Skopje, Macedonia, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There has been much discussion in world capitals of late about an extended mandate for United Nations peacekeeping troops (UNPREDEP) in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in a bid to prevent any spillover of the Kosovo conflict that could lead to a wider Balkan war.
RFE/RL has recently interviewed in Skopje Mark McEvoy, UNPREDEP's spokesman in Macedonia. McEvoy said the extension of the troops mandate is gaining popular support among UN-member states, the Contact Group on the Former Yugoslavia and the local community itself.
The Macedonian government asked NATO to take on the role well before the crisis boiled over in Kosovo, with clashes that left at least 80 ethnic Albanians dead. Albania also has suggested that it should have some sort of international military presence, along UNPREDEP lines, to bolster patrolling of its border with Kosovo. But McEvoy told RFE/RL that the present day reality was quite peaceful.
"We increased our military patrols, foot and vehicle, we increased our civilian police patrols in the area, and in that two week period up to today, we did not see any change in the situation. In fact, in the last couple of days, the number of normal crossings has diminished. I guess that's because people are not going up to Kosovo as much. But during the crisis period, there was no influx of refugees as might have been expected and there was no increase in vehicle or people traffic."
McEvoy went on to say UNPREDEP has since decreased its patrols to what he called "normal" levels. He said the Macedonian Army also appears scaling back patrols heightened during the first days of the Kosovo crisis.
McEvoy said UNPREDEP currently has 350 U.S. soldiers on Macedonia's border with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) -- and another 350 Nordic troops on the Kosovo section of the FRY border and also on the Albanian border. Separately, 35 military observers conduct community patrols and maintain liaison with local military, while he said 26 civilian police officers monitor the work of local police.
McEvoy said there has been a lot of speculation about the size of an extended force, with some suggesting troop levels of up to 1500. Prior to events in Kosovo, UNPREDEP carried out a draw-down from 1,500 to current troops levels because the Albanian crisis had died down and the situation in the whole of the region was not perceived to be as bad as it had been in recent years. Still, McEvoy said come August 31st -- the deadline for UN forces to leave under the current mandate -- the initial reasons for UNPREDEP being in Macedonia may still very well exist.
"There is insecurity in the region generally because of Bosnia, there's insecurity on the western border because of Albania. It still remains a volatile border because we have shooting reports on that border everyday, there's alleged weapons smuggling going on, there's illegal border crossings, and there's general lack of policing on that border. Skopje and Belgrade have not demarcated their northern border, there's still a name dispute with Greece, there's still a language dispute with Bulgaria, there's increased inter-ethnic tension in this country and, more recently, we have the Kosovo problem."
McEvoy mentions a lot of problems for a force that he readily admits is "fairly restricted." As he explains it, the UNPREDEP mandate namely covers the monitoring and reporting of events that might undermine confidence or stability in Macedonia. McEvoy said the forces also act as a deterrent to any external threat by maintaining a presence on the Northern and Western borders. At the same time, McEvoy points out there are a lot of things UNPREDEP can not do.
"We have absolutely no authority or mandate to stop people or prevent invasions, as people often expect. We do not have any mandate to set up defensive lines or anything of that nature. We are very lightly-armed. For instance, if we see people carrying material across the border, which the authorities might allege to be smuggling or contraband, we can't stop those people. We can merely monitor it, report it and let the headquarters know that it is happening."
McEvoy also said UNPREDEP soldiers could not stop potential refugees from Kosovo from crossing over into Macedonia, further modifying the already tense ethnic make-up of the country. Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov recently said his country would have trouble controlling an influx of 300,000 or more Albanians from Kosovo. And he recalled the difficult experience in the early sixties when thousands of ethnic Albanians fled to Macedonia, fleeing repression in Kosovo by the regime of Marshal Tito.
McEvoy said up to now, UNPREDEP has been very welcome in Macedonia and he imagines an extended force would be equally welcome. He attributes this to the fact that thus far, UNPREDEP forces have not had to separate warring parties or help negotiate a peace, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As McEvoy puts it, "Preventive deployment is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to ensure peace."
The current UNPREDEP mission in Macedonia costs an estimated $50 million a year, or less than three percent of the UN peacekeeping budget.