Preparing for Deployment

Fears and rumours abound as two communities in Macedonia view NATO's mission differently.

Preparing for Deployment

Fears and rumours abound as two communities in Macedonia view NATO's mission differently.

"This is it. We have definitely lost western Macedonia, and it is only a matter of time before they officially join up with their brothers in Kosovo and Albania," said one 45-year-old Macedonian from Skopje in a bitter voice.

That's the way ordinary Macedonians view NATO's Operation Essential Harvest. The final decision on the deployment of NATO troops is imminent, and there is little doubt that 3,500 troops will be dispatched to collect arms from the Albanian guerrillas.

Unlike ethnic Macedonians, Albanians are celebrating.

Ordinary Albanians believe that only NATO can bring peace; their political leaders view NATO troops as the only guarantee of implementation of the peace agreement and improved human rights.

The leadership of the Albanians' National Liberation Army, NLA, expect NATO also to guarantee the amnesty promised by Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.

Despite repeated NATO statements emphasising that the mission would not begin until a stable ceasefire was in place, it seems clear that NATO is already in far too deep to give up on deployment.

Though it is risky for NATO to get involved if the unsteady truce shatters, at this stage, NATOs credibility would be on the line, and as NATO sources say, "We have to finish what we have started."

At the moment, the ceasefire looks shaky at best. On Monday night, rebels burnt the Orthodox monastery church in the village of Lesak.

Most Macedonians are convinced that NATO troops are going to be deployed along the front lines along an arc of territory in the north and west of the country, preventing the Macedonian police and army from reoccupying NLA-held territory.

Macedonian fears are fanned by increasingly nationalistic domestic media, which view NATO forces as "a discrete start for division" of the ten-year-old republic.

Different conspiracy theories are circulating in the Macedonian media, but the most common is that the Albanians have been US and, accordingly, NATO partners during the war in Kosovo. This theory says the whole "game" with Macedonia now has no connection to any fight for human rights, but is actually driven by future US political interests in this region, which includes the division of Macedonia.

This attitude was reinforced three days ago, when Ali Ahmeti, leader of the NLA, held a press conference in the rebel-held village of Sipkovica, near Tetovo. Behind him was a NATO flag, and Macedonian journalists were moved to bitter and cynical comments about supposed close ties between the two.

That press conference, Ahmeti's first since the conflict started, is seen by most Macedonian media as his attempt to convert his leadership of the rebellion into a future role as a political leader.

Around 400 British troops are already on the ground as a vanguard for the deployment. It is not yet clear when the main contingent of the NATO force will enter the country, but the real question at this moment is whether NATO forces will be able to collect enough weapons from the NLA guerrillas and finish their mission within the agreed 30-day deadline.

According to President Trajkovski's plan, both the process of disarmament and that of parliamentary ratification of an agreement on reforms to grant minority Albanians greater rights are supposed to end within 45 days from the day of the signing.

But as the clock started ticking on August 13, it appears unrealistic to expect the whole process to meet this overall deadline.

Ahmeti said the NLA would respect the agreement and hand in its weapons. "The war is over," he said at his press conference, adding that the NLA didn't want to evolve into a parallel army or police force.

"Macedonia has one army and one police force, and the Albanians are going to be a part of it," he proclaimed.

But Macedonian parliamentarians want to see the results of disarmament before implementing the constitutional changes granting Albanians a share of jobs in state institutions proportionate to their share of the population. They plan to implement changes in three different parliamentary sessions: first, to formally receive the initiative; second, to discuss it; and finally, to vote on it.

Their first session is scheduled for August 31, but it will only begin if parliament has by that time received information indicating the guerrillas have already surrendered at least one-third of their weapons.

The problem is no-one can really be sure how many weapons the rebels have. While the NLA has indicated it is ready to surrender about 2,000 weapons, Macedonian army sources speculate that the guerrillas possess more than 8,000.

NATO has yet to present its own estimates.

Both Macedonian and Albanian politicians these days avoid press conferences and public statements, as they are waiting for NATO's final decision, now due August 22.

All sides increasingly view the ambitious timetable for disarmament and ratification as unrealistic. Government sources imply that some sort of extension could be granted for NATO troops' mandate to collect weapons but insist the other terms of its mission must remain unchanged.

Hard-line Macedonian politicians do not oppose the NATO operation in public, believing that the NLA will destroy all chances for NATO's success. They reckon that, when that happens, the international community won't be able to point the finger at Macedonians. They expect the NLA to frustrate NATO's mission, leaving Macedonians with a good excuse for a military solution.

The guerrillas, on the other hand, want NATO to stay in Macedonia for far longer and with a broader peacekeeping mandate than is now envisioned. They don't believe that the Macedonian side will ratify the agreement or that, if they do, they won't stick to it.

In addition, the rebels are worried about the amnesty to be granted to guerrillas who disarm. Trajkovski announced the amnesty, but it will become law only after the Macedonian parliament ratifies it. NLA commanders fear that if NATO leaves the country as quickly as it is supposed to, no-one will be able to guarantee the safety of the ex-fighters, who are meant to be reintegrated into society.

For some, however, the question is not an amnesty against future prosecution but an end to current investigations. The Macedonian authorities have already begun proceedings against 13 of the most famous rebels, including rebel leader Ahmeti himself, and while stopping these investigations is not impossible, it will require a further round of negotiations.

NATO officials reject Macedonian allegations that they are here to set some kind of demarcation line that would lead to a division of the country. Reassuring Macedonians, Francois Leotard, the European Union's peace envoy to Macedonia, recently stated that "This is far from Bosnia or Kosovo." Others in NATO underline that the Macedonian government would never allow such a mandate for NATO, because it would be a direct infringement on its sovereignty.

Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.

Support our journalists