Can Macedonia Be Saved?

The western diplomats who stalk the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia these days are mostly veteran Balkans hands. On their watch, in other parts of the region, one republic after another dissolved into ethnic violence and war. Many of them believe that forceful, early international intervention might have averted the last decade's bloodletting. This time they're determined to try to get it right. At first European officials cautiously suggested speeding up Macedonia's integration into the European Union, or its membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace. "That was a 10-year plan," scoffed an American diplomat. "We needed a 10-day plan." Meeting almost daily for the past six weeks, American and European diplomats in Skopje put together a scheme to avert civil war, and persuaded Macedonia to adopt it. "If you consider that the fighting only started March 25, it hasn't taken much time at all," said Robert H. Frowick, special envoy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By comparison, when Frowick headed the OSCE's mission to Bosnia, it took a year just for the Western countries to agree on how to implement the Dayton peace accords.

Former NATO secretary-general Javier Solana was back on the scene as the West's point man, this time as the EU's special envoy. After a marathon 10-hour meeting with all the country's political leaders last Monday, he sold them on the diplomats' plan for a government of national unity--which they agreed to Friday. The government divided ministries among all four major parties, two Albanian and two Macedonian, and committed itself to a program of accelerated reforms that had long been demanded by the Albanian minority. "It gives everybody cover," said one diplomat. And it isolates Albanian guerrillas who are running an insurgency that is gaining momentum.

If the plan fails, it may well be because of what happens in the basements of a village called Slupcane. Hot in pursuit of Albanian fighters from the National Liberation Army, the Macedonian Army ordered the evacuation May 4 of 10 villages in a 20-mile-long swath of mountainous countryside near the Kosovo border. But in Slupcane and Vasince, nearly the entire population refused to leave, taking refuge in basements. Macedonia said the remaining civilians were being held by the NLA as "human shields"; the NLA insisted it was protecting them from heavy-handed Macedonian forces.

There was plenty of evidence for both positions. Either way, one well-placed shell would greatly ratchet up the stakes in a conflict that so far has had low casualties. "This is a catastrophe," said Buram Sadiku, a 38-year-old whose family was among 43 people sharing three underground rooms. Babies wailed, and the only light was from a single candle. "We can't stay and we won't go."

On the other side, Macedonian authorities fear that if they ease the attack in Slupcane, the NLA guerrillas will once again slip back over the border into Kosovo--where lax policing from NATO forces has given them wide latitude--and emerge to attack somewhere else. "The moment we stop fighting," says Nikola Dimitrov, national-security adviser to President Boris Trajkovski, "we cede the territory to them. This is our last historical chance to save the state."

That may sound apocalyptic, but it's a judgment widely shared in the diplomatic community. Worried that the NLA was rapidly gaining followers, especially among young men in the villages, Western diplomats moved quickly. In the past month and a half an almost daily succession of dignitaries, from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to NATO Secretary-General Lord Robinson, interceded to quiet the drums of war. President George W. Bush invited Macedonian President Trajkovski to the White House. NATO sent a high-ranking general to consult with the Macedonian Defense Ministry.

For once, rather than just reacting to a Balkans crisis, the international community had a plan. But then, so did the NLA. Striking in a remote mountainous area near Vejce, the group ambushed and killed eight soldiers and policemen on April 28. That sparked anti-Albanian rioting, with scores of shops looted in numerous towns including some in the capital, Skopje. "I really thought that was the end of it; here we go, another ethnic war," said one Western diplomat. Added Frowick: "It's a political miracle they've lasted this long. But they always seem to pull back from the brink."

Now that all the elected parties are at the table together, they'll have to show real progress on reforming Macedonia's political system if there's any chance for the unity government to survive. Albanians want greater autonomy, increased use of their language, better representation in the police and military--goals, ironically, shared by both the Albanian parties and the guerrillas. With the NLA feeling decidedly on the outside, its leaders insist they will fight on. "We've been waiting for the international community to do something, and all they do is push for war," said Commander Sokoli, the nom de guerre of one of the NLA's leaders, at his bunker near Slupcane.

Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi worries that time is on the side of the guys with the guns. "They are a force in this country now; their actions are driving the situation," he said. Xhaferi, widely admired on both sides of the ethnic divide in Macedonia, calls himself a "hopeful pessimist." That's better than nothing, says a Western diplomat, a veteran of several failed international efforts in the region. "In the Balkans, hopeful pessimism sounds pretty good."