Skopje, 19 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The escalation of the Kosovo crises last month, and the huge outflow of refugees from the southern Serbian province, have sparked concerns in neighboring Macedonia over the country's security and internal stability. RFE/RL's correspondent Kitty McKinsey spoke about these concerns in Skopje last week with the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia and with a NATO official based there.
Christopher Hill, United States ambassador to Skopje, often refers to Macedonia as a nice little country in a high crime neighborhood.
In the eight years since it broke away from Yugoslavia -- the only republic to do so without a war -- Macedonia has suffered all the repercussions of the wars in former Yugoslavia. These were compounded by economic difficulties caused by the UN embargo against rump Yugoslavia and an economic blockade imposed several years ago on Macedonia by southern neighbor Greece (and now ended).
Ambassador Hill says Macedonia is central to U.S. aims for stability in the Balkans.
"If you look at a map of the Balkans, you'll see right smack dab in the middle of the map a little state called Macedonia. And clearly Macedonia has an important role as a factor of stability in the Balkans. It plays a sort of buffer among a number of states there. It's got a key geographic feature in that, if you go from east to west of north to south in the Balkans, you run through Macedonia. So it's extremely important. And ultimately, as a multiethnic state, we very much want to see it succeed, and were going to stand by it, and help ensure that it does succeed."
Macedonia has burst into international news in the last month because of the vast influx of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo that has stretched the country beyond its ability to cope on its own.
Even before the flow of refugees from next-door Kosovo, Macedonia had set aside five percent of its budget-- a huge sum by comparison to any western country-- for taking care of refugees. But it had anticipated coping with just 20,000 refugees, and now is temporary home to six times that number.
It's an economic burden that Macedonia, already staggering under 40 percent unemployment, simply cannot afford on its own. Christopher Shapardanov, NATO headquarters liaison officer, now in Skopje, says the international community recognizes the need to help Macedonia cope with the costs of caring for the refugees.
"The other important point to keep in mind is the economic difficulties the country has been going though. You recall that traditional trade routes in the region have been disrupted by various embargoes and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. All this has led to difficult economic circumstances, including high unemployment. The international community, I think, finally sees the importance of providing the kind of assistance that is necessary to alleviate the humanitarian crisis which has added now another component to the economic difficulty that the government is facing here."
Perhaps more important, the influx of so many ethnic Albanians threatens to upset the ethnic balance that is at the root of the countrys democratic system, in which government posts are shared out according to a formula that reflects the proportions of ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in the population.
Ambassador Hill says Macedonia is also worried that its own ethnic Albanian citizens in western Macedonia -- boosted by the presence of so many Kosovars -- may want to split off and join Albania proper. But he offers assurances the international community will not tolerate the redrawing of borders in the Balkans.
"What I think many Macedonians are worried about is the ethnic mix will become quite changed, and this will in turn cause political changes, and perhaps even efforts to change the constitution, so I think at the heart of the Macedonian concern is that a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo could cause for them a major political concern, a major political upheaval. They are also worried that while we have been very concerned about preventing a Greater Serbia, we have not been concerned enough about preventing a Greater Albania, and they are worried that as a sort of by-product of this humanitarian situation, there might somehow be created in the Balkans a Greater Albania. And I think what we all have had to do is try to reassure them on this point, that were not looking for a Greater Anything, were looking for a better Balkans, not a Balkans where some ethnic community strives to increase its size at the expense of others."
Hill says Macedonia has weathered very well a crisis that would challenge much richer countries. He said the flood of refugees into Macedonia is the equivalent of 18 million people arriving on the shores of the United States all at once.
If there is a peace settlement in Kosovo, Macedonia will assume even greater prominence as the staging ground for a NATO-led international military force to go into the province to keep the peace and escort at least half a million refugees back to their homes.
Of the two countries sharing borders with Kosovo, Shapardanov said Macedonia has better infrastructure than Albania, so would be a better staging ground for NATO-led troops to go into Kosovo as peacekeepers.
Early on, Macedonia seized on the refugee crisis to promote its case for EU associate membership and full NATO membership, aims that Ambassador Hill says the U.S. supports. As he puts it: "As a small country, Macedonia has a great interest in joining broader structures, and we very much want to facilitate that."
Macedonia now has more than 12,000 NATO troops on its soil, and the figure is due to rise soon with the arrival of 1,800 more British soldiers. NATO reiterates daily that they are in the country preparing to go into Kosovo as peacekeepers, not as offensive ground troops.
Aware that Macedonia is afraid that the NATO troops could draw reprisals for NATO air strikes from Yugoslavia, NATO has placed Macedonia under its security umbrella. NATO has given both Albania and Macedonia the strongest protection guarantees it gives any non-member country.
Macedonia already participates in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and last September was the site of a joint NATO-Macedonian military exercise (called Cooperative Best Effort) to emphasize NATO resolve in tackling the Kosovo crisis. In another indication of the importance NATO places on Macedonia, Secretary-General Javier Solana this week appointed a special representative to coordinate relations with the country. Further down the road, Shapardanov said NATO membership for Macedonia may become a reality
"In the short term, the alliance has provided some very strong and robust security assurances which I think are at the heart of the collective defender responsibilities that the alliance would be providing to prospective members, so in fact Macedonia already now enjoys some of the strongest assurances that the alliance has provided. In terms of full membership, of course at the Washington summit later on this month, the open-door policy of maintaining our undertaking to open the alliance to membership for all countries in Europe, this will be reaffirmed. In fact, there will be an enhanced partnership program for those who are interested in joining the alliance. We hope that Macedonia of course will take full advantage of that and look to membership as a very strong, long-term prospect."