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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
BBC's Jeremy Bowen quizzed in Macedonia
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Up to 700 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment have flown out to join an advanced party of 400 after Nato chiefs approved a mission to disarm Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

The soldiers will lead a 3,500-strong international force gathering arms surrendered by the rebel Albanian National Liberation Army under a peace deal brokered last week.

Nato Secretary General Lord Robertson has admitted that there are risks involved in the action but said: "We are taking an historic step forward to provide stability and security in the whole Balkans region."

Weapons collected under the operation called "Essential Harvest" could start early next week and should be completed by the end of next month.

What do you think of Nato's proposals? Will the move to disarm the Albanian rebels succeed? Or do you feel that British troops should not be taking part in such a mission?

Our correspondent Jeremy Bowen is in Macedonia and answered your questions in a live forum.


Highlights of the interview


Newshost:

Melissa Peters, Cambridge, England The plan is that forces will stay in Macedonia for just 30 days, but is this really likely?


Jeremy Bowen:

Nato says that it is. Nato says it is really a very simple equation here. They have a mission to voluntarily collect the weapons given up by the Albanian rebels and that the mission is going to take 30 days - give or take or few in either direction - and then after that they will go home. What they also say is that if there is a problem - if their men are attacked - if the security situation makes that impossible then they will go home.

Now it could be that the reality is a bit more complicated than that. It will be difficult for Nato to leave if things start going wrong in terms of a deterioration into violence. It will be hard for them to leave if, at the end of this 30 days, the whole political process that goes with the process of weapons collection isn't well under control and happening. Because let's not forget, this isn't just about collecting weapons, it's also about the Macedonian government giving some substantial political rights to the Albanian minority in this country and they way they are going to do that is by changing the constitution. The idea is that that happens in tandem with the collection of the weapons - now if those votes don't start going the way of reform in the Macedonian parliament when that is due to happen, then it's a good chance that the weapons collection programme will not work. But what this is all about really is building trust and so they hope that by collecting weapons, by changing the law in this country to give Albanians more of a say, then they will create a climate for peace.


Newshost:

Alan Harvey, Godalming, Surrey, UK. What is the rationale for the UK being yet again disproportionately involved in trying to resolve this conflict? Isn't it time we dropped this throwback to our imperial past?


Jeremy Bowen:

I think that if Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, was here, he would probably say that this is not an old style imperial police action of the sort that maybe Britain used to do in the days of Empire. They'd say what they're trying to do here is actually something very new. They are trying to use limited force to stop a war happening before it's really started. What they are trying to do is by inserting Nato troops here to do a very limited job. They're hoping that the presence of the troops will create the security climate for peace to happen.

There is a question of Britain's overstretch though. The fact is that Britain has been very eager - in fact it has been at the forefront of involvement in the Balkans and in other conflicts as well - like Sierra Leone - in the last years. And Britain, despite the fact that it has the fourth largest in the world, has a lot of problems of its own and many people argue that our money is better spent on things other than the Army. I think that the way that the Government sees it though is that Britain has a responsibility to take part in international security measures. Britain has, by European standards, pretty flexible armed forces who can deploy very quickly - a lot of money has been spent on getting that capability - and so the idea is that Britain uses this.

I think there is something else going on as well which is first of all the relationship with the United States. A lot of Americans criticise Europeans for not doing enough for their own security. Now I think that the hope in Britain and in Paris and in Brussels and a few other places too, is that Nato can do more if the Europeans do more in operations like this and that will do something to stave American criticism that we rely too much on their fire power.

There is also the European dimension. The British are rather reluctant Europeans for all kinds of domestic and political reasons. Britain is unwilling at the moment to take part in the European single currency. I think Tony Blair wants to show his European partners that there is something else that he can do and this is one thing that Britain can do to be a responsible European is to try to use its very capable armed forces to good order. Some people are critical of it of course - they say Britons are becoming the Prussians of Europe - I think that is a bit overstretched at the moment though.


Newshost:

Srle, UK Do you think Nato has succeeded in making Kosovo a 'multi-ethnic' community, which was its excuse for going in the first place?


