AIM: start

THU, 13 DEC 2001 23:23:24 GMT

Keepers of Peace in Wintertime

The top of the Macedonian government is hoping that the newly extended mandate of NATO’s "Amber Fox" mission to this country is to be the last one ever

AIM Skopje, December 7, 2001

At 18:00 hours Thursday, the 24-hour time limit for thinking things over ordinarily given by the NATO Political Council to member-countries concerning the extension of a mission expired. Thus, since no objections were voiced, the mandate of NATO’s "Amber Fox" mission to Macedonia was automatically extended for another three months, starting with December 26 when the current mission expires. Such a course of events was to be expected after last week’s visit of President Boris Trajkovski to Brussels and his talks with NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. As opposed to the atmosphere surrounding negotiations for the deployment of NATO troops three months earlier, this time the Macedonians had no objections whatsoever. On the contrary. It now seems as though it has become perfectly clear to all concerned that without the presence of the allied "Foxes" there is to be no return of the Macedonian security forces to the crisis regions.

The international community deployed its first contingent of NATO troops to Macedonia in the middle of the summer, at a time the border line between war and peace was precariously narrow, entrusting them with the touchy task of convincing the National Liberation Army (NLA) members to lay down their weapons voluntarily. Simultaneously with the preparations for the start of the international mission symbolically entitled "Essential Harvest", a political process supposed to ensure necessary prerequisites for a peace arrangement went on. Macedonians experienced the Ohrid Agreement reached by the four leading Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties as an unwarranted concession to the opposite side (not to mention armed force as a way of obtaining it), while the international community seemed to view it as a conditio sine qua non for the establishment of a lasting peace.

The "Harvest" came to an end on September 26 when the NLA was officially disbanded, at the time the simultaneous political process needed a lot of "smoothing around the edges", offering the international community a pretext for asking President Trajkovski, their favorite Macedonian negotiator, the chance of asking for the extension of the NATO mission, this time to be limited to some one thousand-strong contingent (four times smaller than that of NATO’s "harvesters" previously engaged in the peacekeeping effort in Macedonia). This time the mandate of NATO troops is to be defined far more clearly, boiling down to a discrete watch over EU and OSCE civil observers, an advance guard of the international forces in regions Macedonian security forces presently have no control over. Reluctantly, even the hard-liners consented to the unasked for meddling of the foreigners.

It so happened that the extension of NATO’s "Amber Fox" mission to Macedonia coincided with the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, driving the Macedonian mission out of the limelight. If the truth is to be said, neither did NATO try particularly hard to bring the public closer to the true nature of its mission in Macedonia. What it amounted to was to become perhaps more apparent in several critical situations when NATO troops - acting as a sort of a buffer force between the belligerent sides - violated the mandate given them. But, who is to think of mandate when peace is at stake?! As it turned out, some did. In recent days, a discrete testing of the public pulse on the possible widening of the mandate of NATO troops came from within circles closest to President Trajkovski. Without much ado, Brussels put an end to all such speculation: an extension of the mandate YES, any changes to its stated nature, a definite NO... President Trajkovski and his associates seemed unperturbed by the brush-off. What is more, rumors of a serious split within the government flourished. According to them, the president and those close to him were in favor of the extension and widening of the mandate of NATO troops, while Prime Minister Georgievski and his sympathizers opposed both. The latter had an opportunity to voice their discontent concerning NATO’s intent to merge all of its operations in the region - those of SFOR in Bosnia, KFOR in Kosovo and "Amber Fox" in Macedonia. NATO officials brushed aside all possible reservations by stating that the sole aim of such an undertaking was to be the routing out of all possible overlaps, primarily those of a logistical nature.

So, the "Foxes" will be spending Christmas in Macedonia. Media in Germany - the country three fourths of the total number of soldiers constituting the mission come from - estimate that the situation in Macedonia has been stabilized to a large extent. Were it not so, Chancellor Schroeder and his fans would have a hard time convincing members of the Bundestaag to approve yet another mandate for German soldiers deployed in Macedonia. Consequently, the parliamentary decision to be reached next week is being expected in relative calm. Public statements coming from NATO officials on the ground give rise to hope as well: the National Liberation Army (NLA) has suspended operations, the Albanian National Army, probably an offspring of NLA, carries out minor actions against the security forces, but only sporadically. True, the return of Macedonian security forces to troubled regions - the prerequisite for the return of the refugees to their homes - is taking an impermissibly long time. Out of some ninety villages the Macedonian police has no control over, joint patrols have partially entered but five. The two leading Macedonian parties, up to recently also coalition partners - VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democratic Union - keep accusing each other, alternately, of indecision and "lightly promised speed". With whomever the truth lie, the results are miserable. The governmental Coordination Body for Crisis Management has been thoroughly recycled after the withdrawal of the Social Democratic Union from the government and the international community is anxiously waiting to see what its first steps are to be. Some Western diplomats have confided to the local media that Prime Minister Georgievski had been advised by undisclosed, high-ranking officials in Brussels and Washington to appoint Dosta Dimovska, a close associate of his, as the head of the Coordinating Body, since she is believed to be the very person capable of "keeping in rule" the rather short-tempered Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, ever ready to deploy his forces to the crisis regions on the spot.

At its last meeting, the government adopted the general plan for the return of the security forces to regions they presently have no control over - in cooperation with the international community, a point the authorities particularly strove to underline. The official view stated at the time was that 40-50 days would suffice for the reinstatement of constitutional law and order throughout the country. If that were really the case, it would mean that the "Foxes" are in for a free skiing vacation of their lives, seeing all the spare time the official forecast would give them. Unfortunately, if judging by the painfully slow pace of the reintegration process up to now, this optimism is best suited to the realm of wish-full thinking. At the moment, President Trajkovski is the first to point out the fact that Albanians, those under arms as well as the unarmed majority, no more have cause for grievances: the amendments to the constitution have been adopted, general amnesty granted them and first former NLA members already released from prison. The international community itself is far more cautious. It is encouraging the Macedonian government to carry things through, leaving no inconsistencies behind: the amnesty granted has to be regulated by law and genuinely general, the law on local self-government adopted, in short - an entirely novel atmosphere of tolerance needs to be established if there is ever to be put an end to the vicious cycle of retaliation in Macedonia. Members of the disbanded NLA are holding their breath and waiting to see what happens next.

Justly so, some Western analysts are warning that the turning point for deciding whether the "Amber Foxes" are to go home by the end of next March or not is to be the fact whether by that time lasting peace is restored to the region. If nothing else, one thing is certain: even the most ardent of militants are unwilling to expose themselves to the hardships of wintertime warfare, meaning that no particularly exciting developments are to be expected in the three month period ahead of NATO’s mission to Macedonia. What remains to be seen is whether the enthusiasm for strife is to slacken by the advent of spring in this particular part of the world.