Macedonia's Three Armies

NATO jeeps and UN helicopters seem to be everywhere in Macedonia, as the international forces are expanded in anticipation of a Kosovo deployment. For its strong cooperation with the West, Skopje hopes to win big political and economic benefits.

Macedonia's Three Armies

NATO jeeps and UN helicopters seem to be everywhere in Macedonia, as the international forces are expanded in anticipation of a Kosovo deployment. For its strong cooperation with the West, Skopje hopes to win big political and economic benefits.

Friday, 12 February, 1999

In 1989, at the beginning of the multiparty system in Macedonia, one of the first new parties, the Movement for All-Macedonian Action (MAAK), insisted that the entire country should become a tax-free zone and should be demilitarised. Macedonia would have no army of its own, and its security would be guaranteed by the great powers.

Ten years later there are no tax-free zones in Macedonia. But the country can claim that it has three armies, each in its own way taking care of Macedonia’s security.

In Skopje these days it is very common to see (and hear) UN helicopters overhead, practising the transfer of wounded from the Skopje airport Petrovec to the Skopje military hospital. On the streets, the dark olive green vehicles of NATO far out-number the white vehicles of the UN Preventive Deployment (UNPREDEP) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In some places, one may even come across the camouflage-wearing soldiers of the Macedonian Army, 10,000-strong but without a tank or an aeroplane.

The approximately 1,050 soldiers of UNPREDEP continue to monitor the Macedonian border with Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. The importance of the mission in contributing to regional stability has been signalled in every UN report to the Security Council seeking an extension of its mandate. (The deployment in Macedonia began under the structure of the UN Protection Force, or UNPROFOR, in 1992, and was converted in 1996 into a separate mission under the title of UNPREDEP.) The current six-month mandate expires this month, and last week the Macedonian government forwarded its request for a further six-month extension to the United Nations. Yet despite developments in Kosovo, the decision by the Security Council is uncertain. Relations between Macedonia and China have deteriorated, after Skopje signed a communiqué for establishing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. China has threatened to veto any extension of UNPREDEP unless Macedonia revokes the communiqué.

NATO has by far the largest number of soldiers on Macedonian soil. One of the first acts of the new Macedonian government this past December was to agree to the deployment of 2,500 soldiers as "extraction troops" to be ready to evacuate the 2,000 OSCE observers to be in Kosovo. The first NATO soldiers had not even arrived in Macedonia when, after a one-day visit to the country, French Defence Minister Alain Richard told journalists that the number of NATO extraction forces could be doubled. He later denied this. But sources close to the Skopje government insist that an agreement was reached for 2,500 NATO troops, and a further 2,500 if necessary. Indeed recent developments in Kosovo suggest that a figure of 5,000 NATO extractors is not exaggerated.

Hints of major Western deployments have emerged from other senior Western political figures. After the unexpected meeting of British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook with Kosovo Albanian leaders Ibrahim Rugova and Adem Demaci in Skopje on January 31 (due to snow in Pristina), Cook held a short meeting with his Macedonian counterpart Aleksandar Dimitrov. In a subsequent statement, Dimitrov confirmed that they had discussed Macedonia’s role in any NATO involvement in Kosovo. In Washington February 2-6, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski asked for firm security guarantees for Macedonia if the situation in the region deteriorates. After meetings with President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defence William Cohen, Georgievski confirmed, "We have provided logistical support in the past and we are prepared to do so in future."

Meantime, before the start of the Kosovo negotiations in Rambouillet, speculation grew that as many as 30,000 troops will be engaged in Kosovo and even larger numbers for an interventionary force have been mentioned in some media. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana himself has referred to a deployment of 35,000 soldiers. It remains uncertain, however, how Macedonia would be included in any such arrangements, or how many new troops if any might be deployed in Macedonia.

The Macedonian government has continued the foreign policy of the previous administration in setting entry into the European Union and NATO as its priorities. As a member of the Partnership for Peace, Macedonia was active and took part in many exercises in the region, offering the military training centre at Krivolak for use by the Western alliance. Skopje has seen its acceptance of the NATO extraction deployment, as well as the prospect of NATO replacing UNPREDEP, as steps forward in joining NATO. Such expectations have been contradicted by recent statements by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, that after the invitations to a few Central European countries to join, NATO will not expand further.

Whatever the larger political implications, the possibility that Macedonia might become a giant logistical base for NATO troops will complicate regional politics, too, particularly Macedonia’s relationship with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Officially, the two countries enjoy constructive relations. But several key issues (including the border) remain unresolved, and suspicions and tensions hover. Last week, the Democratic Party of Serbs, the political party of the Serbs in Macedonia, expressed its opposition to the involvement of Macedonia in any kind of action against Yugoslavia. Albanian parties in Macedonia, meantime, are calling for military intervention in Kosovo and are actively involved in gathering humanitarian aid for the Kosovo population. If the conflict in Kosovo escalated, it is likely that a considerable number of Macedonian Albanians would fight on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians.

Yet the real concern for Macedonia may be less political than economic. Any escalation of the military confrontation in Kosovo, including a possible spillover into Macedonia, would seriously damage efforts to revive the Macedonian economy. In particular, the government has signalled the imperative of securing foreign, particularly Western investment. No wonder Skopje has welcomed so many armies.

Iso Rusi is a journalist with Fokus in Skopje.

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