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Wed Jun 20 11:52:08 EDT 2001

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Last Chance in Macedonia

MACEDONIA'S fractious politicians and the Western diplomats nervously hovering over them are facing what may be that country's last opportunity to head off another full-scale ethnic war in the Balkans. Political parties representing the majority Slav and minority Albanian communities are engaged in intensive negotiations about political reforms to end official discrimination against Albanians. Meanwhile, NATO is nearing a decision on deploying a force to oversee the disarmament of Albanian rebels who launched a guerrilla campaign last February. If a political deal can be struck in the coming days and a NATO force deployed, Macedonia may just avoid the fate of Bosnia and Kosovo, which were devastated by communal warfare that ended only after NATO military campaigns. But success will require concerted engagement by Western governments in the coming weeks and months; that poses a test for the Bush administration.

Macedonia is a pro-Western democracy whose political leaders readily admit they cannot overcome their crisis by themselves. Repeating the mistake of other Balkan regimes, the Slav-dominated Macedonian government tried to wipe out the Albanian insurgent movement with a clumsy military campaign, which only succeeded in strengthening the guerrillas and bringing the Albanian and Slav communities to the brink of a communal war of ethnic cleansing. Now, under heavy pressure from the European Union and United States, a cease-fire prevails and the two major Slav and two Albanian political parties are talking; but the question is whether the Slavs are prepared to take the steps that could fully integrate Albanians into a unitary state, including changes in the Macedonian constitution that would put Albanians on an equal political footing with Slavs. The moderate Albanian leadership also must execute a tricky feat, obtaining enough concessions to satisfy the Albanian population and obl!
igate the militants to disarm, while avoiding demands that would make the reformed state unworkable -- like a communal veto over all major government decisions.

In trying to broker this deal, the Bush administration and European governments are engaged in their own precarious balancing act. Administration officials say they recognize that U.S. engagement is essential to a successful settlement. But in keeping with President Bush's determination to reduce U.S. commitments in the Balkans, American participation has been carefully limited. In place of the high-profile U.S. brokers who were dispatched to Bosnia and Kosovo, a State Department deputy assistant secretary accompanies more senior European Union and NATO envoys to Skopje, the Macedonian capital. And while supportive of a NATO disarmament force, the administration so far has declined to commit any American troops -- though even a single company would help to fill out a NATO contingent that could number 1,000 or fewer. If the arm's-length strategy works, Macedonia could serve as a demonstration of how European governments and troops can take the lead in handling a crisis on the !
continent. But given the disastrous failure of previous Europeans-first strategies in the Balkans, it represents a real risk. If this peace process breaks down, Macedonia is unlikely to get another chance.


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