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Back from the brink

Lethal weapons: During Essential Harvest, NATO
soldiers collected close to 4,000 weapons in 30 days

Mihai Carp describes and examines NATO's groundbreaking efforts to head off conflict in Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.*

This year looks likely to be the first in more than a decade in which good news has eclipsed bad in Southeastern Europe. This is, no doubt, partly attributable to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 against the United States and the shift in media attention to other parts of the world. But it is also the result of genuine improvements in conditions on the ground which appeared extremely unlikely a year earlier.

In early 2001, an armed conflict in Southern Serbia, pitting ethnic Albanian extremists against Serbian and Yugoslav security forces, threatened the stability of the region. Its peaceful resolution was in large part the result of a concerted conflict-prevention strategy pursued by NATO and other international organisations. A few months later, in the neighbouring former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* a full-blown civil war with potentially disastrous consequences for the country, its population, and international engagement in the region was also successfully averted.

In both cases, NATO, together with other international organisations, played a key role in creating the conditions for re-establishing peace and stability. Working closely with the governments in Belgrade and Skopje, the international community helped put in place a comprehensive set of reform and confidence-building measures to underpin broad political agreements that were worked out to end the two conflicts. And in both cases, ethnic Albanian extremists were persuaded to lay down their arms. After years of public debate and setbacks for the international community in the former Yugoslavia, both cases might go down as the first examples of effective crisis management and conflict prevention.

Trouble in the Presevo Valley

When Serbian and Yugoslav security forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999 in the wake of NATO's air campaign, few were aware that another potential conflict was brewing just over the border in Southern Serbia. In the Presevo Valley, however, a large ethnic Albanian community remained under Serbian direct rule lacking adequate political and social rights with little prospect for a decent future. The fact that many of the special Serbian police forces and Yugoslav Army units that had earlier been responsible for holding down the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo were temporarily stationed in Southern Serbia added to local tensions.

At the time, as a result of a Military-Technical Agreement signed between the Alliance and the Yugoslav Army, the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) supervised a five-kilometre-wide buffer zone along Kosovo's internal boundary with Serbia. KFOR troops were not physically present in this strip of land - known as the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) - but retained oversight of Yugoslav activities there. In this way, KFOR ensured that it was off limits to the Yugoslav Army, though not to local police.

Early international engagement can help avert a worst-case scenario

In the second half of 2000, lightly armed ethnic Albanian extremists launched a series of attacks in the GSZ on Serbian security forces, under the premise of creating more equal rights for their ethnic kin. Calling themselves the "Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac" (UCPMB), the extremists killed four Serbian policemen in November. And despite robust patrolling by KFOR of the boundary inside Kosovo, UCPMB control of many ethnic Albanian villages quickly spread to three municipalities: Bujanovac (by far the most important with a mostly mixed population); Presevo (where ethnic Albanians are in a clear majority); and Medvedja, (where there is a majority of Serbs). By late December 2000, the number of armed and uniformed ethnic Albanian militants had grown to a few hundred with no solution in sight to the standoff.

For KFOR and NATO, the rapidly escalating conflict presented a serious security risk with immediate implications for Kosovo. For one, the GSZ could not become a safe haven for ethnic Albanian extremists. There were also concerns that a full-scale military response by Belgrade would not only risk drawing more ethnic Albanian fighters to the area but that thousands of refugees might be forced to flee Southern Serbia into Kosovo.

As KFOR had no direct mandate in the area, it was clear that a political solution was needed both to guarantee enhanced rights for ethnic Albanians in Southern Serbia and equally to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Indeed, as early as December, the international community, represented by the European Union, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), agreed that a common approach was necessary to forestall further violence and re-establish stability in the area. The international community's early involvement in the crisis also coincided with the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade that opened new prospects for Serbia and Montenegro to return to the Euro-Atlantic fold.

