- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

To Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, NATO is coming across as a little weak these days. It is too afraid to crack down on ethnic Albanian rebels, he said, as NATO agreed to allow Yugoslav forces to enter a demilitarized buffer zone in Serbia near the Kosovo and Macedonian border where ethnic Albanians have been increasing violence toward Serbs and Macedonians. The zone, from which NATO expelled Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic, is suspected of serving as a supply line for rebels in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Macedonia. If NATO thinks ethnic Albanian violence can be dealt with by the Serbs, it has learned little from its mission in Kosovo over the last two years.

While the former Yugoslav dictator is no longer in power, much of the Serbian army remains the same. To prevent abuses, NATO Secretary General George Robertson said last week, the Serbs would be asked to cooperate with a "controlled return," in which Serbs going into the buffer zone would enter in phases, and only after being screened for war crimes perpetrators. Only Serbian Interior Ministry police and Yugoslav border guards would be allowed in at this point.

All of which is entirely unrealistic. Serbs and ethnic Albanians alike have shown they do not take kindly to "controlled returns" and no screening process will immunize Serb forces from being violently attacked by the ethnic Albanians. Nor does it guarantee that the Serbs have now been converted to democratic, civilized ways just because their new leader is not currently waging a war of brutal ethnic cleansing.

If NATO is not willing to take on the Albanian rebels, others need to step in here. Bulgaria has promised "hundreds of tons" of military supplies to help Macedonia fight the ethnic Albanian rebels. Macedonia itself has much at stake, as one-third of its inhabitants are ethnic Albanian. Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski welcomed most European troops because they would be "more active and less afraid than [U.S.] soldiers."

Rather than sitting back and criticizing the United States for its performance, the Macedonians should be training to defend their own border. In the long run, that's the only way it will remain safe, given that NATO cannot be counted on to stay around forever. Nor should the alliance be stingy with logistical aid and material assistance to enable the Macedonians to defend themselves. For its part, NATO, which last week announced it would begin pulling troops out of the region, should not count on Serbs to fill any gap it will leave. To do so will surely exacerbate the violence.

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