After weeks of pressure from the European Union, Macedonia has officially requested a new NATO mission to protect foreign monitors in the country. The request, coming just a week before NATO's current weapons-collecting mission is due to end, has raised hopes of greater stability in the country. But the peace process could be threatened by ongoing delays from Skopje's parliament to meet its side of the bargain under a Western-brokered peace plan.
Prague, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO military planners today are exploring options for a new mission in Macedonia after the North Atlantic Council received an official request yesterday from Skopje for a new operation to protect Western monitors in the country.
NATO officials in Brussels say the "concepts of operation" being explored by the military planners should be ready for NATO defense ministers to discuss at their meeting in Naples, Italy, on 26 September. That is the final day of the alliance's current mission to collect a declared arsenal of 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian militants.
NATO soldiers who are part of the collection mission, code-named Operation Essential Harvest, have opened a new weapons collection site after a militant commander said the guerillas would begin the last phase of the three-stage handover today. That pledge was made despite the failure of parliament to uphold its promise to first approve draft language for constitutional amendments that would give greater civil rights to ethnic Albanian citizens.
NATO's spokesman in Skopje, Mark Laity, has confirmed that the third phase of the voluntary handover did begin today:
"There were indications early on that we were not going to get the weapons we expected, [but] I've just been told that we have started collecting weapons [today]. We've got now a number of days when we are expected to be collecting weapons."
Laity says the successful start of the third and final phase of NATO's mission should help the alliance reach its goal of collecting all of the militants' declared weapons by the 26 September deadline.
"That will also ensure that parliamentarians in Macedonia can get on with their job and finish their job quickly, as well. And the sooner everybody gets their job done, the sooner displaced people will get home and the sooner normal politics will be resumed."
But some Western officials are warning that the peace process could unravel if parliamentarians don't meet their side of the bargain.
Parliament had been scheduled yesterday to signal its preliminary approval of the draft language in a series of constitutional amendments. But parliamentary speaker Stojan Andov canceled that session because so many deputies failed to appear that a quorum could not be mustered.
The parliament today is debating whether to first put the draft amendments to a public referendum. In Brussels, EU security and foreign policy chief Javier Solana warned yesterday that the two months needed to organize such a referendum would put the peace process in danger. He said the EU is working to ensure this doesn't happen.
Despite the slowdown caused by parliament, NATO planners are pushing forward with their work. What has yet to be determined is the exact size of NATO's follow-on force, the length of its stay in Macedonia, and the specific powers that NATO soldiers would have.
Previously, officials in Skopje had insisted that any multi-national force should operate under a United Nations mandate. They also had insisted that any foreign troops be stationed only along Macedonia's borders with Albania and the UN-administered Kosovo province.
But Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski's official request to NATO does not mention the need for a UN mandate. It also suggests that NATO forces would be allowed to deploy in crisis regions away from the borders.
Yves Brodeur, the spokesman for NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, told RFE/RL that Trajkovski's request declares Skopje's willingness to support "a light NATO presence" to protect monitors from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Those monitors are to supervise the implementation of a political "framework" agreement that calls for legal reforms to be introduced during the coming weeks to give more rights to the ethnic Albanian minority.
The monitors also would observe whether either side in the conflict -- government security forces or ethnic Albanian militants -- violates a cease-fire that is part of the peace accords signed in the resort town of Ohrid in August. That suggests that monitors will be deployed in crisis regions around the northwestern city of Tetovo and the northern city of Kumanovo.
But Brodeur said it is too early to speak about the specifics of an eventual NATO mandate:
"There must be consultations with Skopje. [And] not only with Skopje, but also with the OSCE and the EU because, again, this NATO presence would take place in the context of a monitoring mission. In other words, whatever we do will be tailored to the needs of such a monitoring mission."
Trajkovski's security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, says that some 200 NATO soldiers should be deployed "on the ground" to protect the monitors. Western diplomats suggest that such a force would require additional logistical support that could raise the total size of a future NATO task force to about 1,000 troops.
Although NATO officials say the force will be significantly smaller than the 4,500 soldiers now deployed for Operation Essential Harvest, Brodeur says the size of the task force won't be determined until more is known about the EU and OSCE monitoring teams:
"The first order of business is to get a pretty specific, precise idea of how big that monitoring mission will be, and then to adjust in accordance with the size of that mission. We will tailor this mission in accordance with the needs expressed by the monitors and others to guarantee the safety of the monitors. So we will see how big this [monitoring] mission is, and then, based on that, we will take the appropriate measures."
Brodeur says it will take from 10 days to two weeks to bring troops out after Operation Essential Harvest ends on 26 September. The alliance hopes that details about the next mission will be resolved by then so that there is not a security vacuum in the interim.