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Looking forward to a Balkan Big MAC

Nano Ruzin analyses how Macedonia* has benefited from its relationship with NATO and other international organisations during the past two years.

Historic harvest: The number of weapons collected by NATO soldiers exceeded expectations (© NATO)

Macedonia has come a long way since 2001 when the country appeared on the brink of civil war. Indeed, although Macedonia was disappointed not to be invited to join NATO at last year's Prague Summit, the experience of working together with the Alliance and other international organisations to defuse tensions in the country and rebuild stability has been extremely positive. As a result, Macedonia aspires to joining the Alliance, together with Albania and Croatia, at its next summit, which after Prague's Big Bang could be a Balkan Big MAC.

Macedonia's brush with disaster has been a sobering experience, shattering the casual optimism that had earlier characterised Macedonian attitudes to their country's security, stability and economic prospects. Indeed, during the first decade of their country's independence, Macedonians of all ethnicities were probably complacent about the dangers lurking beneath the surface. In part, the lavish praise of foreigners, who variously described Macedonia as an "oasis of peace", a "multiethnic miracle" and the "only former Yugoslav republic whose sovereignty did not bear the scars of an armed conflict", contributed to this false sense of security. The 2001 crisis brought both Macedonians and their leaders back to reality with a bump.

The reasons behind the Albanian revolt that brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war are many and complex. They include social factors, such as high unemployment among Albanians, low participation in state institutions and minimal welfare provision; demographic factors, such as an extremely high Albanian birth rate and increasing immigration from neighbouring countries; sociological factors, such as the structure of the traditional Albanian family, mutual distrust and lack of contact between communities as a result of cultural and linguistic differences; institutional and educational factors, such as constitutional grievances and unsatisfied higher educational aspirations; and political and cultural factors, in particular the issue of Albanian identity, which came to the fore in the wake of NATO's intervention in Kosovo and the withdrawal of Serbian forces from that region. Taken together, it is easy to understand why interethnic relations were degenerating in early 2001.

By May 2001, it had become increasingly clear that the conflict was spiralling beyond the control of the country's security forces. The magnitude and the intensity of the clashes indicated that the country could easily disintegrate into civil war, with consequences that had the potential to destabilise not just Macedonia but the wider region. The options were stark: armed conflict, civil war and self-destruction, on the one hand, or peace through compromise, on the other.

Skopje chose the path of compromise and solicited international assistance to facilitate a stabilisation process. In this way, the Macedonian government worked closely together with representatives of the European Union, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to create the necessary conditions for a return to peace. That said, the international involvement in Macedonia was very different to that in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, since it was primarily political. Macedonia was both a NATO Partner aspiring to Alliance "member" and a sovereign state. For this reason, any action by the Alliance and other international bodies required the support of both the country's president and government, which in response to the crisis had been reconstituted with the addition of representatives of the opposition.

NATO assistance

On 14 June 2001, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski requested NATO assistance to oversee the disarming of the extremists. In parallel, the European Union and the United States sent envoys -- François Léotard and James Pardew respectively -- to Macedonia to help facilitate dialogue between the country's political parties. Meanwhile, crisis management in the field was entrusted to Pieter Feith, a pragmatic and flexible NATO diplomat, whose shuttle diplomacy helped carve out an opening for communicating with the rebels (see article Back from the brink by Mihai Carp in the winter 2002 issue of NATO Review).

Against the odds, a cease-fire was brokered and the belligerents committed themselves to the political process. This was a huge achievement, but media on all sides were dubious about the merit of the negotiations and hostile to the international involvement. Moreover, NATO, in particular, suffered from an especially negative image in many Macedonian eyes. For this reason, at President Trajkovski's request, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson tasked his Special Adviser Mark Laity to work with the president's cabinet to put together an effective public information campaign (see article Battling the media by Mark Laity in the winter 2002 issue of NATO Review).

Macedonian military experts determined that the NATO mission in Macedonia had to be limited in scope, objectives and duration. On the political level, NATO had to persuade the Albanian extremists to respect the cease-fire and hand over their weapons. Meanwhile, the Macedonian coalition government, which contained both hard-liners and moderates, committed itself to controlling and preventing the use of heavy weapons by the state's security forces. In parallel to those efforts, the country's parliamentary political parties had to commit themselves to four measures: adopting the general political agreement; creating an appropriate legal framework for the presence of NATO forces leading the peace-building process; presenting a plan for the terms and details of handing over weapons for adoption by the Macedonian government and NATO; and ensuring a sustainable cease-fire.

Following several weeks of intensive talks and once all conditions had been fulfilled, a framework for peace was signed in Ohrid on 13 July 2001. This cleared the way for the deployment on 27 August 2001 of NATO troops in Operation Essential Harvest, the purpose of which was to collect and destroy the weapons handed over. The operation involved 4,800 soldiers from 13 countries in a multinational brigade under the command of the United Kingdom, which itself contributed more than 1,700 soldiers. In the 30-day, hand-over period that ended on 26 September 2001, the mission collected and destroyed some 3,875 weapons. In October of the same year, the rebel army was disbanded, changes to the Macedonian constitution were adopted soon after and an amnesty was granted to the Albanian rebels so that the Ohrid Agreement could begin to be implemented.

