Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, May 28, 2001

South Balkans Conflict, NATO's Mission and the American Interest

by Dana H. Allin, Editor, Survival, The International Institute for Strategic Studies

From the early 1990s, as Yugoslavia suffered its wars of ethnic cleansing, there was much dreadful speculation about the consequences of Macedonia succumbing to the same fate. Some of the more lurid scenarios – such as a general south Balkans war drawing in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey – never seemed very logical. The real challenges to Macedonian identity and stability – including nationalist hostility and a damaging blockade from EU-member Greece – were grave enough. In any event, for most of its first decade as an independent state, Macedonia confounded the pessimists by surviving.

Now, armed ethnic conflict has come to Macedonia, and the pessimists have reason to feel vindicated. Carl Bildt told a London audience in March 2001 that the present state of affairs in Macedonia reminded him of Bosnia in 1992, or Kosovo in February 1998. Some consider the threat of 'Greater Albania' nationalism to be as unsettling for the first decade of this century as 'Greater Serbia' nationalism was for the concluding decade of the last century. And critics of NATO suggest (again, not very logically) that the Kosovo intervention was the fateful action in a chain of events leading to the demise of Macedonia.

The current threat to Macedonia is the most serious one it has faced, which is to say that it is very serious indeed. There is, however, a huge difference between Macedonia today and Yugoslavia in 1991-95 or 1998-99. That difference is a central government exercising civilised restraint and trying to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of an Albanian minority which accounts for around one-third of the country's population (the true share is disputed, of course).

The armed Albanian extremists seem to have shared the misconceptions of some Western commentators who argued that, in going to war for Kosovo, NATO demonstrated support for the violent agenda of a 'Greater Albania'. The misconception is based on rather simplistic reasoning. Western support for the Macedonian state against Albanian violence is perfectly consistent with military intervention in Kosovo to protect Albanians against Serb violence. This message may finally be sinking through to the Albanian rebels.

Politics and Security

Officials in Skopje have tried to suggest that that the armed insurrection is entirely imported from Kosovo. This seems unlikely: Western journalists have found a high degree of at least tacit support for the guerrillas from Macedonia's Albanians; and the fighters themselves include many Albanians from the Macedonian side of the border (a border that is of relatively recent salience anyway). Skopje's accusations do point, however, to a disturbing truth: while the insurrection clearly has some organic connection to the grievances of Macedonia's Albanians, it also has an autonomous life of its own, and thus a strictly political solution to it may not be available.

The political problem is bad enough on its own. Despite the apparent good faith of successive governments, Albanians suffer discrimination in daily life, and have not been made to feel full equality as citizens. Ethnic resentments are palpable, and have been worsened by the recent violence. Srgjan Kerim, the country's Foreign Minister until early May, admits that Albanians have some cause to feel like second-class citizens: 'We should have had many more Albanians in national structures ... If Albanians are not part of national structures they can't identify with the country.'

Macedonia's Albanian politicians share some of the blame for the current crisis; too often they have put forward agendas that have more to do with nationalist symbolism than with practical measures to improve the lot of the minority. Thus, at various times in the past decade, ethnic relations have been strained by such nationalist rallying cries as demands for an Albanian-language university; the right to fly Albanian flags over municipal buildings; the recasting of Macedonia as a bi-national state; or the designation of Albanian as a second official language. Not all of these demands are unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable, however, for some Slav politicians to worry about the paralysing effects of bi-national federalism in a small country with a weak state.

The efforts of the West in trying to arrange a political accommodation – including high-level attention from Colin Powell and, especially, Javier Solana – have been exemplary. These efforts follow a decade of sustained Western attention, and Macedonia's relative stability until now, like the recent advent of a national-unity government, have to be counted among the successes of the West's Balkan policies. That success, however, cannot be allowed to obscure one unwelcome reality: that the transatlantic commitment to the Balkans must include not just an active role in mediating inter-ethnic dialogue, but also a commitment to the integrity of the Macedonian state. This commitment has a military dimension. In the first instance, this will require KFOR to do everything possible to block the infiltration of fighters and the flow of weapons from the Kosovo side of the border. Yet everything that has been achieved in the Balkans so far could be threatened by Macedonia's break-up, and NATO's commitment to Macedonia may also require it to provide military support within Macedonia itself.

Skopje has not, to my knowledge, asked for such an intervention, and many in the West will find the prospect mind-boggling. But so was the idea of forceful intervention on the side of the Sarajevo government in the early 1990s, and so was the idea of deploying American troops in Bosnia for one year – much less the five-and-a-half years that they have remained so far. In early 1998 it was mind-boggling to imagine that NATO, with the United States in the lead, would intervene militarily in Kosovo. Critics of these earlier interventions will no doubt seize on any discussion of a deployment in Macedonia as evidence that they were right: Balkan interventions equal mission creep and quagmire. Yet it is difficult to imagine how NATO, after all that it has done and invested in the former Yugoslavia, could stand aloof from a Macedonian civil war.

Civil war is absolutely a worst-case scenario, and one need not assume that it will happen. But options for inserting a NATO force, ready to confront Albanian guerrillas and restrain the potential excesses of Macedonian government forces, need to be on the transatlantic table for open discussion, now. There are four reasons that the discussion cannot wait:

The American Interest

This is an inconvenient crisis for a new US administration that has less of a commitment to the Balkans engagement than its predecessor. On the eve of the recent fighting, Macedonian politicians indicated that they had heard President George Bush's campaign rhetoric, and believed a US withdrawal was imminent. In formulating its policies, the Bush administration should be aware that both Balkan moderates and Balkan extremists are listening.

Since Bush's inauguration, his administration has backed off from talk about a withdrawal. Colin Powell in particular has recognised the dangers such a withdrawal would pose to NATP unity. But the new administration's attitude towards a long-term Balkans deployment will differ significantly from its predecessor. Whether or not US troops withdraw in the medium term, the ambivalence of the American military commitment could be damaging. The crisis in Macedonia, suggesting another intervention and a deeper commitment, makes this painfully clear.

The European allies should recognise that the uncertainties of the US commitment are not just due to the new administration's policies. Rather, such uncertainties arise from American history, domestic politics and geo-strategic responsibilities. The idea of a 'division of labour' (as mooted by Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice), in which the European allies concentrate on peacekeeping and the United States husbands its resources for 'major war' contingencies in East Asia and the Persian Gulf, may have troubling implications for NATO solidarity. But the idea also reflects, to a significant extent, present realities. Europeans probably need an American flag to be with them in Macedonia. But they may have to carry it almost alone.