NATO agrees to a third operation in the Balkans

Yesterday, NATO leaders began to dispatch 3,500 troops to Macedonia to disarm rebels.

Twice in the past six years NATO has sent Western troops into the former Yugoslavia on open-ended missions to restore peace between ethnic factions.

And as NATO leaders agreed yesterday to dispatch a third Balkan mission - to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia - many observers doubted whether the 30-day deployment would be enough to defuse the volatile situation that is threatening to descend into all-out war.

"There is a big mismatch between what needs to be done and the resources NATO has set aside to do it," says Nadege Ragaru, a Balkans expert with the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations. "The deployment is not realistic."

NATO hopes that this time, by acting speedily, it can limit its engagement in Macedonia. Whereas in Bosnia, Western forces intervened only after years of inter-ethnic fighting, and in Kosovo they actually took part in the conflict, the Macedonian operation is designed to forestall a war.

On the face of it, Operation Essential Harvest is a simple mission. A 3,500-man task force, made up largely of British, French, and Czech troops, will spend a month collecting the weapons that the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) willingly gives up.

Giving up arms

NLA leader Ali Ahmeti has pledged that his men will disarm, as part of a deal between ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political leaders last week - brokered by US and European mediators - that gives the Albanian minority greater political and social rights.

But in the current atmosphere of ethnic mistrust, nobody expects the NLA to give up all its weapons, and arguments have already started over how many guns the rebels possess and how many they should hand over.

Rebel leaders say their men have around 2,500 small arms. The Macedonian Interior Ministry said yesterday the figure was closer to 60,000.

In reality, suggests Nicholas Whyte, a Balkans analyst with the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, "disarmament is of purely symbolic importance - it just indicates the guerrillas' willingness to take the political process seriously."

If the rebels do start handing over their guns when NATO troops are fully deployed - probably within the next week or so - pressure will be on the Macedonian government to keep its side of the peace agreement.

Government must agree

The Macedonian parliament must ratify the accord within 45 days. The deal is widely unpopular among ethnic Macedonians as a Western-imposed capitulation to ethnic-Albanian demands, and several key figures in the government are openly opposed to it.

"A lot depends on how seriously the government sells the agreement to the people," says Mr. Whyte. "If it is not prepared to do that, there is a real question about how far the whole deal can be taken."

But even if all goes as well as can be expected - with the rebels handing over large numbers of weapons, parliament approving the accord, and neither side indulging in violence - the problem will not be over in the next few weeks.

For one thing, it will take months, if not years, for aspects of the peace treaty - such as an enormous increase in the number of ethnic-Albanian policemen - to be implemented. That implementation will require international oversight, which means an international presence of some kind. "And in the Balkans, the only kind of international presence that carries any weight is a military presence," argues Ms. Ragaru.

The International Crisis Group, an influential think tank led by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, has reached a similar conclusion. "It is difficult to see how each side will gain enough confidence in the other's good faith if NATO stays only 30 days," a recent report concluded.

"The situation is a bit more relaxed now, because, with NATO coming, the conflict has lost some of its energy," says Saso Ordonoski, a Macedonian political analyst in Skopje. "But we are not even close to solving Macedonia's real problems yet."

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