Young men and women from all over Europe headed south last week for a peculiarly Balkan harvest in the dangerous land of Macedonia. It has been a hot summer and the corn is high, but these gleaners are out for a more elusive crop: the guns of the rebel ethnic Albanians who make up the so-called National Liberation Army. No one is making plans for a bountiful autumn festival.
Late last week and over the weekend the bulk of the 4,500-strong NATO task force
dubbed Operation Essential Harvest arrived in military transport planes, making
Skopje's airport bustle as it hasn't since troops moved in for deployment
in Kosovo in the summer of 1999. After a short visit to Macedonia early last week,
Supreme Allied Commander General Joseph Ralston reported to the representatives
of NATO's 19 member countries that the level of risk was "acceptable"
for the alliance to launch the operation. The German Bundestag will meet in special
session this week to sign off on its promised contingent of 500 troops, but otherwise
there was surprisingly scant political fallout in the alliance's capitals.
But no one is comfortable with the mission, however hedged it is against the prospect
of becoming a longterm commitment. After almost six years in Bosnia and more than
two in Kosovo, NATO is now present in force in a third remnant of ex-Yugoslavia,
one where the firing is live and the very real consequences of a potential escalation
would be dire for the entire region. Yet NATO insists that this action is different:
it is not a peacekeeping mission, let alone a peacemaking one. The troops, most
of them British, come at the invitation of the Macedonian government for a specific
and limited task of collecting as many of the N.L.A.'s weapons as they care
to hand over and then getting out in 30 days. What happens then is still
NATO hopes its limited action will start a chain reaction of mutual trust in a
place that seems chronically inured to it. The troops have to reap enough weapons
to convince Macedonia's Slavic majority that the N.L.A. is committed to the
larger task of forging a political modus vivendi with the Macedonian-speaking
majority. And just how many weapons would that be? Sources close to NATO in Skopje
said the alliance had arrived at a "credible" goal of gathering at least
3,000 weapons in 15 designated collection points. A spokesman for the Macedonian
government said it would accept NATO's estimates, but that is hardly the
last word on that central question. A NATO official in Brussels called it "a
fool's game" to countenance escalating claims from hard-line elements
of the government that as many as 100,000 arms are in rebel hands. Experienced
soldiers will be looking more closely at the quality of the weapons handed in
than the quantity: a shoulder-fired antitank is worth far more than its weight
in World War II-era rifles.
A central irony to NATO's dilemma is that its official host, the Macedonian
government, is considerably less enthusiastic about the troop presence than are
its enemies. Saso Ordanoski, editor of the weekly newsmagazine Forum, says many
Macedonian Slavs feel cheated by NATO. "At first they were calling [the N.L.A.] murderers and terrorists," he says. "Now they're
sending their highest emissaries to discuss voluntarily giving up their weapons."
Nowhere is that sense of betrayal stronger, perhaps, than among the couple dozen
Macedonian Slavs manning a roadblock on the road from Skopje north to the border
with Kosovo the main line of ground communication for NATO's operations
in the Serb province. Macedonian Slavs make up the majority of the estimated 64,000
people displaced from villages in majority ethnic Albanian regions now controlled
by the N.L.A. "We know this picture from Kosovo," said a black-clad
elderly woman from the village of Neprosteno, near the majority ethnic Albanian
city of Tetovo. "They're not going to disarm the N.L.A., they're
just going to replace their old weapons with new, better ones." A sunburned
younger man from the village took up the chorus: "This voluntary disarmament
is a lie, they're just going to hand in their World War II guns."
The mood is far more welcoming in the N.L.A.-controlled village of Radusa, just
over the hill from the border with Kosovo. With most of the civilians gone, a
pair of donkeys had taken refuge from the sun in the partially destroyed mosque.
The local N.L.A. commander, code-named Mesusi, posed in front of a captured T-55
tank to say he had already begun discussing the modalities of disarmament with
British troops. "We're going to hand in all 140 of our guns," he
said, as well as the two tanks and one armored personnel carrier captured in fighting
with Macedonian security forces in early August. Following the line of his commanders,
Mesusi expressed confidence that giving up arms would assure his men NATO's
protection for the future. But like most ethnic Albanians, he envisions a NATO
presence and mandate far beyond the 30 days in the offing. "I think NATO
will need to stay at least five years for Macedonia to become a democratic country,"
he said. If they don't, he added, the N.L.A. will still have the means to
rejoin the battle. "It won't be difficult for Albanians to organize
a second time," he says. "It will be a civil war, and we could never
live together after that. It will be the end of Macedonia."
In the parlous balance between the N.L.A.'s promises and threats, the Macedonian
parliament this week is scheduled to begin the approval process for the "framework
agreement" signed by political leaders on August 13. Constitutional amendments
establishing rights of language, education and public symbols for the Albanians
are supposed to be completed by September 27, about the same time that the NATO
task force pulls out. Many Balkan experts, including former Supreme Commander
General Wesley Clark, have expressed severe doubts that NATO's limited engagement
will be enough to quell the distrust and stanch the violence. Says Mark Thompson,
Balkan analyst for the International Crisis Group in Brussels: "You can be
pretty sure that any voluntary disarmament isn't going to convince the [Macedonian Slavs] that the N.L.A. threat is over."
NATO officials counter that they can't do more than the Macedonian government
has asked them to. However shaky the government is, it has sovereignty; the warring
parties in Bosnia relinquished their sovereignty at Dayton in 1995, and Serbia
lost its over Kosovo after the 1999 air campaign. NATO officials are perturbed
that their reluctant hosts can't even stomach clearing the blockade from
the Skopje-Pristina road; clearing the constitutional changes will take a lot
more political courage than that.
But just because NATO's hands are tied doesn't mean they will be able
to wash them clean at the end of this autumn's Essential Harvest. The European
Union is already giving "serious thought" to a bolstered observer presence
to "soften the phase shift" once NATO pulls out. But no one really believes
the N.L.A. is going to fade into the hills, however many guns it hands over in
the coming month. Ten years in the Balkans have regrettably demonstrated the stubborn
inertia of armed conflict. Just as in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO could find the potential
cost of leaving higher than that of sticking around.