Macedonia: Life After NATO

Politicians are divided over which security organisation will best help the country achieve stability and growth.

Macedonia: Life After NATO

Politicians are divided over which security organisation will best help the country achieve stability and growth.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Who will safeguard security after NATO forces pull out of Macedonia on December 15? A debate is raging across the country on whether the job should go to the fledgling security force now being developed by the European Union.

Opinions are torn between those who believe an American military presence is still essential and those who would prefer to accept units of the new European Security and Defence Identity, ESDI,

The trouble is that ESDI is still in its infancy. An EU summit in 1999 decided to form a rapid reaction force of 60,000 troops, separate from NATO but sharing systems such as intelligence, communications and air support. The force was meant to deal with the low end of the military spectrum including peacekeeping, humanitarian rescue and other functions where NATO as a whole was not involved.

But as the force will not become active before 2003, suspicion has been voiced in the press that the EU wants to use Macedonia as an experiment for its new military wing. Skopje's daily paper Vecer quoted anonymous government sources as saying that France was the prime mover in seeking to replace NATO with ESDI forces.

NATO moved in last August on a 30-day mission called Essential Harvest with 3,500 troops assigned to collect weapons from paramilitary forces of the ethnic Albanian minority which had been battling government troops for six months to win improved civil rights. After collecting nearly 4,000 weapons, the mission was pronounced a success.

In September 2001 the Essential Harvest force was partly replaced with 700 lightly-armed soldiers who reinforced 300 troops already based in the country. Their mandate was to protect EU and OSCE monitors overseeing the implementation of the Ohrid peace plan and watching over the September general election. It is these forces that are due to leave on December 15.

Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski called a one-day conference in Skopje on Sunday to thrash the matter out between politicians, cabinet officials, journalists, academics and other experts. The debate took on a keener edge after NATO officials discreetly informed Macedonia that it will not be on the list of countries invited to join the organisation at this month's summit in Prague.

Nicolaas Biegman, NATO's ambassador and political representative in Skopje, commented,

"The new Macedonian government has an opportunity to make a clean break with the recent past, and to radically change the country's international image for the better."

"NATO's security presence has served to give both villagers and police a certain feeling of reassurance which will, with time, develop into mutual tolerance and trust."

However, he warned, "The timing of a final withdrawal will be a very delicate matter. Leaving too early could hinder the normalisation of the former crisis areas. Staying too long could create a dependency syndrome."

Speaking of the transition, Nano Ruzin, Macedonia's ambassador to NATO in Brussels, said his country "does not want forces that would use Macedonia as an experiment". Nor, he said, would it accept bilateral forces such as the Greek-Italian mission Alba in Albania.

One of the strongest pro-NATO voices is Ljubomir Frckovski, international law professor and an adviser to President Trajkovski. Arguing that security was a more pressing problem in western Balkan countries than democracy or economic development, the professor argued that NATO would be more effective in this field than the EU.

Frckovski said illegal arms left over from last year's conflict had resulted in armed bandit gangs in western parts of the country that could take up to a decade to suppress. "We need an armed NATO presence because regaining control over dissident areas of Macedonian territory will be a highly risky operation," he argued.

But Dimitar Mircev, a sociologist who also served until recently as Macedonian ambassador to Slovenia and the Vatican, said the country did not need foreign troops after the end of NATO's mandate. "Last year's crisis is over," he said. "Implementation of the Ohrid Agreement will further stabilise the country, and all indicators show this new government will be stable."

Insisting he was not anti-NATO, Mircev added that "if Macedonia wants to enter NATO, the

alliance must exit Macedonia. We must decide whether or not we want to look after ourselves."

A pro-NATO note was sounded by deputy defence minister Rizvan Sulejmani of the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI - the strongest Albanian party in the new governing coalition. He said Macedonia has gone through deep changes that would produce some instability in the near future. Because of this, it would continue to need external help.

According to reports in Vecer, most political parties in Macedonia support an extension of the NATO mission. The only exception was the hard-line Macedonian nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party who led the previous coalition government. According to party spokesman Vlado Gjorcev, they would first like to see an end to Brussels disputes over the future of Euro-Atlantic relations and then decide which mission should win their support.

Stevo Pendarovski, President Trajkovski's official security adviser, said Macedonia's ultimate

strategic goal was Euro-Atlantic integration and was clear about the need for a foreign military presence. "Although we are able to deal now with threats to our stability from inside, Macedonia needs foreign military support in the former crisis regions," he said

Saso Ordanoski is the IWPR project coordinator in Skopje and the editor-in-chief of Forum magazine.

Macedonia, Albania
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