In what became the first in a series of high-level contacts between NATO and Belgrade since the end of the Alliance's Kosovo campaign, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic came to Brussels in February 2001 to brief the North Atlantic Council on proposals for a longer-term solution to the problems in Southern Serbia. Part of the so-called Covic Plan was for NATO to agree to a reduction of the GSZ that would allow Yugoslav authorities to re-establish control over the area. As such a reduction could not be considered lightly, given the potential for further clashes, the North Atlantic Council stressed that Belgrade would first have to show good faith by introducing a number of confidence-building measures to persuade the ethnic Albanians to lay down their arms. The Secretary General also appointed a Special Representative, Pieter Feith, to facilitate contacts between Belgrade and the ethnic Albanian community.

In the next four months, Mr Feith and a small team of dedicated NATO staff undertook numerous missions to the area. In the course of these missions, the NATO team helped negotiate cease-fires and establish direct channels of communication between Serbian authorities and ethnic Albanian armed groups. The team also oversaw the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the implementation of confidence-building measures, including amnesty for ethnic Albanian fighters, and, eventually, the demilitarisation of the UCPMB.

While Mr Feith and his team were often involved in traditional shuttle diplomacy (all within a 20-kilometre radius), NATO did not have a formal mediation role. Complementing the high-level contacts and consultations in Brussels between NATO and the European Union, a representative of the European Union's Policy Planning Unit accompanied the NATO team at all times. This joint, hands-on approach proved extremely effective in fostering a common international strategy and impressed upon the parties that the international community would not tolerate escalation. The missions also provided the North Atlantic Council and the European Union with crucial information they needed to make informed decisions.

After complicated negotiations in the field, and despite occasional setbacks, the North Atlantic Council eventually agreed to a phased and conditioned relaxation of the GSZ in four distinct steps during spring 2001. Relaxation meant that while the KFOR Commander retained overall responsibility for the area, Yugoslav forces were allowed to re-enter the buffer zone up to the administrative boundary with Kosovo. At each interval, the North Atlantic Council took into account NATO military advice and the evolving situation on the ground, with the whole process culminating in the return of Yugoslav forces to the most sensitive area, Bujanovac, in mid-May. A related demilitarisation agreement that effectively ended the rebellion was signed by the UCPMB and the Serbian government on 21 May.

In return for the disbanding of the UCPMB, Belgrade agreed a broad set of measures to facilitate the speedy integration of ethnic Albanians into political and administrative structures in the region. To this end, the international community agreed to provide help, where needed. Refugees were encouraged to return to their homes and relief agencies ensured that materials were available to make them habitable. The OSCE set up a specialised programme for training a multi-ethnic police force for deployment in mostly Albanian villages formerly held by the rebels. And local elections to provide for more fair and equal representation of all ethnic groups at municipal level were promised.

Skopje on the brink

International and NATO efforts in Southern Serbia were, however, soon overshadowed by an eruption of violence in the neighbouring former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* In what many observers at the time saw as a coordinated effort by ethnic Albanian extremists to foment further unrest, clashes between state security forces and the so-called National Liberation Army (NLA), had already led to serious loss of life and damage to property around the city of Tetovo in the north-west of the country in March. By early summer, ethnic Albanian militants had taken control of large swathes of territory in the eastern and northern part of the country. The government, in turn, was using disproportionate force in its efforts to quell the uprising. For NATO, this risk of renewed instability posed grave political challenges, as the very survival of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* as a state was in jeopardy.

From the beginning of the crisis, the NATO Liaison Office in Skopje, then headed by Ambassador Hans-Joerg Eiff, a German career diplomat, was involved in trying to defuse it, liaising with the host government and the other international organisations represented in the country. Drawing on some of the lessons of the crisis in Southern Serbia, the international community embarked on a concerted effort to find a political solution, in cooperation with the Skopje government. In this way, the European Union and the United States began working with representatives of the country's main political parties to devise a broad framework both to enhance the status of the ethnic Albanian community and to preserve the unity of the state.

For its part, NATO - with the consent of the highest levels of the Skopje government - was tasked with security matters. This included securing an end to the fighting and creating conditions for an effective disengagement of the army and security forces, and the NLA. As in the case of Southern Serbia, Lord Robertson called on Mr Feith and his crisis-management team to open a channel of communication with the armed groups with a view to securing necessary cease-fires and persuading them to support the ongoing political negotiation process. At the request of the President of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*, Boris Trajkovski, the Secretary General also dispatched Mark Laity, his special adviser and NATO deputy spokesman, to work from the President's Office and serve as a key point of contact [See accompanying article by Mark Laity in this issue of NATO Review.].

