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Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK

Analysis: Macedonia, vulnerable neighbour

Macedonian soldiers protect ethnic Albanian refugees

By South East Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Macedonia is the only one of the former Yugoslav republics to have secured its independence without a fight after a referendum in 1991.

Yet in spite of that, it has been seen as potentially the most likely victim of a potential spill-over of the bloodshed that has already affected, at one time or another, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo - and now Serbia proper.

Kosovo: Special Report
It was Macedonia's vulnerability that prompted the United Nations six years ago to deploy - for the first time - a peacekeeping force in a country before a conflict had actually taken place. But the mandate of the 1,000-strong UN Preventive Deployment Force came to an end a month ago after China vetoed its extension - in retaliation for Macedonia's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Security shaken

Fortunately for Macedonia, the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers came after Nato had deployed 12,000 troops in the country.

Anita Coulson reports on the historic turbulence of the region
The Nato presence is made up of a so-called extraction force, initially established to protect the unarmed international observers in Kosovo who were subsequently pulled out of the province on the eve of Nato's air strikes; and advance units of a planned peacekeeping force for Kosovo in case Belgrade accepts the six-nation Contact Group's peace plan.

The deployment of a sizeable Nato force in Macedonia was initially viewed as a huge boost to Macedonia's sense of security.

Troops become targets

But over the past few days this feeling has been qualified by concern that these Nato units could become the target for Yugoslav retaliation for Nato's air strikes. Meanwhile, some Macedonians - many of them members of the small Serbian minority - have taken part in violent protests against Nato's presence in Macedonia.

[ image:  ]
Macedonia believes that its security is linked inextricably to Nato.

That assessment has firmed up under the recently elected broad-based government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski which brings together strongly pro-Western parties from the Macedonian Slav majority community and the large ethnic Albanian minority.

Ethnic tensions remain

But relations between the two ethnic communities remain tense. Ethnic Albanians account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's population of 2m people; and they have long been complaining of being treated as second-class citizens with unequal access to public service jobs.

Meanwhile, Slav Macedonians have been concerned that radical elements among the ethnic Albanian population might be seeking autonomy for the Albanian-inhabited western regions of Macedonia - as a possible first step towards linking up with the Albanians of Kosovo and Albania itself.

[ image: Italian tanks, of the Nato contingent, patrol the Macedonian border]
Italian tanks, of the Nato contingent, patrol the Macedonian border
Suspicions on both sides of the ethnic divide have been somewhat allayed by the new government, in office since November, which brings together previously radical exponents of both Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian nationalism.

However, a mass influx of Kosovar Albanian refugees could cause further complications between the two communities because it would upset the precarious ethnic balance. Besides, it would also put severe strains on Macedonia's impoverished resources. Macedonia is already finding it difficult to cope with the 15,000 Kosovar Albanians who have so far arrived in Macedonia.

Macedonia a low priority

The government in Skopje is now appealing to Nato to be considered for membership as a matter of urgency. As a Nato member Macedonia would have a guarantee that the alliance would come to its help if it was attacked.

Belgrade has threatened retaliation against countries that allow Nato forces to use their territory to launch attacks against Yugoslavia. And although Skopje has said it's not allowing such attacks, it can't be certain that Belgrade believes these reassurances.

Macedonia's application for fast-track Nato membership is unlikely to receive a favourable response. Nato enlargement is a lengthy process; this month's admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland has been the culmination of several years of preparations.

True, Macedonia was also one of the early Nato applicants in the wake of the collapse of communism. But until now the small and seemingly unstable country wasn't seen as a priority for Nato.

Indeed, in the short term Nato is unlikely to offer Skopje anything more than closer links and support. But depending on Nato's commitment, that may prove enough to give Macedonia the sense of security it would ideally like to secure through formal membership.

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