LONDON — Ethnic peace has withstood an entire week of shooting around the Macedonian city of Tetovo, despite the efforts of ethnic Albanian guerrillas based in neighboring Kosovo to topple the small Balkan republic into civil war. Another week of fighting would probably do the trick, however — so it would help if NATO, which has occupied Kosovo for the past 20 months, could work its nerve up enough to stop the guerrillas crossing into Macedonia.

It is almost entirely NATO’s fault. The alliance has 37,000 troops in Kosovo, quite enough to seal its borders against the extremist minority who want to destabilize their neighbors. But NATO governments have such an acute fear of casualties that they are unwilling to police the borders seriously.

All NATO countries suffer from this casualty aversion, which is why the NATO campaign to expel the genocidal Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999 was conducted entirely from the air, and why NATO occupation forces have done such a rotten job of protecting the remaining Serbian minority in Kosovo from extremist Albanian attacks.

But the most timid of all are the Americans.

It is U.S. troops who control (or rather, fail to control) Kosovo’s most sensitive borders, with the southwest corner of Serbia and with Macedonia. In both cases, the bulk of the population just across the frontier is identical to the Albanian majority in Kosovo, and in both cases, extremist elements in Kosovo want to bring them into the fold.

Yet the U.S. forces let Kosovo extremists infiltrate freely across the Serbian border into the 5-km buffer zone from which Serbian forces were excluded, rather than risk clashes in which American soldiers might get hurt. After 30-odd Serbians had been killed there, they invited the Serbian Army to move back into the buffer zone last month rather than take the responsibility of policing the border themselves.

The border with Macedonia was the same story: the U.S. forces unilaterally created their own 1.5-km “exclusion zone” inside Kosovo — a zone that American troops did not enter, but the ethnic Albanian guerrillas now attacking Macedonia certainly did. A month ago, as the guerrillas massed on his border, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski complained about NATO’s “indolent treatment of the crisis.”

After the shooting erupted on March 14, Georgievski said, “You can’t persuade anyone in Macedonia today that the governments of the United States and Germany do not know who the terrorist leaders are and what they want. They could stop them acting.”

But it is even worse than that. It is NATO’s political indecisiveness, even more than its military pusillanimity, that has brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war.

Macedonia is the one former Yugoslav republic that has escaped war in the 10 years since the old federation broke up and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic set the epidemic of ethnic cleansing in motion. Its 2.3 million population is mixed: about two-thirds Christian Slavs who speak Macedonian and one-third Albanian-speaking Muslims, with small Turkish, Serbian and Roma Gypsy minorities. But it has had sane and adroit political leaders who managed to keep the peace.

Traditionally, the Albanians of Macedonia have been poorer and politically disadvantaged. Moreover, the Slav majority is nervous about their loyalty, particularly as there are up to 8 million more Albanians nearby in Kosovo and Albania proper. But responsible leaders from both groups have worked to eradicate the anti-Albanian biases in the system gradually, without panicking the Slav majority.

Less than a month ago, Arben Xhafari — leader of the Albanian Democratic Party, which plays a prominent role in the coalition government — was telling journalists in Tetovo that his people had no need or wish for violence.

“Some people believe in the domino effect in Macedonia,” he said, referring to the guerrillas on the border. “I don’t believe in the fatality and inevitability of war.”

What prompted the Kosovo-based extremists to launch their attack now was probably the ratification on March 1 of a treaty defining the border between Serbia and Macedonia.

Much of that border is really Kosovo’s, but Kosovo is still legally part of Serbia despite the NATO occupation. The Macedonian prime minister was careful to say that if Kosovo’s status changed, “the border is just a line that could be looked at and agreed again,” but the hard men in Kosovo are worried that they are not going to get full independence.

Now that Milosevic has been overthrown in Belgrade and NATO is getting friendly with the new democratic government in Serbia, they fear that Kosovo could end up as merely an autonomous province of Serbia.

To stop that, they are trying to get the shooting going again in the Balkans. Since they lack the strength to take on NATO directly in Kosovo, they are instead trying to drive the two ethnic communities in Macedonia into a civil war that will make NATO throw up its hands in despair and leave.

If NATO had the political will, it could impose either solution: an independent Kosovo or an autonomous Kosovo within a democratic Serbia. By refusing to discuss either, it is guaranteeing more trouble there in the long term.

But it might at least have the courage to patrol Kosovo’s borders properly and save Macedonia from a similar fate.

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