The deteriorating political and military situation in Macedonia has forced the European Union in recent days to try to play a more forceful role in resolving the conflict between the country's Slav majority and its ethnic Albanian minority. The target of increasingly open criticism from hard-liners in Macedonia's government, the EU has threatened to cut off aid to the country if the Slav-dominated government does not open talks with the Albanian community aimed at achieving a peaceful resolution to the crisis. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.
Brussels, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the past several days, the European Union has sent increasingly strong signals to hard-liners in the Macedonian government that EU patience is running out.
Last night, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the Union would continue pushing for a "political" solution to the conflict based on a fragile cease-fire announced earlier this week.
Solana said those members of the Macedonian government who thought they could crush the ethnic Albanian fighters by force had "a lesson to learn."
"Let me remind you of what has happened in the last few days. At five or four in the morning [a few days ago], somebody advised the government that they could [mount] a military operation and in a few hours they would solve the problem. [That] happened one day, another day, [and yet] another day -- [but] the problem was not resolved. At the end of the third day, they had to call the international community to solve the problem through dialogue."
Solana mentioned no one by name, but his comment was widely assumed to refer to Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski. Both have resisted extensive concessions to Macedonia's Albanians, appearing to favor a "military solution." In a televised address yesterday, Georgievski said the Macedonian army had only observed military restraint as a sign of goodwill or as a pause in its campaign against the Albanian militants.
Solana also made a point of saying that his main contact in the Macedonian government is President Boris Trajkovski. In a separate address yesterday, Trajkovski condemned Monday (25 June) night's riots in Skopje by Macedonian Slavs angered by the NATO- and EU-supervised evacuation of Albanian fighters from the nearby village of Aracinovo. Trajkovski also said that peaceful political dialogue with the large ethnic Albanian minority was the only way ahead.
Solana's comments came two days after EU foreign ministers delivered an uncharacteristically blunt warning to Macedonia's government, threatening it with a loss of EU aid if it chooses to pursue a military victory over Albanian rebels. This year alone, the EU has set aside 120 million euros (about $100 million) to help Macedonia.
Nicholas Whyte, a Balkans specialist with the Brussels-based think tank Center for European Policy Studies, explains the EU's tougher stance toward the Macedonian government over the past week:
"First of all, [the shift] has come about because the Macedonian government now looks like the aggressor. Previously it was possible to argue that they were under unprovoked and illegal attack from a bunch of terrorists that were coming from outside their borders. Now we've had a couple of occasions when cease-fires were declared by both sides and the Macedonian government forces were the first to break the cease-fire. So in that sense, the EU realizes that it has to hold the Macedonian government to its promises in the military field."
Whyte said the EU is also seeking to hold the Macedonian government to the commitments it has made in the political field. He said promises of constitutional reform to enhance the rights of the Albanian community, made by the leading Slav parties two months ago, have largely not been honored.
EU officials have said privately that the tougher approach does not mean Macedonia's government is being forced into talks with representatives of the rebel National Liberation Army, or UCK. Rather, what is expected from Macedonia's Slav leaders is negotiations in good faith with legally elected representatives of the country's Albanian community.
Any negotiations will be overseen by Solana's newly appointed personal representative in Skopje, former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard. He is expected to play the role of a "facilitator" in the talks, with a mandate to strong-arm both parties into compromise in case of a deadlock.
Analyst Whyte says that, lacking military muscle, the EU will try to force Skopje to comply by threatening to remove the "European perspective" offered to Macedonia in the form of a Stabilization and Association Agreement signed in early April. The agreement has important political and economic implications for Macedonia. It was intended to prepare the country for eventual EU membership by, among other things, laying down the ground rules for the provision of EU financial aid and providing for free trade with the EU.
To enter into force, the association agreement must be ratified by all EU member countries. But the process has barely begun, and Whyte says the EU can speed it up or slow it down "at will."