NATO’s Macedonia Mission is No Picnic

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

August 20, 2001

By signing an agreement giving Albanians greater political rights, Macedonia has taken a major step back from the brink of what could have been a very brutal civil war. Yet, peace in this region remains extremely fragile, with extremists on both sides still unconvinced that a political solution offers a better way to achieve their goals than outright warfare. It will be up to the international community which helped broker the deal-and especially the NATO troops that are about to deploy to the country-to make sure violence is ended and political reconciliation proceeds.

The Macedonian accord offers a good blueprint for stitching civil society back together. The deal guarantees the inviolability of Macedonia’s territory and sovereignty. At the same time, it acknowledges that the rights of ethnic Albanians, who constitute an ever growing percentage of the population, deserve special recognition. Thus, Albanian is recognized as an official language alongside Macedonian in communities where ethnic Albanians comprise more than 20 percent of the population; Albanians will be represented proportionally in the parliament and government, on the constitutional court, and in the national and local police; and there will be far-reaching autonomy at the local level.

The mainstream parties that negotiated this agreement are clearly committed to its implementation. And all sides have moved swiftly to create the conditions for NATO’s speedy entry-with the government and rebels accepting a cease fire, the Macedonian president promising amnesty for the rebels, and the rebel leadership agreeing to hand over their weapons to NATO troops.

At the same time, the situation in the country remains dangerously precarious. In recent days, a rebel splinter group has engaged in wanton killings of Macedonian security forces-murdering 17 people in two different incidents. Wearing black balaclavas, Macedonian forces have responded by burning houses and summarily executing Albanian men-young and old alike. In the last week, thirty people have died-more than in any other week since the fighting started last February.

If Macedonia is to avoid repeating the scenes of an ever escalating ethnic slaughter that have become so familiar in the Balkans, the NATO troops that are about to be deployed to the region must be able and willing to put down any violence, whatever its source. Unfortunately, that is not its intention. Instead, the Alliance plans to deploy a small force of 3,500 troops, with the sole aim of collecting weapons handed over by the rebel forces. NATO expects to complete this operation in just 30 days.

This is completely unrealistic. Given the fragility of the peace, the rebels are unlikely to hand over all their weapons-and some continued fighting is bound to occur. Indeed, as last week’s brutality underscored, extremist on both sides have an incentive to derail the peace process.

NATO must be prepared to nip such attempts in the bud. But that will entail a more expansive mission, larger troop commitment, and a longer stay than is now being contemplated. To deter and, if necessary, defeat a resumption of violence in Macedonia, a force of some 15,000 troops is needed, which would have to remain there through next spring to get the job done.

Although NATO has not been willing to consider this mission, it needs to do so if the promised peace is to become real. Since that agreement would not have been concluded without NATO’s commitment to come in, the Alliance is on the hook to make sure it is effectively implemented. For NATO, failure cannot be an option.

Moreover, even the larger mission would not involve another substantial, open-ended peace operations like those still ongoing in Bosnia and Kosovo. The mission in Macedonia would be limited to real peacekeeping-deterring and defeating a resumption of violence. The Macedonian parties, though undoubtedly radicalized by six months of conflict, remain committed to a political solution. And unlike in Kosovo and Bosnia, where the international community was responsible for setting up the civilian infrastructure and administration, Macedonia is functioning society at all levels of government.

For the past decade, there has been a bipartisan political consensus in the United States that Macedonia must not be allowed to fail. War there could easily spread to neighboring countries-including Greece and possibly Turkey. That is why the fist Bush administration favored deployment of UN forces inside Macedonia in 1992, and why the Clinton administration agreed to make U.S. troops part of that operation. NATO’s war over Kosovo was also partly fought to ensure Macedonia’s stability.

Now that the vast majority of Macedonians have committed themselves to peace, it would be folly to squander the possibility of success by failing to deploy the necessary troops for a limited period of time. As in life generally, so in the Balkans it is always better to be safe than sorry.