Paddy Ashdown: How to stop the Balkans exploding all the time

'The West's problem is that we seem able to think of only one Balkan thing at a time'

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Two years to the day since the Kosovo war started, with the first Nato bombs falling on ex-Yugoslavia, 60 or so lightly-armed Albanians, sitting on a hill top, have brought South East Europe back to the brink of war. They have caused the leaders of the world's most powerful military alliance to meet in worried conclave, to wonder about what on earth to do next.

Two years to the day since the Kosovo war started, with the first Nato bombs falling on ex-Yugoslavia, 60 or so lightly-armed Albanians, sitting on a hill top, have brought South East Europe back to the brink of war. They have caused the leaders of the world's most powerful military alliance to meet in worried conclave, to wonder about what on earth to do next.

As so often, the spark that lit this tinder was tiny and accidental. A Macedonian army patrol stumbled on a small arms cache in the house of an Albanian hill farmer. Shots were fired and within days the Schar Planina mountains, which divide Kosovo from Macedonia like a great jagged spine, were full of young Albanian men, with romantic dreams of liberation conflict - and mules, struggling up over high, snow-filled passes, carrying the implements of war.

Bosnia and Kosovo could be contained, with conflicts about Serbia's limits and ambitions. But Macedonia has the capacity to widen the conflict beyond ex-Yugoslavia to include Greece, Bulgaria and ultimately, some say, even Turkey.

There is real anger at what Macedonia sees as Nato betrayal. They were promised the earth, when Nato needed them as a passage-way for its supplies, and a jumping off point for invasion, during the Kosovo war. But few of these promises have been delivered. Macedonia joined Nato's Partnership for Peace, but now "terrorists" are coming from a Nato-controlled area and the Alliance appears neither able to stop the insurgents, nor adequately willing to protect their fragile new state from disintegration.

Macedonians feel betrayed by their Albanian population, too. It is true that the Macedonian Government was very late to recognise the unacceptable denial of human rights of their minority Albanian population, and that there is a deep distrust, often amounting to visceral hate, of Albanians among the majority Slavs in the country.

However, the current Government has done more to correct this in the last three years than in all the previous existence of the Macedonian state. The Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski, has taken some great personal and political risks to involve the Albanians in his Government and there are now commissions sitting, including Albanians, considering changes to the constitution, and the involvement of Albanians in the armed forces and police.

There is some way to go, however, before Macedonian Albanians have equal rights as citizens. The long years of burning resentment, fuelled by what they perceive as slow progress on reform, has meant that the rebels in the hills have not found it difficult to attract young Albanian men with a romantic notion of war to gather to their cause.

But this is not Kosovo under the Serbs. There are genuine Albanian grievances to be resolved, but there is a political process in train to resolve them.

Which is why the leaders of the Kosovo Albanians have been playing with fire in their failure, until recent days, to clearly express their condemnation of acts - conducted from their territory - which destabilise their neighbours. They have to realise that their claim for independence can never be taken seriously by the world, if they will not act to ensure good relations with their neighbours and a tolerant attitude to other minorities, chiefly Serbs, in their midst.

I told them, when I was there on Thursday, that they had now to decide. If they insisted on remaining an island of refuseniks in the Balkans, who allowed their country to become a centre of criminality, intolerance and subversion, then the international community would have to bypass them in our efforts to give the region a new start, based on European values.

The rebels' demands are not onerous, as they have been explained to me. They amount, essentially, to speeding up the processes of reform that the Macedonian Government has in hand already (a census with international supervision, addressing the issue of access by Albanians to Macedonian citizenship and a proper structure for negotiations).

More importantly, it appears that they are prepared to let these matters be negotiated on their behalf by the elected Albanian leaders, Arben Xhaferi and Menduh Thaci, who confirmed to me earlier this week that they were prepared to take on this responsibility. If all this is correct, a solution should not be hard to find.

I hope the present crisis can be overcome - although I am far from optimistic. And if it is, I hope that at last, we in the West will start to put together a proper integrated policy for the whole Balkan region, instead of dealing with events on a piecemeal and ad hoc basis.

The West's problem is that we seem able to think of only one Balkan thing at a time. We could think only of recognising Croatia in 1991, and Bosnia blew up a year later. We settled Bosnia at Dayton, and forgot Kosovo. Since Milosevic fell, we have been wholly obsessed with Belgrade, forgetting to fulfil our obligations to Macedonia and the plight of the Albanian minority in that country.

In the Balkans, it is not events, but the interconnection between events that matters. Until we begin to realise this fact, we will continue to be prey to the tiniest incident sparking a conflagration in the region - and to exposing our own impotence in dealing with it.

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