The San Jose Mercury News

Macedonia Crisis Part of Regional Problem

Violence has made a comeback in the Balkans. This time, it threatens to engulf Macedonia, the one former Yugoslav republic that had escaped violence when so many of its neighbors went up in flames. Why, after more than 10 years of successfully managing interethnic relations and strengthening democratic institutions, is Macedonia at the brink of civil war? And what can the United States and its European partners do about it before more blood is shed or before the conflict spreads and destabilizes the entire region, possibly including our NATO partners Greece and Turkey?

To answer those questions, it is important to understand that the recent fighting in Macedonia is not an isolated event, but rather part of a larger regional problem the so-called "Albanian question." Ethnic Albanians live in a contiguous territory that extends beyond Albania into three different countries Greece, Macedonia and Yugoslavia and may extend to three more if what remains of Yugoslavia breaks up further, into Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

In every state in the region, with the exception of Albania, ethnic Albanians constitute a minority. And many have suffered accordingly. In Kosovo, before NATO's intervention two years ago, ethnic Albanians were denied all basic political rights in what was essentially an apartheid state.

In southern Serbia, ethnic Albanians have suffered a similar fate, but the change of regime in Belgrade in October has opened up the possibility that local authority and control will increasingly pass to the Albanians.

By contrast, Albanians have been represented in every Macedonian government since the country gained its independence in 1992. There are vibrant Albanian media; many schools teach the basic elementary and secondary curricula in Albanian; and while ethnic groups largely live their lives within their separate communities, there had been no interethnic violence.

Nevertheless, there has been discrimination in Macedonia. Albanians and other minorities are considered second-class citizens under the Macedonian Constitution; the government in Skopje has refused to recognize Albanian as one of the country's official languages; there is no state-recognized, university-level education conducted in Albanian; Albanians are underrepresented in key sectors of state authority, notably the security forces; and political power is centralized, mainly in the hands of the Slav majority.

The failure to redress these very real grievances has proven to be fertile ground for Albanian extremists to gain support for the use of violence. This resentment has been growing for years, but tensions were heightened recently by three other factors.

First, the ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October has proven to be a major blow to Albanian hopes for emancipation. Having succeeded in enlisting the West's military aid during the Kosovo war, many Albanians believed that the United States and its NATO partners would never again allow Serbs to dominate Albanians.

With Albanians in Kosovo and Serbia freed from the shackles of oppression, Albanians in Macedonia had hoped to enlist Western support to pressure Skopje to address their grievances as well.

But with the victory of the democratic opposition in Serbia, the United States and its European allies have made the consolidation of democracy in Serbia and the stabilization of Yugoslavia their top priorities in the region. Whatever support there had been for helping the Albanians including support for Kosovo's independence has now dissipated.

Left to fend for themselves, some Albanians have once again resorted to violence at the very least as a means to get the attention of the United States and Europe.

Second, the United States and NATO have failed to crack down on violence by Albanian extremists. NATO forces in Kosovo have maintained basic law and order throughout the territory and allowed a sense of normalcy to return to the area, but they have failed to take the kind of proactive steps that are needed to squelch extremist violence.

They have not systematically shut down the Kosovo Liberation Army in Kosovo, arrested the extremists who engage in terrorist attacks against Serbs and other minorities or seized the weapons caches NATO must know exist in the territory.

It was not until several weeks ago, in fact, that NATO finally mounted the kind of effort necessary to disrupt the supply of weapons and extremists from Kosovo to Macedonia.

Finally, the Bush administration has been lackluster and uncertain in its commitment to the Balkans generally, and to the Kosovo mission in particular. During the campaign, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and others repeatedly stated that the United States should withdraw its troops from the region and leave the peacekeeping work to our European allies.

Although the rhetoric has softened since the election, the sentiment has not. Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have made some statements reassuring our anxious allies that the United States will remain militarily involved.

But no one not Bush or Powell and certainly not Vice President Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has indicated a commitment to doing whatever it takes to keep peace in the Balkans.

With the United States appearing unready for a fight, violence has once again become an option in the region.

The good news is that, for the moment, violence in Macedonia appears to have abated. Macedonian security forces flushed the Albanian insurgents out of their villages and strongholds, and did so with reasonable restraint. But this conflict is not over. It is just entering a new stage.

To make sure violence does not return in Macedonia or Albanian enclaves elsewhere the United States would need to act on three fronts.

First, the United States and its NATO allies would have to support ethnic Albanian moderates, to demonstrate to the extremists that violence does not pay. In Kosovo, this means transferring real power over their daily lives to the Albanians as soon as territorywide elections can be held, perhaps by late summer or early fall.

As municipal elections in November there showed, moderates do enjoy the support of a vast majority of the population.

In Serbia's Presevo Valley, we would need to make sure Belgrade's plan to relinquish local control to local authorities is fully implemented. And in Macedonia, we should encourage talks among all political parties Albanian and Slav to address Albanian grievances.

Second, the United States and NATO must do what they can to defeat extremist Albanian elements. Weapons caches must be seized and destroyed; leaders and instigators of violence should be arrested; and borders need to be sealed. Furthermore, the United States and NATO must stand ready to intervene militarily with troops on the ground if an Albanian insurgency flares up again, including in Macedonia.

The Macedonia security forces have won the first battle, but this small armed force is not capable of conducting the kind of warfare that may be called for. If the insurgency resumes, the security forces would most likely compensate for tactical weakness and a shortage of soldiers by using indiscriminate firepower, and that would further divide Macedonian society along ethnic lines.

The United States and some of our NATO allies are both well-equipped and capable of doing the job quickly, definitively, and with a minimum of casualties.

Finally, the Bush administration may have hoped that after years of successful NATO peacekeeping and recent positive political changes in Serbia and Croatia, the Balkans would no longer occupy a central place in American foreign policy. But the recent upsurge of violence is a reminder that the problems of this region have not gone away. To be sure, Europe can take a major role in snuffing out the violence and helping create a more stable and secure environment throughout the region. And Europe has, so far, taken the lead economically, militarily and even diplomatically.

But the United States has an important role to play as well. Washington still has the most credibility in the region, in good part because the Clinton administration, after some years of hesitation, committed fully to building peace and stability throughout the Balkans. That credibility provides the current administration with important leverage over the parties in the region, including the Albanians. Failure to use that leverage could have dire consequences for stability in Europe.