Move fast to help Macedonia

Yugoslavia's former province of Macedonia seems to be on a slippery slope toward a full-scale ethnic war that could involve Balkan neighbors. And it might require the kind of massive intervention by the West, including the United States, that we saw in 1999, when the US led NATO in driving Serbia out of Kosovo.

Macedonia needs serious help for peace right now in reaching first an armistice, then permanent peace signed by the majority Slavic and minority Albanian parties. Indecisive European Union envoys, backed by wishy-washy policies in Brussels and their home capitals, and President Bush's determination to reduce US commitments in the Balkans, have kept Europe's peace efforts weak.

Meanwhile, Macedonia's 2.5 million people are suffering. A new Balkan refugee tide is beginning, with close to 50,000 Macedonians pouring into neighboring states.

To change this, two steps are needed: first, a decisive EU political effort to help President Boris Trajkovski's little Macedonian state reach the peace it admits it cannot achieve alone; second, a small NATO military force to protect Albanian-Slav peace talks and to buffer that process against the violence and counter-violence that have been slowly immobilizing a near-democracy that seemed to work since Macedonia's creation as an independent state in 1991.

Happily, the main Western actors have already made a start toward taking both steps.

To reinforce the ineffectual political Band-Aids applied during brief visits by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the European Union has now sent a permanent envoy to the Macedonian capital of Skopje. That envoy, former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard, has made a simple but, it would seem, quite logical proposal: The Slav-dominated Macedonian government should talk directly with the ethnic-Albanian guerrilla leaders, instead of relying on a seemingly sterile dialogue between the Albanian minority and Slav majority parties inside the parliament and government.

France has made a further contribution, sending former Justice Minister Robert Badinter to Skopje. The French Foreign Ministry says Mr. Badinter could help draft a new constitution "that can respond to the wishes of the population and its different elements." This means meeting demands of the 30 percent or so Albanian minority for civil rights and the Slav majority's security needs. Up to now, the governing politicians in Skopje have refused to touch the Constitution or talk with rebel leaders. They accuse them of being terrorists sent across the mountains from Kosovo.

Greece and the United States have tried to show the way toward a NATO buffer force. Despite its qualms, the Bush administration this week authorized the small US Army contingent inside Macedonia to provide logistical support for NATO-led KFOR troops in Kosovo, to escort beleaguered ethnic-Albanian refugees and Albanian guerrillas out of one village where the guerrillas threatened Skopje to another farther away.

The US move has shown that NATO peacekeeping - with the United States inserting some steel in its spine - would make a huge difference.

Turkey is at odds with both Greece and most of the European Union over Cyprus and a European common defense force. But Turkey, like Greece, was quick to offer troops for Macedonia.

Western Europe and the US must move fast in Macedonia. The alternative of civil and perhaps a new general Balkan conflict should remain only a remote hypothesis for pessimistic historians.

John K. Cooley, an author and former Monitor correspondent, reports for ABC News.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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