, it would not have broken NATO rules to put him in a Macedonian prison to await trial.


The race for the presidency has added weight to the importance of this case to a country where membership of NATO and the European Union are


established as foreign politics goals - yet anti-NATO feeling is running high. This is forcing the candidates who backed NATO's use of Macedonia as a jumping-off zone for its Kosovo operation to reverse earlier positions.


In the race for the presidency anything goes - and both the opposition and the government are relying on the electorate having a short memory.


Iso Rusi is a journalist in Skopje.


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