New Balkan Conflict Brewing

International officials and Balkan politicians appear to be struggling to avert another regional conflict

New Balkan Conflict Brewing

International officials and Balkan politicians appear to be struggling to avert another regional conflict

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The fourth summit of the heads of states and governments of south-eastern Europe last week, was overshadowed by terrorist activities in the southern Balkans.

The glamorous gathering and the participants' optimism starkly contrasted with the dark reality of ever more frequent incidents in this part of the region.

The summit concluded that terrorism must be eliminated and economic cooperation encouraged. No-one, however, knows whether these declarations will ever be implemented.

As over 200 cooks and waiters attended to the delegates and

some 650 journalists reported on their every utterance, a new Balkan conflict between the Macedonian army and Albanian militants was brewing just ten kilometers away in the village of Tanusevci, on the Kosovo border.

Amid rising tension, dozens of tractors prepared to evacuate around 140 local Albanians to safety in Kosovo.

The well-intentioned declarations at the Skopje summit, it seems, have done little to diffuse what appears to be a pre-war atmosphere.

The conference reminded Macedonian citizens of the good old times of pompous communist plenary sessions, when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia. Those gatherings also ended with declarations which were never implemented.

During last week's summit, the Macedonian army was on high alert in the vicinity of Tanusevci, dispatching 600 police commandos to the region after the conference closed.

At the same time, across the border in the Presevo Valley, in southern Serbia, Albanian high school students enlisted en masse in the Liberation army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, OVK PMB, to fight for the three municipalities with Kosovo.

A week before the summit, suspected Albanian extremists in Podujevo, Kosovo, detonated a mine under a bus carrying Serbian women and children, killing ten and seriously injuring 40 of them.

The troubles in Kosovo and southern Serbia appear to be spreading to Macedonia, suggesting Albanian nationalists are in the process of attempting to realise their long-held dream of a Greater Albania.

In a related development, a Serbian-Macedonian agreement on border changes, promoted at the Skopje summit as evidence of growing regional cooperation, has been rejected by the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo, the province's principal party.

Albanians here see the agreed frontier as confirming Kosovo as part of Serbia. Skopje and Belgrade, clearly anticipating trouble, are to request the help of NATO to implement their agreement along that part of the 260 km frontier bordering Kosovo.

But what's increasingly clear is that Western patience with Albanian intransigence and militarism is beginning to wear.

European Commissioner for Security and Political Issues Xavier Solana said international assistance to Pristina has been brought into question by the Albanian terrorist actions in Kosovo and southern Serbia.

Meanwhile, European Commissioner for Foreign Policy Chris Patten warned that the broad autonomy promised Kosovo may be jeopardised by the "barbarian " and "cowardly" attack on the Podujevo bus.

Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta has also strongly condemned the recent spate of terrorism, and called for Albanians in southern Serbia to make peace with the authorities in Belgrade.

But despite the condemnations, delegates at the Skopje conference failed to get to grips with the real problem - the unsolved issue of Kosovo's future status.

Although the summit message was clear - the Albanian terrorist campaign will not result in a change of borders - no-one knows how to bring an end to the violence.

Serbia's hands are tied. It does not want to resort to the old Milosevic tactic of intervening militarily. The Macedonian armed forces, meanwhile, lack the strength to deal with the insurgents.

All eyes are fixed on the NATO, as the only guarantor of peace in the

region. However, not even the Alliance seems prepared to tackle the problem. Why? Because NATO members realise that force will be required to resolve it - a prospect none of them likes. There are those who envisage a type of conflict similar to the Vietnam war and

want to avoid it at any price.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, grim and agitated throughout the summit, was clearly aware of NATO's reluctance to get involved, but urged it and the EU to introduce measures to stem the violence in southern Serbia.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski has, meanwhile, requested the local KFOR commander, General Folker Leu, to control the country's border with Kosovo to prevent Albanian militants crossing over.

His calls were backed by the Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis who's clearly worried about the violence spreading south towards his own country.

Political considerations overshadowed economic ones at the summit.

But even the latter failed to offer up any sense of optimism.

Local and international bureaucracy is holding up Stability Pact projects. Delegates couldn't get beyond a discussion of the development of infrastructure as a pre-condition for economic aid.

But, in truth, there's little prospect of improving business and trade in the region at a time when in it is so unstable.

In what is believed to have been a sectarian incident, a young Macedonian policeman was seriously wounded in a gun attack in the centre of Skopje a day after the summit - the fourteenth officer to be shot in ethnically-motivated violence over the last two years.

And tensions rose even higher on Monday when Albanian militants

attacked a Macedonian army border post near the village of Tanusevci, provoking a dramatic national address by the Macedonian president who reassured citizens that his armed forces will do their utmost to defend the country's territorial integrity.

Given the political turmoil in the region, Stability Pact Coordinator Bodo Hombach's remarks at the end of the Skopje summit seemed less than convincing.

"This is an historic day - a chance for a historic beginning of regional cooperation that will usher a European spirit,"

he declared.

Greek Prime Minister Simitis sounded even less plausible. He said the summit's declarations showed south-east European states have the will and capacity to build new relations to bring about political and economic prosperity on the way towards European integration.

Dragan Nikolic is a regular IWPR contributor

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