Jeremy Bowen:

I don't think that was its precise excuse for going in but we can get onto that in a moment. No, Kosovo is not a multi-ethnic community. The vast majority of the Serbs were forced out of Kosovo in the immediate aftermath of the Nato invasion basically by a form of ethnic cleansing - Kosovo Albanians turned on them and kicked them out. I was there at the time and some of them left because they were frightened, other people left because they were kicked out. Most of their houses were burnt down after they left and also a huge number of Serb Orthodox Churches were also destroyed.

In no sense is Kosovo a multi-ethnic society. There are Serbs who live there under Nato protection - not very many of them - and there are a lot of Kosovar Albanians who, quite frankly, would be very happy to see the Serbs go. There are some Kosovar Albanians who do genuinely want to have a multi-ethnic society but I think they are in the minority.

Nato went into Kosovo for all kinds of reasons too numerous to mention. I think that one reason why the Nato governments decided to do what they did and Britain, again, at the forefront of all this, was actually what had happened in the previous few years. I think they thought that Slobodan Milosevic - the then President of former Federal Yugoslavia - had made a fool of them over the years and they thought this time he is not going to get away with it. I think they were also sick of the sight of ethnic cleansing in Europe and they had a real problem in so far as after the bombing started, there was a massive deportation, forced exodus of Kosovar Albanians and they had to do something about it.

The problem with the Kosovo business was they went into it without really a serious political objective. Now if they went into it saying, as you suggest, that they were going to have a multi-ethnic society at least that would have been a political objective. I don't think they had that political objective - I think they made policy very much on the hoof and at the moment they are suffering the hangover from that, which is that Nato troops will be in Kosovo for years and will effectively be running the place as a sort of imperial province - of which empire I am not sure. The thing is they have to decide what they want to do with Kosovo - does it return to Serbia - to what is left of Yugoslavia? Or does it become an independent state? At the moment it is in a limbo.


Newshost:

Nebojsa Grujic, Toronto, Canada How likely it is that Albanian rebels will engage Nato in combat? Is Nato strategy based entirely on authority or do they plan to use force as well?


Jeremy Bowen:

I think it is very unlikely that Albanian rebels will engage Nato in combat. The troops at the forefront of the Nato operation are the British Paratroopers, the French Foreign Legion and various other groups from all sorts of other European countries. These are top international armies who are very well equipped. I can talk about the British Paratroopers and French Foreign Legion because I have spent time with both - they are very serious professional soldiers and I think if any Albanian rebel was foolish enough to try and attack them, he wouldn't live very long to regret it. I think the risk is more that there will be a breakdown in the ceasefire, for whatever reason, between Macedonians and Albanians and then Nato, whose idea here is simply to use force to defend itself and not to sort out other people's battles, will then have to decide what they can do in those sort of situations if there is a breakdown of the ceasefire - that is the real risk.

I think the ceasefire at the moment is pretty much being respected by both sides - having said that - they are both there in their positions but Nato said it wouldn't move in unless the ceasefire was respected and now that is what's happening.


Newshost:

Paul T Horgan, Bracknell, England What would be the international consequences if we just walked away and let these people go on killing each other?


Jeremy Bowen:

Fear of the international consequences is why this operation is happening. The fear in Nato and western capitals - not just western capitals - that if this growing conflict was left unchecked that it would spiral very quickly into another Balkans war ten years after the wars of former Yugoslavia started. There has always been a nightmare scenario in terms of war in the Balkans that it would drag in neighbouring powers and it has always been felt that a war in Macedonia had the capacity to do that in a way that the other wars - the very brief war in Slovenia, the longer wars in Croatia and Bosnia and then the war in Kosovo - that those didn't quite have the capacity to draw in neighbouring powers in the way that the war in Macedonia might. Macedonians have strong links with Greece, there are fears that Turkey might want to support the Albanians - there are all kinds of scenarios that people have talked about.

It would be massively destabilising in this part of south east Europe for a war here to break out, apart from the fact that war is in itself undesirable. There are people in Nato who believe that it is better to try and come in at the beginning and try and stop it happening than come in at the end and try and pick up the pieces which is what happened in Bosnia and in Kosovo.


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See also:

23 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia mission gathers pace
22 Aug 01 | Europe
Is Nato's mission impossible?
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