German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has warned of a potentially dangerous vacuum in Macedonia if NATO forces are not replaced when they leave at the end of the month. After a meeting in Belgium with other European Union foreign ministers, Fischer told German reporters it was uncertain what sort of force would be created but it was essential that agreement be reached quickly.
Munich, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The need to maintain a cease-fire in Macedonia after NATO completes its 30-day mission to collect weapons from the ethnic Albania guerrillas topped the agenda at a weekend meeting of the European Union's foreign ministers in Belgium.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told German reporters afterward that several problems need to be resolved. The first issue was to decide who will be in command of the force -- the UN, NATO, the European Union, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
A second issue was whether the follow-on force should consist only of NATO members or whether Russia, Ukraine, and traditionally neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden should be invited to participate. Fischer said he thought that making the force more inclusive might make it more acceptable to ethnic Macedonians, many of whom are suspicious of NATO.
The German foreign minister said his personal preference was that the force should operate under a United Nations mandate. Fischer said this was also the position of France. Last week the president of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, said a UN mandate and a UN flag would make the force more acceptable to Macedonians.
Fischer said it was essential for the European Union to resolve these issues as soon as possible because the NATO force is scheduled to withdraw in less than a month. He said a security vacuum had to be avoided at all costs. He said that neither the EU's lawmakers nor its people would show much understanding if the conflict resumed because of a security vacuum.
"We must avoid a vacuum. It would make no sense -- and would find little understanding in parliament or among the people -- if a vacuum existed after the withdrawal of the 'Essential Harvest' (NATO) force leading to a return of the crisis and direct conflict between the parties."
Fischer said a possible solution was to bring NATO, Russian, Ukrainian, and other soldiers together under a United Nations mandate. He said that force could operate under the nominal control of the OSCE, which is now a regional organization of the UN.
An advantage of using the OSCE is that its membership includes Russia, Ukraine, and all other European countries that participate in the follow-on force. OSCE diplomats in Vienna said today Russia would most likely support such a move because Moscow has frequently urged that the OSCE be made the umbrella organization for all security operations in Europe.
Fischer and other European officials emphasize that the European Union would have a strong presence in any follow-on force. Europe's Defense and Security chief, Javier Solana, told German reporters: "Europe will be involved in any circumstances." French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said all the foreign ministers agreed at the weekend that Europe must be involved.
There is a personal irony for Fischer in this unanimity. His own country, Germany, only agreed to join the present NATO force in Macedonian after weeks of often heated debate. In the final vote in parliament, the government did not have a majority and the military mission was approved only with the help of the opposition.
Many commentators in Germany doubt whether the parliament would authorize German troops to participate in any follow-on mission that would entail more risk to soldiers than collecting weapons.