Why US Troops Will Stay Put In Another Balkan Hot Spot

The UN peacekeeping mission in Macedonia was extended Dec. 4. Ethnic tensions remain high.

As Bosnia spiraled into a melee among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the early 1990s, it was unusually quiet in another part of the Balkans.

Macedonia has historically been among the most hotly contested turf on the peninsula. Bulgaria alone has gone to war over it four times this century.

So when Macedonia - lacking its own army - declared independence from an imploding Yugoslavia in April 1992, observers feared another free-for-all.

But with little fanfare, the United Nations in 1993 deployed its first-ever "preventive" military force, a 1,050-troop contingent led by Americans and Scandinavians.

Macedonia has been uneventful since, but ethnic tension continues to brew on its northwestern border with Serbia. So last Thursday, the UN Security Council extended the mission by another nine months.

"There are too many unknowns in this region for us to allow for any military vacuum," says Henryk Sokalski, UN special representative to the Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP). "Leaving too early may provoke a number of repercussions that may do greater damage."

There is a potential for violence here, say analysts, that could make Bosnia pale by comparison.

The spark that could ignite the Macedonian powder keg begins with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and a place called Kosovo - an increasingly violent southern province of Serbia where the populace is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.

Kosovo Albanian leaders this week reiterated their demand for independence, with the international community to serve as mediator. Mr. Milosevic refuses to yield, brushing aside US pressure to negotiate.

There are concerns that an eruption in Kosovo could lead Macedonia's 500,000-plus ethnic Albanians to come to the aid of their ethnic brethren, triggering a domino effect in the neighborhood.

Albania wouldn't stand back and watch. Bulgaria considers Macedonia's 2 million population to be Bulgarians in denial. Some Serbians refer to Macedonia as "Southern Serbia." And the Greeks still strongly oppose Macedonia's name, because there is a northern Greek province also called Macedonia.

And then there is Turkey. Macedonia is 4 percent ethnic Turkish, and Turkey might join the fray, particularly if its arch-rival Greece is involved.

With either or both NATO members Greece and Turkey involved, the US might be obliged to enter as well.

"The possibility of [pulling] in the neighbors, including the possibility of bringing NATO members into a conflict here, would obviously be something potentially damaging to our interest," says US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill. "We really believe that an ounce of prevention has been worth more than a pound of cure."

By all accounts, the solution - $50 million per year for UNPREDEP, versus the billions now spent annually in Bosnia - has been a success.

Yet for the UN, chastised for its inability to curb ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, its proactive strategy in Macedonia was not so much geopolitical foresight as a solid grasp of Balkan history.

Macedonia was fortunate to avoid bloodshed in 1992. It broke free of Yugoslavia at a time when Milosevic's drive for a "Greater Serbia" was focused on Croatia and Bosnia.

The Serbian-controlled Yugoslav People's Army withdrew without firing a shot. But it left behind nothing but a pair of broken-down tanks.

Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov soon requested UN protection. The international force arrived a year later strictly to "observe, monitor, and report" to the Security Council. But the force's presence sent out two messages: to the neighbors, "hands off;" to the Macedonians, "we care."

Overall, little has improved that would encourage the Macedonian president, who urged an extension of the UN mandate. "We are far from a long-lasting peace," Mr. Gligorov said in an interview. "Under such circumstances, no country in the Balkans can feel secure internally or externally."

Macedonia is still far from being able to adequately defend itself. Until last year, a weapons embargo against the entire former Yugoslavia prevented the fledgling republic from acquiring arms.

So the current leg of the UN mission will focus on the modernization and training of the Macedonian military. The UN, for the sake of impartiality, will not participate in either.

And though Western officials describe the renewed mandate as the first step of an "exit strategy" for foreign troops, others concede the mission may go on for years.

"As long as the reasons for why this mission was established continue to exist," says UN representative Mr. Sokalski, "we'll be here."

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