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Macedonian Doubts Over Peace Deal
A public information campaign to win the support of sceptical ethnic Macedonians for the NATO deployment shows an alliance soldier holding a sign reading "weapons collection", along a road bedecked with slogans explaining the mission and insisting that it offers the country the only way forward.
The NATO media blitz insists that the Western-brokered framework agreement between ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political parties on increased civil rights for Albanians will deliver a prosperous future. "Harvest fulfils its obligation", the campaign slogans proclaim, confirming that the alliance force of 4,500 soldiers will withdraw if a cease-fire holds. NATO will succeed in collecting rebel arms and the country will not become a third Balkan protectorate like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Initial reports are that Operation Essential Harvest has completed the first phase of its mission to collect weapons voluntarily handed in by the rebel National Liberation Army, NLA. More than one-third of the total of 3,300 arms it had agreed with the Albanian guerrillas have been surrendered.
Yet despite boastful propaganda, most ethnic Macedonians suspect that NATO's role will be little more than cosmetic at best - and an instrument of partition at worst.
Indeed even the public relations campaign itself may have back-fired. The media campaign, said one ethnic Macedonian taxi driver, "shows exactly how the international community views Macedonians. It is as if we were retarded, so that they have to draw these cartoons to help us understand how lucky we are to get their help."
Amid the flurry of activity by the international troops, the country's parliament is set to resume its bitter debate on the reform package, after being suspended by the speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov. Andov halted the proceedings for two days, after demanding a guarantee from President Boris Trajkovski that all people displaced from their homes by the recent fighting would be able to return within 20 days. The assembly reconvened on Monday and a vote on the reform package is expected by Wednesday.
Few expect the framework agreement to have a smooth passage. While Trajkovski has urged deputies to support the deal, the hard-line prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, said it offered no resolution to the crisis and should only to be backed to avert an open clash with the West. The debate so far suggests the president may struggle to get the two-thirds majority needed to implement the deal.
Several European foreign and defence ministers have hurried to Skopje to increase diplomatic pressure on Georgievski. At the same time, the EU and US envoys to Macedonia, Francois Leotard and James Pardew, respectively, are battling to rein in the hard-line wing of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, led by the interior minister, Ljube Boskovski. The party holds 46 of the 116 seats in parliament.
Many expect only a partial ratification of the agreement, possibly without the key constitutional changes intended to grant more civil rights to Albanians, an increased official use of the Albanian language and expansion of the number of Albanians in the police.
If parliament blocks a deal, NATO's role after Operation Essential Harvest will be thrown into question. Western diplomats have been floating the idea of a possible extension to the mission, though it is unclear under which circumstances and what kind of mandate it would have.
The British defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, said talks were under way in NATO about what task the international community could perform after completing the disarmament operation. Many observers believe it will involve an increased role in setting up an ethnically-mixed police force and a rise in the number of international monitors.
"Of course, local security forces have ultimate responsibility for security. But the question is whether local forces in Macedonia can secure that responsibility adequately after a conflict of this nature," the US envoy Pardew told Reuters.
At the moment, the EU and the OSCE have 49 monitors in Macedonia, with several hundred more are expected. "The key is getting international police advisors, as in the agreement - only they can coordinate the mixed police patrols," Edward Joseph of the independent watchdog International Crisis Group said.
While NATO is examining its options, President Trajkovski has asked for the UN border patrol mission to be reinstated. "We expect the international community to help us keep and enforce the peace," he said. "I am asking today for a reintroduction of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force - UNPREDEP. UNPREDEP was a successful mission - and it kept the peace by patrolling at the borders."
Observers hope the deployment of a force along the international border with Albania and Serbia would boost ethnic Macedonian confidence in the security of the country's frontiers, reassure them that NATO is not a hostile force, and at the same time ease ethnic Albanian fears of attack by the Macedonian security forces.
Antonio Milosovski, the prime minister's spokesman, said the government would support an extended NATO mission only if it were modelled on UNPREDEP. "That would send two clear messages," he said. "First, that there won't be any redrawing of the borders in the region and second that nobody can continue using the territory of Kosovo as support for armed extremist groups in the region."
As far as NATO is concerned, all options remain open, unless outright warfare breaks out, in which case Western troops would probably immediately withdraw. The alliance insists it has no intention of patrolling a "green line", like the border between the two communities in Cyprus - a major concern of ethnic Macedonians.
That option is "completely off the agenda", according to NATO officials. The ultimate decision about the alliance's role in the future remains in the hands of the Macedonian government. Otherwise, as a government official warns, "it will be disastrous and we will end up as a protectorate".
Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.
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