Special Representative
Pieter Feith
( Pieter Feith)

As the crisis escalated, it became clear that Skopje could not resolve it on its own. In this way, NATO received a request on 14 June from President Trajkovski for help with implementing a plan for defusing the crisis, notably to assist with the disarming of the armed groups. In response, the North Atlantic Council commissioned military advice that, in turn, stressed that any NATO operation would have to be limited in scope, size and time.

The challenge was daunting as it meant convincing the NLA voluntarily to hand over their weapons in return for a comprehensive peace plan and the prospect of integration into mainstream society. Given the specific nature of the mission, four prerequisites for the deployment of NATO troops were set: a successful conclusion of the general political agreement among the main political parties; proper legal arrangements for NATO troops carrying out the operation on the territory of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia;* a plan presented by NATO and agreed between NATO and Skopje specifying the modalities and timetable for weapons handovers; and an enduring cease-fire among the parties.

After an intense few weeks, all of the above finally came together, culminating in the signing of the EU/US-brokered Framework Agreement on 13 August in the lake resort of Ohrid. NATO's weapons-collection plan, Operation Essential Harvest could begin. Over the next 30 days, a NATO force comprising several thousand troops collected close to 4,000 weapons at several designated collection points. By early October, the task was complete and the NLA had ceased to exist as a structured, armed organisation. Former NLA fighters would soon be granted an amnesty by the government with a view to facilitating their return to civilian life.

As a follow-on to Essential Harvest, NATO also agreed, at Skopje's request, to retain a much smaller force of a few hundred military personnel in the country to protect observers from the European Union and OSCE, tasked with monitoring the re-entry of the state security forces into former crisis areas. The new NATO force, Task Force Fox - numbering only a few hundred men and women - has since been operating under a narrowly defined mandate. Its presence has, however, helped keep the peace process on track.

What a difference a year can make

Just over a year after the troubles in Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* it is perhaps too early to draw final conclusions. As ever, the wounds of past conflicts do not heal quickly. However, there is widespread agreement that the international community's early and efficient engagement in both theatres, has paid invaluable dividends.

In this regard, Southern Serbia might be the most telling example. Following last year's demilitarisation agreement, Yugoslav forces re-entered the GSZ without major incident. And while occasional acts of violence have been reported over the past year, the security situation has improved markedly, with Serbian and Yugoslav security presence in the area reduced, and several hundred members of a multi-ethnic police force deployed to places formerly held by the UCPMB. Local elections, carried out by the Serbian government, with the help of the OSCE, took place in August of this year and are considered to have been the most important confidence-building measure in the area to date. In the most symbolic and visible sign of redressing past grievances, an ethnic Albanian was elected mayor of the ethnically mixed municipality of Bujanovac for the first time in 50 years. The Alliance's facilitation efforts last year also paved the way for a steady improvement of relations between NATO and Belgrade that could culminate in the accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the Partnership for Peace programme.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the situation remains more fragile but prospects for peace are better than at any time during the past two years. The general elections held in mid-September produced a landslide victory for the opposition coalition - a triumph, above all, for the citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* who have opted peacefully for change.

Lessons learned

Looking back at the experience of both NATO and the international community in general in Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* a number of considerations might prove helpful in addressing similar challenges in the future.

Early engagement

In a future crisis, early international engagement can help avert a worst-case scenario. Still traumatised by its failure to act early and decisively in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, and after considerable investment in Kosovo, the international community was well aware that it could not let events in Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* degenerate.

In the case of Southern Serbia, NATO had to maintain a secure environment in Kosovo, and had to ensure full compliance by the Yugoslav Army with the provision of the Military-Technical Agreement in the GSZ. There was not only an urgent need to halt the spread of ethnic Albanian extremism, but also an imperative to address the root causes of instability in the area. In this way, Belgrade's request for assistance in helping implement a broad peace plan was taken up without delay. In the case of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the international community was equally aware that it could not afford the price of a full-scale civil war, and worked insistently with the authorities in Skopje towards achieving an early political agreement.

