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GUARD The final confrontation

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  • Snezana Lazovic
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,535154,00.html THE GUARDIAN (UK) Saturday 11 August 2001 Comment The final confrontation The latest British
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 11, 2001

      Saturday 11 August 2001


      The final confrontation

      The latest British force in the Balkans faces
      unparallelled dangers

      Jonathan Steele

      Macedonia has never been closer to all-out ethnic conflict, and
      British troops have never been nearer to full-scale intervention in
      a Balkan war than they are this weekend. That is the size of the
      potential disaster looming in the wake of the contradictory
      events of the last few days: on the one hand the initialling of a
      peace agreement after weeks of tense negotiation, on the other
      a massive flare-up in the clashes between ethnic Albanian
      guerrillas and government forces and a new wave of refugees
      fleeing revenge attacks by angry civilians.

      Two separate logics are driving the crisis, and neither is easily
      stoppable. Inside the country, the tendency towards
      Macedonia's de facto partition is gathering pace, with villages
      that were once bi-ethnic gradually being abandoned by their
      minorities, either after arson attacks against shops and homes,
      or under pressure from guerrilla gunmen. On the international
      level, western countries which were accused of acting too late in
      the earlier phases of Yugoslavia's collapse are being sucked into
      sending forces to try to pre-empt a civil war.

      During the Bosnian war British, French and other foreign troops
      acted impartially, fulfilling a UN mandate to protect convoys of
      food aid and medicine, while fighting - and atrocities - raged
      around them. As reports of new horrors shocked people across
      Europe, calls grew for action to stop the ethnic cleansers, but
      only in the war's later stages did the international contingent use
      artillery and airstrikes to try to reduce Bosnian Serb pressure on
      Sarajevo and the "safe havens" declared by the UN. Its actions
      were fitful and indecisive, hamstrung by the desire to remain
      "neutral" - as the massacre victims of Srebrenica were to

      In Kosovo, impartiality was abandoned. The west took sides,
      and Britain and France were willing to threaten the use of ground
      troops against Serb forces, although they bowed to
      Washington's preference for a bombing campaign. Now we have
      Macedonia, a country which was calm and forgotten during the
      earlier disasters and often touted as a model of common sense.

      When long-simmering grievances boiled over this spring,
      provoked by an unanticipated guerrilla insurgency, the west's
      diplomatic intervention came laudably early. It has been
      energetic and sustained. European envoys and Nato's
      secretary-general, Lord Robertson, first used moral pressure to
      urge ethnic Albanian and Macedonian leaders to talk to each
      other about reforms, with the carrot of eventual European Union

      When the talks stalled in June, the envoys became full-scale
      mediators, controlling the agenda and proposing the
      compromises. As the Bush administration got its act together
      (with a Balkan policy that, in spite of last year's campaign
      rhetoric about disengagement, has turned out just as assertive
      as Clinton's), a senior American diplomat joined in. Together
      they persuaded the Macedonian government to offer
      concessions to meet the Albanian minority's demand for greater
      civil and language rights even while the insurgents remained in
      control of several towns and villages.

      The international envoys also opened contacts with the guerrilla
      leaders, brokered local ceasefires, and convinced them to end
      the armed struggle and hand their weapons to Nato troops if a
      political agreement was reached. That deal was done last
      Wednesday, and the way opened for a signing ceremony on
      Monday and the arrival of a British-led force of 3,500 troops soon
      after. The political and military parts of the package are skilfully
      synchronised so that parliament has to pass the laws needed to
      enshrine the offers of greater rights to the Albanians in the same
      period as the guerrillas complete their handover of weapons. No
      delays on "de-commissioning" here.

      So far, so good - except for two major issues. Macedonia's
      ethnic geography has changed radically. The Macedonian Slav
      minority has fled from Tetovo and the villages near it, probably
      never to return. Some had their homes looted and burned.
      Others are too scared to go back. Similarly, the Albanian
      minority in Bitola and Prilep has also been forced out by arson
      or fear.

      Even if this week's political settlement - with its implicit
      recognition that Macedonia is a bi-ethnic state - is implemented
      in full, on the ground the country has moved towards partition on
      ethnic lines. In Bosnia the Dayton agreement, in spite of its talk
      of recreating a single state, has not reversed a similar trend. So
      too in Kosovo, where the Serb minority lives in fragile enclaves,
      with international peacekeepers barely able to protect them
      where they are, let alone make it safe for them to go home.

      The other major problem is the role of the international troops.
      On paper their mandate is clear. They will not move in until an
      open-ended ceasefire is accepted by both sides, and after
      yesterday's clashes that looks uncertain. Once fully deployed,
      they will only stay for 30 days. Their job is to organise the
      collection of weapons. If things go wrong, the squaddies will be

      But will they? What if the ceasefire breaks down? Each side
      may be tempted to provoke the other into armed clashes, hoping
      the foreigners will help it. In historic terms the Albanians, as the
      petitioning minority, have done best out of this week's deal and
      have less to gain by upsetting it - though people's appetite for
      justice often turns to greed, and gunmen often become addicted
      to war and find it hard to kick the habit. Macedonians, by
      contrast, feel they have been bullied into concessions, and
      some may try to block them or seek revenge. They may also
      think the west will turn against the Albanians if they can be
      portrayed as ungrateful extremists, just as has happened to
      some extent in Kosovo.

      So it will need the highest level of professionalism for the
      British-led force to resist provocations and not take sides. In a
      sense its mandate of disarming the Albanians already makes it
      a kind of surrogate brigade of the Macedonian army. It must not
      slip into becoming a real back-up for the Macedonian security
      forces if fighting breaks out.

      The final danger centres on the capital, Skopje, where around
      200,000 Albanians live. What happens if Macedonian hardliners,
      determined to complete their country's partition, try to drive this
      huge minority out? Shops have already been attacked and
      pogroms on a larger scale, fuelled by rumour and tit-for-tat
      actions, cannot be ruled out. Could foreign troops turn a blind
      eye if civilians are killed in great numbers? This is where the
      initially separate logics of ethnic partition and international
      military intervention start to intersect. The prospect ahead is


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