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Macedonia: Weapons Amnesty A Success, But Many Stick To Their Guns

In a recent weapons amnesty, Macedonian authorities offered people who handed in their guns the chance to win a car in a lottery. Despite the somewhat unusual incentive, only a fraction of the thousands of illegal weapons believed to be in private hands were collected. International experts say that, nevertheless, the campaign was a success.

Prague, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- By all accounts, weapons are hardly a rare commodity in Macedonia, a nation of some 2 million people.

Estimates vary greatly. But according to a recent study by the Small Arms Survey -- a Geneva-based nongovernmental group considered a leading authority on the subject -- between 100,000 and 170,000 people in Macedonia illegally possess guns, some of them more than one.

An official Macedonian report said that private citizens hold an additional 156,000 legally registered small arms.

The Macedonian government, together with the United Nations Development Program, earlier this year launched a 45-day weapons amnesty, during which citizens could hand in their illegal or unwanted weapons without fear of prosecution.

As an added incentive, all those who voluntarily surrendered weapons were entered into a lottery, with a car as first prize.

But by the time the deadline of the amnesty expired on 15 December, officials had collected just 7,500 items, 6,400 of which guns. Some 100,000 pieces of ammunition and 165 kilograms of explosives were also turned over.

It's a modest figure, but international experts say the campaign was nevertheless a success -- especially when compared to similar initiatives in some neighboring countries.

Chrissie Hirst is Balkans coordinator for Saferworld, a London-based independent think-tank. She tells RFE/RL a similar one-month campaign earlier this year in Kosovo resulted in the collection of a total of 155 guns out of an estimated 400,000 illegal weapons.

"So therefore, collecting 6,400 weapons does not seem to be statistically very significant. But if you compare a 45-day action and this level of result of over 6,000 weapons with the other initiatives in the region, then it really is very significant," Hirst said.

As in the rest of the Balkans, the bulk of the weapons in Macedonia are the legacy of recent conflicts.

Many were smuggled in during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and later, as army warehouses were looted in Albania in 1997. In a recent report, Saferworld said weapons were trafficked through Macedonia, and in some cases stockpiled there, during the Kosovo war.

After the 2001 ethnic Albanian insurgency in the northwest of the country ended, rebels agreed to disarm -- but experts say many weapons remained in private hands, both among the ethnic Albanians, and the ethnic Macedonians, amid fears of a resurgence of the ethnic conflict.

A series of attacks by a shadowy ethnic Albanian guerrilla group this summer, as well as flourishing crime in the poorly policed former crisis area, further increased people's feelings of insecurity.

Hirst from Saferworld says the weapons amnesty was especially significant as a trust-building measure. "Perhaps what is also important is the symbolic aspect of this, that people are handing in illegal weapons -- and that's a very important step toward peace and away from conflict," Hirst said.

The government also had put a former ethnic Albanian rebel in charge of the weapons' collection program.

There were no breakdown figures of how many weapons were surrendered in predominantly ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian areas. Experts say response was likely to have broken down less along ethnic lines and more according to the security situation in any particular area.

Vladimir Pandovski, the head of Macedonia's nongovernmental National Weapons Association, says there are concerns the amnesty campaign received little support in the 2001 crisis area, and cautions that much work remains to be done.

"I think this action is the beginning of a process which will likely continue throughout the decade as similar initiatives in neighboring countries show. It is a fact that citizens are unwilling to part with their illegal weapons. That's why we already have to start thinking now about how to proceed, with what models, and what measures and activities to carry out in order to decrease the current number of illegal weapons," Pandovski said.

Authorities previously said the 15 December deadline was final and that those who had failed to hand in their illegal weapons would face tough penalties, including up to 10 years in prison.

But weapons collection expert Hirst says any tough police action to confiscate illegal weapons could rekindle ethnic tensions.

"They have quite a difficult challenge," Hirst said. "They have to show that illegal arms possession is not something that will be tolerated, but at the same time they must be sensitive not to spark interethnic tensions."

Macedonian authorities seem to be have painted themselves into a corner. A series of amnesties held over a period of time would, no doubt, give better results. But at the same time the government was forced to make clear the law would be enforced with the current campaign in order to ensure any weapons would be returned at all.

(The Macedonian sub-unit of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)