Consistent follow-up

Persistent follow-up, and tenacity in post-conflict management remain equally important. Since the end of armed hostilities in Southern Serbia, the OSCE, the main implementing agency, has provided invaluable advice and expertise to the Serbian authorities in setting up the multi-ethnic police force, a local multi-ethnic media reform programme, and preparing for local elections. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the signing of the political Framework Agreement last August was just one, albeit an important step in the peace process. Follow-on work on the re-entry of state security forces into former crisis areas, proper implementation of the amnesty law, and preparations for free and fair, general elections in cooperation with the government in Skopje, have since been the main focus of international activity. Other tasks will follow in the months ahead to keep the peace process on track.

It's not the numbers that count

Compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, where NATO has deployed tens of thousands of troops over the years, the overall investment in manpower on the ground in both Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* has been minimal. Indeed, in Southern Serbia a NATO military presence was neither contemplated nor feasible. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* both Essential Harvest and Task Force Fox have been highly effective with many fewer troops than NATO deployments in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. The very presence of these missions, however, has had an impressive dissuasive effect and represents an innovative way of utilising targeted military operations in support of a broad political strategy. In this way, greater international involvement at a later stage has been avoided.

International cooperation and coordination

The value of senior-level, inter-agency coordination was clearly demonstrated in 1999 already when Carl Bildt, then the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Balkans, brought together key individuals from the European Union, NATO, the OSCE and the United Nations for regular meetings. But in the international responses to the crises in both Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* cooperation and coordination reached new levels, thereby contributing to the overall success of international efforts to halt the violence. When fighting erupted in the Presevo Valley and later in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the main international players quickly realised that a coordinated effort would be key to solving problems, especially by applying pressure on the parties to reach a political solution and helping with the implementation of confidence-building measures. In managing both crises, the international organisations involved successfully avoided duplication of efforts and engaged in the areas in which they had the most expertise.

Throughout, coordination and cooperation among international organisations took place in such a way that every organisation helped re-enforce the missions and goals of the others. In Southern Serbia, for example, the European Union enhanced its monitoring presence in the area while the OSCE quickly set up its multi-ethnic police-training programme as soon as they had received NATO/KFOR support for possible emergency extraction.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* NATO's efforts on the security front underpinned the complex political negotiating process that was taking place under EU and US auspices. Moreover, frequent joint high-level visits by the NATO Secretary General, the EU High Representative, and the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to Skopje added political weight to the international leverage over the main players and underscored the international community's unity of purpose and vision. Despite heavy conflicting schedules and other pressing responsibilities, near-weekly meetings by the Troika of Lord Robertson, Javier Solana and Mircea Geoana to the offices of President Trajkovski and other senior government officials in Skopje became a common feature and, more than symbolically, underscored international commitment.

New missions, new working methods

Finally, in both Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* NATO had the freedom to respond flexibly, whether by applying political pressure or deploying forces for specific limited-duration missions, underscoring the ability of the Alliance to respond effectively in future crises, together with other organisations.

In both cases, NATO acted at the request of the legitimate governments in Belgrade and Skopje: in Southern Serbia, assisting with the implementation of the Covic Plan, and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* assisting with the collection of weapons handed over by the NLA. Moreover, the dispatching of the Secretary General's Special Representative, who could interact directly with the host government and representatives of the ethnic Albanian armed groups, proved invaluable in securing the latter's eventual support for the political process, securing cease-fires and the disengagement of forces. Finally, as the North Atlantic Council prepared for crucial political and operational decisions, NATO member states - while retaining oversight - allowed the Special Representative sufficient leeway and flexibility to work effectively on the ground.

Looking ahead, the international community still has much work to do in Southeastern Europe. The goal of creating self-sustaining peace processes remains elusive. However, the international community has demonstrated in both Southern Serbia and in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* that, under the right circumstances, it can make a critical difference. In this regard, the move from a theoretical appreciation of the benefits of conflict prevention to the practical implementation of a strategy to manage crisis and head off full-scale war must rank as one of the greatest successes of the past decade of international intervention in the region.

Mihai Carp works on Southeastern Europe in NATO's Political Affairs Division and was a key member of the NATO team working to avert conflict in Southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.*


* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.