In the aftermath of this week's political and military agreements in Macedonia, NATO has approved the deployment of an initial 400 troops to determine how ethnic Albanian guerrillas can best conduct a voluntarily disarmament. But the alliance is still waiting for signs of a durable cease-fire before the rest of a 3,500-strong force is deployed for a 30-day mission. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines what impact NATO's strategy could have on the peace process.
Prague, 16 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An advance guard of 400 NATO soldiers is preparing today for an operation in Macedonia after a disarmament agreement was reached this week between the government in Skopje and ethnic Albanian guerrilla leaders.
Major Barry Johnson, NATO's spokesman in Macedonia, said the 400 British soldiers are expected to arrive in Skopje tomorrow (17 August) evening. The primary task of the advance force will be to identify the locations where collection points should be set up for guerrilla fighters to voluntarily turn in their weapons and ammunition.
Under terms of a military agreement between the two sides, the collection points must be agreed upon by both the guerrillas and the government. The British vanguard also will be setting up headquarters for a full deployment of some 3,500 NATO troops -- a mission that does not yet have the approval of NATO's civilian leadership.
Since 14 August, some 15 experts from NATO have been in Macedonia to monitor a cease-fire between security forces and the guerrillas. Ambassadors in the alliance's North Atlantic Council say a durable and sustainable truce must be in place before they approve the full deployments under the mission code-named "Operation Essential Harvest." The mission is meant to last 30 days.
Alliance officials have stressed that NATO soldiers will only collect weapons that are voluntarily surrendered by ethnic Albanian guerrillas. The alliance insists that NATO will not force anyone to disarm, nor will NATO troops serve any other peacekeeping function that keeps the two sides from fighting.
Danish Major General Gunnar Lange, NATO's senior military representative in Macedonia, described some details yesterday about how the disarmament mission is supposed to work.
"In order to collect the weapons, we [will] deploy a cordon around this weapon collection site, and then, it is our intention to move in with a column to this weapon collection site, collect the arms, extract, and deploy to an area where the ammunition can be destroyed and the arms can be collected for further destruction in a third country."
Yves Brodeur, the spokesman for NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, says that if all goes well with the initial British deployments, and if a fragile truce remains in place, a decision on sending the rest of the task force could be made by 20 August.
Correspondents report there were isolated shooting incidents and skirmishes overnight between guerrillas and security forces near the northwestern city of Tetovo and at villages near the troubled northern city of Kumanovo.
But Macedonia's Defense Ministry says there have not been any reports of casualties. And so far, NATO says there have not been any violations of the truce that have involved heavy weaponry since a political accord was signed three days ago by leaders of Macedonia's four main political parties.
Nevertheless, Balkan experts in the West are questioning whether NATO's strategy might be overly cautious now that a political solution to the crisis has been signed and guerrilla fighters have agreed to disarm.
Kurt Bassuener, a Balkan expert at the Washington-based Democratization Policy Institute, says NATO must play a more active peacekeeping roll if the Western-brokered peace plan is to have any chance of succeeding.
"The thing that really concerns me is the nature of the NATO mission. Without a strong NATO presence, I don't think that this agreement will last very long. As devised now, I think NATO is showing weakness. It's not showing that its got the resolve to do what it can to create an environment for this difficult agreement to be able to last."
Bassuener says NATO's limited mandate, and the short time frame for the operation, will ultimately frustrate the peace process.
"The real thing that's scary about the NATO mission is that the whole disarmament framework for the [ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the] National Liberation Army is, as yet, unclear. And I don't think purely voluntarily disarmament, where we only expect people to turn in their weapons of their own accord without any verification regime, is going to work -- or will be acceptable to the Macedonian side."
Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on security and defense issues at the Washington-based Brookings Institute think tank, told RFE/RL that he also thinks 30 days is too short a time frame for NATO to foster stability in Macedonia.
"NATO perhaps is in too much of a rush [to get its troops out of Macedonia]-- and that's one of the areas where we could see more policy discussion or movement. I think there is a good argument that NATO should stay longer than [30 days], especially as it is going to take a while to integrate more ethnic Albanians into the security forces in Macedonia and to simply let tempers cool off and achieve some real stability."
O'Hanlon says he is concerned that NATO's current policy will allow a few extremists in guerrilla splinter factions to stop the disarmament efforts by attacking government security forces.
"There is a chance that there will be some ethnic Albanian extremists, people who really want a Greater Albania as opposed to just pursuing greater political rights for their ethnic brethren within Macedonia. And I think some people may continue to fight. The question is, if NATO is on the ground and there is a political settlement, and there also is a NATO presence in Kosovo, is that enough to clamp down on any small [number of] extremists and ultimately force them to fade back into the general population? That has to be the strategy [for NATO]."
But O'Hanlon said it would be a mistake for guerrilla fighters to assume that U.S. President George W. Bush will come to their aid if the violence continues -- particularly if ethnic Albanian extremists are seen as the cause of further bloodshed.
"The Bush administration does not want to increase American involvement in the [Balkan] region. And frankly, if the ethnic Albanians are the cause of any breakdown in negotiations and the cause of future violence, they will not be rescued by NATO or the United States and they have to realize that very clearly."
O'Hanlon said it is essential that all Macedonians get the message that NATO is not going to intervene in any war the way it did in Kosovo in 1999. But he says he thinks NATO itself will ultimately have to reconsider whether to extend Operation Essential Harvest after the full force has been in Macedonia for one month and its initial mandate expires.