THE IRISH TIMES: MACEDONIA ON A KNIFE EDGE

Views on BG | August 13, 2001, Monday // 00:00

(Editorial Comment)

Macedonia is on a knife edge between war and peace, following last week's agreement on a peace deal involving the main political parties, due to be signed formally today, and a dangerous escalation of violence between government troops and Albanian guerrillas. The regional consequences of whatever is decided are grave and unpredictable. The country is the ultimate cauldron of Balkan conflict, drawing in surrounding states - what remains of Yugoslavia (including Kosovo), Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.
That is why the European Union and NATO have put so much effort into brokering the agreement between the Albanian minority comprising some 30 per cent of the Macedonian population and the majority parties. It covers increased use of the Albanian language in education and government business, arrangements for a greater number of Albanians in the national police force, enhanced recognition of Islam and policies to encourage greater regional development and employment.
Although the Albanian guerrillas are not directly party to the peace talks they have pledged to accept it. They have also agreed to co-operate with a 3,500- strong NATO force in disposing of their arms when a ceasefire is properly in place and the agreement is ratified and being implemented. These commitments are a very important element in the peace agreement; but until it is signed and the ceasefire takes hold they cannot be taken for granted. Outrage at the deaths of 10 soldiers in an ambush west of the capital Skopje, in retaliation for the deaths of five guerrillas the previous day, was reinforced when eight soldiers were killed by landmines two days later.
The Macedonian and international voices warning that all-out war will be far worse than a less than fully satisfactory peace agreement have been crowded out by the sharp escalation of violence. And yet they make much sense in the light of the Balkan region's history. Once all-out war takes hold diverse communities, which have held together in relative harmony can collapse into the most horrendous hatred and killing. Macedonia's vulnerability is matched by several of its neighbours, which could easily get drawn into its conflict. That is why the EU and NATO will have to continue their engagement whatever happens on the ground.

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