- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

First 60,000, then 8,700, 3,300, 3,000, 30. A drastically shrinking bank account? Lottery numbers requiring large ping-pong balls?

Neither, though the numbers do play a critical role in a dangerous international gamble, NATO's direct step into Macedonia's civil war.

Here's the lowdown on the mystery integers: The Macedonian government claims the ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the National Liberation Army (NLA) have 60,000 weapons on hand (and perhaps as many as 80,000). Press sources, including Jane's Defense Weekly, put the number at 8,700. NATO estimates the rebels hold 3,300 weapons. One NLA commander says 3,000 is a good figure.

The "30" represents the 30 days of Operation Essential Harvest, respectively the time frame and the code name for NATO's disarmament effort.

The numbers tell several stories. The huge disparity between the Macedonian government and the NLA weapon estimates illustrates the widening political division between Slav Macedonians and Albanian Macedonians.

The comparatively small "30" illustrates NATO's attempt to focus goals and minimize military commitment.

While disarming the NLA is a fine idea, collecting weapons is a very narrow mission. That's intentional. The NATO leaders are trying to give their troops an achievable military goal within the context of diplomatic initiatives to end Macedonia's civil war.

The NATO leaders seek to avoid yet another "Kosovo trap," i.e. an open-ended troop commitment in a politically volatile Balkan corner. "Stop the killing" works as a feel-good political sound bite. However, it doesn't really cut it as a decisive military objective. Yes, the NATO-sponsored invasion ended Serbian-led ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but despite the continued presence of peacekeeping troops, ethnic murder still plagues that province.

The NATO leaders realize military operations can help create conditions for a political settlement, but they are not political solutions. In the absence of an internal Macedonian political accommodation, disarming NLA units won't preserve Skopje's multi-ethnic state. After NATO's 30 days of "Harvest," the most probable results are renewed fighting and the de facto establishment of an ethnic-Albanian statelet in northwestern Macedonia, with borders snuggling up to Kosovo and Albania itself.

So, NATO is gambling that 30 days will provide a violence-free space for political compromise, time to implement the Ohrid agreement signed by ethnic Slav and Albanian Macedonian political leaders in mid-August.

Unfortunately, many Slavs perceive the Ohrid accord as a prescription for partitioning Macedonia, a mini-version of the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, which split Macedonia following the Second Balkan War. Though an extreme comparison, associating Ohrid with 1913 illustrates the historical depth of Macedonian fear. Ethnic Albanians remain unconvinced of Slav willingness to make real concessions. They cite a figure that fewer than 200 of Macedonia's 9,000 policemen are Albanians. Slavs fear that a broad political amnesty for NLA guerrillas will reward violence.

Why more war after disarmament? Frankly, gun control in the Balkans is as boggling a notion as chastity in Hollywood.

Credible analysts report several hundred thousand infantry weapons stored by Albania's paranoid Communist dictator Enver Hoxha (as part of his "national resistance" strategy) remain unaccounted for.

StrategyPage.com editor James F. Dunnigan says the Hoxha-era weapons dumps were looted during Albania's 1997 national meltdown. "In 1997, the Balkan price for an AK-47 fell to $20," Mr. Dunnigan says. He says that 200,000 AK-47s available to rebels "within Kosovo, Albania and the Albanian zones of Montenegro and Macedonia" (a description of "Greater Albania") is a believable figure.

Though Albanian and Slav Macedonians have many reasons to reach a settlement, new radical organizations that reject compromise are emerging.

Macedonian Slav paramilitaries have appeared. The biggest threat may be the Albanian National Army. While several European sources dismiss the ANA as a "mirage," the Institute for War and Peace Reporting believes it could be a serious force. IWPR suggests the ANA connects to Hoxha's Communist secret police, the Sigurimi.

Former Sigurimi officers have been tied to drug dealing, gun smuggling, prostitution and other criminal schemes throughout the Balkans.

Collecting weapons will buy precious time. The key issue, however, is curbing the political extremists who use the weapons and stopping the criminal syndicates who benefit from the turmoil caused by the extremists. Rooting out Sigurimi cadres will take years of coordinated police work and political effort, not 30 days of "Harvest."

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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