As Operation Essential Harvest drew to a close, President Trajkovski requested an extension of the international presence to underwrite what had already been achieved. A new German-led NATO mission, Operation Amber Fox, with some 700 soldiers took over to ensure the security of 280 EU and OSCE civilian observers until 15 December 2001. That mission was followed by Operation Allied Harmony, which came to an end in April 2003, at which time NATO handed responsibility for the operation to the European Union, thereby enabling it to launch its first mission, Operation Concordia.

The modest ceremony that took place just outside Skopje to mark the hand-over of command in Macedonia and the formal establishment of the first EU mission was not just the celebration of the beginning of a new stage in European security; it also confirmed the enduring ties between transatlantic partners. Indeed, it is in part a result of Macedonia's positive evolution since the 2001 crisis that it has been possible, in spite of great obstacles, for NATO and the European Union to come together and agree formal working relations.

Shared lessons

Both the international community — that is the European Union, NATO and the OSCE — and Macedonia learned important lessons from the experience of the past two years, including the following:

  • While various international organisations and NATO in particular played an important role in resolving the crisis, it is Macedonia, its people and leaders who deserve most credit. The government had to prevail over hard-liners who were hostile to the international community, rejected compromise and preferred to seek military solutions to the crisis. Moreover, even though the number of casualties remained comparatively low, Macedonians and Albanians have had to overcome deep prejudices to begin to forge new relations.

The differences in preparedness between the Prague invitees and the remaining aspirants are no greater than two or perhaps three MAP cycles

  • The fact that Macedonia has been a NATO Partner since 1995, that it has aspired to join the Alliance for nearly as long and that to this end it has been participating in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) since 1999 facilitated good relations between Skopje and the various international actors and contributed to a swift resolution of the crisis.

  • The existing presence of NATO forces in the region, including a KFOR logistical base in Skopje, and NATO's earlier experience in crisis management elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia contributed greatly to the success of NATO operations. The Alliance's missions were extremely effective and the number of weapons collected exceeded expectations. Moreover, NATO operated within a limited mandate in a particularly flexible way, alternating between exerting political pressure and using force. To harmonise its strategy, NATO stayed in constant contact with both the Macedonian government in Skopje and the rebels.

  • The international community reacted in a timely manner and collaborated closely with the Macedonian authorities, who understood that they could not allow a large-scale civil war to erupt in their country and risk massive destruction, loss of human life, crime, refugees and destabilisation of the entire region. In spite of some reservations, the Macedonian authorities chose to cooperate fully with the international community. In this way, Skopje took a series of unpopular measures that ran counter to prevailing attitudes among the public.

  • In the beginning, the Alliance underestimated the level of hostility that it faced in local media. To put this right, improve its image and counter the conspiracy theories that were gaining ground, it dispatched a team of media experts to Macedonia to work with the local authorities and explain the nature of its work.

  • International collaboration and cooperation on crisis management in Macedonia were exemplary. Each international organisation contributed in its own way to strengthening the peace missions. The European Union and the United States facilitated the talks, while frequent visits by the NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson — who conducted 19 visits to Macedonia in 19 months — EU High Representative Javier Solana and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Mircea Geoana lent political importance to resolving the crisis.

  • Ongoing monitoring of the situation in the post-conflict period has proved a highly effective means of stabilising the country. The signing of the Ohrid Agreement was in fact just one step in the peace process. Subsequent phases have involved the return of security forces to crisis areas, proper application of the amnesty law, the holding of free, legal parliamentary elections in September 2002, the organisation of a census and the promulgation of a series of other laws.

  • In addition to seeking to improve relations between communities within Macedonia, Skopje has to focus in the coming years on building better relations both with Albania and with the political leadership in Kosovo. Only by working closely together with the neighbours will it be possible to build long-term security.

  • Border management and security in the fight against organised crime and closer cooperation with neighbours are critical to the stability of the region. For this reason, it is in the interest of both the international community and the region that the conclusions adopted at the May 2003 Ohrid Conference on Border Security and Management are implemented.

  • The 2001 crisis demonstrated clearly the shortcomings of the Macedonian Armed Forces when confronted by asymmetric threats. Macedonia is currently undergoing a far-ranging defence review with an aim to rationalise both the armed forces and procurement practices. The experience of two years ago must now serve as a spur to more ambitious military reforms to equip the country to deal with asymmetric enemies, criminal groups and terrorists.

  • Re-building confidence is a long-term process requiring expertise, wisdom, patience, tolerance and energy. The actors in the crisis as well as the international community have understood this.

Two years after the crisis and following parliamentary elections, former adversaries sit side by side and work together both in the Skopje parliament and in the coalition that governs the country. That is the best guarantee for preserving peace and stabilising the country. Indeed, today Macedonia is no longer a destabilising factor in the region. Rather, it is a potential role model for other countries. Moreover, Macedonia continues to work towards becoming a NATO member and to play its part in the war on terror.

While the 2001 crisis undermined Macedonia's chances of becoming a full NATO member at the Prague Summit, Alliance membership remains a key foreign policy goal. The country is committed to following the MAP process and has initiated trilateral cooperation with Albania and Croatia along similar lines to those successfully pursued by the Baltic Republics. An Adriatic Charter was signed in May by all three countries in the presence of US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the message from the trio is clear: the differences in preparedness between the Prague invitees and the remaining aspirants are no greater than two or perhaps three MAP cycles. Who is to say that a Balkan Big MAC won't be on the menu in Istanbul next year?

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