Marcus Tanner : What do we think we are doing in Macedonia?

'Rarely has any mission to the Balkans been blessed so universally and with so little reason'

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The angry crowds outside the Macedonian parliament yesterday, not to mention the bomb in the Albanian quarter of Skopje, form an ominous backdrop to the latest phase of the Macedonian "peace process", which is supposed to involve parliament there passing a package of laws to appease the Albanian minority's grievances.

The angry crowds outside the Macedonian parliament yesterday, not to mention the bomb in the Albanian quarter of Skopje, form an ominous backdrop to the latest phase of the Macedonian "peace process", which is supposed to involve parliament there passing a package of laws to appease the Albanian minority's grievances.

But don't expect that to dent the relentless optimism of Jack Straw about our latest Balkan sortie. With the propaganda machinery running at full tilt, the Foreign Secretary has cheerfully announced that everything is now in the hands of the parliamentary deputies, and that we will be out in 30 days.

Rarely has any mission to the Balkans been blessed so universally by the great and the good and with so little reason. In fact, the perkily named Operation Essential Harvest is a misnomer. It is not essential and the only thing we are harvesting is the fury of Macedonian nationalists, all of whom cherish the pathetic belief that if foreigners had not intervened, they could have crushed the Albanian revolt single-handedly.

Many people reading these words may be surprised. As correspondent for this newspaper in the early 1990s, along with practically every reporter in the Balkans, I passionately urged foreign involvement in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. We – the interventionists – were outraged by the impunity with which one side only – the Serbs – were able to blast and starve towns, such as Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and Vukovar, in their campaign to extend Serbia's borders.

We were disappointed by the UN mission to Bosnia that started in 1992, which was hobbled from the start by a most confusing mandate. There followed the monstrous betrayal of the UN "protected enclave" of Srebrenica in 1995. But the UN did feed hundreds of thousands of people in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac and in central Bosnia. None of the arguments applied in favour of intervention in Bosnia are relevant to Macedonia. There are no besieged "pockets" and neither side enjoys an overwhelming military advantage. Does anyone really know who is the aggressor?

One argument is that if we do not rush into Macedonia, others will. This is twaddle. In the early 1990s there was a lot of loose talk in Belgrade about a carve-up of Macedonia between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. But that was when Slobodan Milosevic was stirring the cauldron and a re-run of the Balkan wars of 1912-13 over Macedonia seemed possible.

The mood in Sofia, Belgrade and Athens is different now. The idea that Serbia under Zoran Djindjic would intervene militarily outside Serbia's borders is ridiculous. Greece's furious row with Macedonia over the name of the new state has fizzled out. As for Bulgaria, that country is now ruled by the grandson of King Ferdinand who lost his throne over his Macedonian intrigues.

With no one to feed, no enclaves to protect, no clear aggressor to repel and no foreign power threatening to intervene, what is the West doing in Macedonia? To put it bluntly, what did a young British soldier, 22-year-old Ian Collins, die for?

Apparently, we are collecting arms and preventing a wider conflict. But it is a mistake to believe that the success of this operation depends on the speed with which the Albanians hand in a few easily replaceable guns. The theatrical handover means nothing unless the Macedonians reciprocate by immediately passing laws fundamentally restructuring their state to accommodate Albanian demands to control local government, education and police in areas where they are the majority. The Skopje parliament is being asked to pass – almost overnight – the same kind of reforms it took 30 years of IRA bombing in Northern Ireland to induce the Unionists to even contemplate swallowing. I wonder what the odds are on the deputies delivering this? I think they are small. Experience in Ulster should have taught us that when power is in the hands of a frightened and shrinking majority, the knowledge that they are faced with an unfavourable demographic trend makes them less – not more – willing to concede ground.

The Macedonians are right to feel confused. Months back, Nato's secretary general, Lord Robertson, was calling the Albanian fighters "terrorists". Suddenly – shades of Ulster again – they are being asked – ordered, more like – to swallow practically every one of those fighters' demands.

Whatever the politicians say about this mission "going well", it is hard to see how it can deliver anything except a brief lull. The best scenario is that we collect these trophy guns, pull out after 30 days without any more casualties, and the whole thing rolls back to square one.

The more likely alternative is that "mission creep" sets in and we hunker down for a longer haul, feeding no one, protecting no one, supporting no side in particular, but "being there" all the same.

And why not? All the West is doing in Macedonia is assuaging its guilt over its delayed intervention in Bosnia. This is our collective wail – our kaddish – over the scattered and unmarked graves of the 200,000 Bosnians, murdered while the British and French diplomats courted the condescending smile of Mr Milosevic. The Macedonians – Slav and Albanian – should take note, and beware.

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