Macedonia's fate in balance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2001, 12:00am

Developments in Macedonia are ominous. As each day goes by, signs that a major new Balkans conflict is in the making are clearer. If the fighting does spiral out of control, no one involved will be able to say that war came as a surprise: the pattern of escalating violence is a virtual repeat of events in Kosovo.

The one big difference this time around, however, is that Slobodan Milosevic is no longer in power; while he was, Nato could be relied upon to back any forces that opposed him. Now relations with Belgrade are cordial, this is no longer the case.

And the Albanians are particularly unlikely to gain the West's support in Macedonia, a country in which genuine attempts have been made to create a harmonious multi-ethnic society.

So far the ability of the Albanian guerillas to take part in full-scale conflict is doubtful - they are simply too few. But the fear and disruption their actions are engendering do appear to be capable of leading to widespread instability in the region.

This leaves Nato in an unenviable, but also a clear, position.

The central question is still the future of Kosovo: if independence is established for Kosovo, violent Albanian separatism is likely to erupt elsewhere in the region. Guerillas now launching incursions into Macedonia claim they are merely fighting for ethnic Albanians' rights; but many people see the longer-term aim as the bringing together of the predominantly Albanian parts of separate states to form a federation.

The danger now for Macedonia is that the current low-level violence will divide the non-combatant Slav and Albanian communities and drive them into conflict, a prospect that seems increasingly likely. Nato troops must therefore act urgently to contain the violence by at least curtailing the bands of ethnic Albanian guerillas infiltrating into Macedonia.

But while Nato patrols in the border areas have been increased, they cannot, with their current manpower, stop all arms and fighters getting through. The 42,000 Nato troops in Kosovo are already stretched to capacity simply maintaining order and preventing guerilla incursions into Serbia. The answer must be to increase their numbers, a move the United States may resist, having already signalled a desire to disengage from the region. But if the US is unwilling to commit more manpower, then Europe must provide the muscle. If it does not do so now voluntarily, then it risks having to do so later at far higher cost and with much greater risk of failure.