Distributed March 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Keith Brown
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 750 Words

Keith Brown

Once again, a crossroads in the Balkans

By limiting U.S. troop deployments, the Bush administration sends encouragement to Albanian terrorists. To the people of the Balkans who so earnestly seek peace and stability it sends an insult that will only create disillusion and division.

Crisis looms again in the Balkans. In southern Serbia and Macedonia, Albanian gunmen in self-styled and uniformed “Liberation Armies” are killing, claiming to act on behalf of local Albanian minorities they hope to unify into a single state. On the other side, Yugoslav and Macedonian authorities try to quell these threats to the fragile status quo.

It sounds like Kosovo all over again. In 1999, Serbian atrocities and President Milosevic’s intransigence prompted military intervention by NATO to protect ethnic Albanians. The war, humanitarian relief, and subsequent civilian and military missions to govern Kosovo were expensive, and the United States bore a heavy share. Now violence has broken out again to the south and west. Should it continue, some in the United States will see this as proof that the region is chronically unstable and it is high time to cut U.S. losses and walk away.

That’s wrong.

Things have changed. With Milosevic gone, Yugoslavia is moving forward. In Macedonia, Albanian political parties are active partners in the governing coalition. The dreams of complete independence or an expanded ethnic state nursed by some Kosovar Albanians have receded. They will not be attained any time soon by peaceful means.

As a result, Albanian extremists are pursuing violence. Since last year, Albanian insurgents have been building their strength in southern Serbia. Armed incursions into Macedonia have been escalating. Albanian guerillas have occupied villages and killed Macedonian soldiers and police officers close to the Kosovo border. In both areas, the attackers claim to act on behalf of their unredeemed brethren.

So far, the violence has been met with regional solidarity. The presidents of Greece, Bulgaria and Albania have expressed their commitment to preserving Macedonia’s sovereignty and denouncing attempts to change borders by force. Yugoslavia’s government is contemplating policies of accommodation with minority groups. Within Macedonia’s coalition government, some leading Albanian figures have denounced the violence as the work of criminals and terrorists and have supported swift government countermeasures. Others have urged Kosovar leaders to exert influence over extremists.

Macedonia’s tiny armed forces responded quickly and effectively, proving the country’s willingness to take responsibility for its own security. But Macedonians are under no illusions as to the prospects for winning this fight without international assistance. As long as arms for Albanian extremists arrive from Kosovo, and terrorists can find haven there or in demilitarized southern Serbia, Macedonia’s security will always be threatened. A concerted international operation is required in all three areas to dismantle illegal paramilitary networks and protect local Albanian populations.

Many in the international community recognize the need for decisive action. U.S. troops at the Kosovo-Macedonian border have fired on Albanian gunmen and provided intelligence assistance to the Macedonian government counter-offensive. NATO has granted permission for Yugoslav forces to re-enter the border area with Macedonia and Kosovo. Aware of the danger of permitting direct collision between the Yugoslav army and the insurgents, some European politicians have gone further, calling for deployment of international military forces as peacekeepers in southern Serbia.

But the Bush administration is balking.

Undoubtedly greater involvement poses risks to personnel. European diplomatic personnel have already been fired on in Macedonia. Albanian extremists have already murdered Serb civilians in Kosovo and threatened further attacks when Yugoslav forces enter southern Serbia. They may well resort to terrorism against international targets to disrupt the surprising alliance whose cooperation threatens their supply routes.

U.S. allies in Europe are determined not to yield to such threats. So, too, are the people of the southern Balkans united in their resolve to end the cycle of violence waged by criminals in the name of ethnic irredentism. Though in disagreement over the rights and wrongs of NATO’s initial actions in Kosovo, they now welcome international support in a common struggle and refuse to play hostage to terrorists.

By limiting U.S. troop deployment, the Bush administration sends a clear and different signal. To the terrorists, it sends encouragement. They will still find safe haven in the border zones. But to the people of the Balkans who so earnestly seek peace and stability it is an insult that will only create disillusion and division. Today’s reformist parties will be the losers, and political opportunists once again will be free to exploit tensions between and within nations.

The United States has two choices: to wholly support a broad multi-state effort against terrorism or to walk away. The first course carries obvious risk, but offers the best prospects for regional peace and stability. The second course brings U.S. soldiers home, but only makes violence the winner.

Keith Brown is assistant professor of research at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.