Stopping war

August 26, 1994|By Trudy Rubin

Skopje, Macedonia -- DID YOU KNOW that 540 U.S. peace-keeping troops under United Nations command are sitting a string of lonely outposts on the mountainous border between Macedonia and Serbia?

Most Americans probably don't. But these U.S. soldiers are taking part in an important experiment in the Balkans to examine whether preventive U.N. peace-keeping, in an area that is tense but where fighting hasn't started, can inhibit the spread of war before it starts.

The Macedonian operation is an important test for the Clinton administration. It has so far flubbed its efforts to halt the fighting in Bosnia, but it desperately hopes to prevent the spread of jTC more Balkan wars. The test case also is critical for the United Nations, in defining whether the world body actually has a bigger role to play in global security after the Cold War, or whether such expectations were greatly oversold.

Having failed at experiments with "peace enforcement" (giving traditional peace-keeping troops more arms to halt local wars but sharply limiting when they can use them), U.N. officials are hoping they can do better with "preventive deployment." To that end, they have stationed 1,200 troops along the Macedonian border. If preventive security can work in Macedonia, it might be effective elsewhere (just as many observers believe that preventive deployment of U.N. troops along Bosnia's border with Serbia might have dissuaded the Serbs from launching their "ethnic cleansing" war.)

Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic that is now independent, is at particular risk of getting into the Yugoslav wars because of its geography and its ethnic mix. Despite its democratic government and progressive policies toward minorities, it sits at an uneasy junction of territorial and ethnic disputes, just south of Serbia and east of Albania. Macedonia has a large ethnic minority of Muslim Albanians. They could be drawn into disturbances provoked by Serbia's severe persecution of its ethnic Albanian minority along the border with Macedonia.

So the presence of a U.N. preventive force, sent in at Macedonia's invitation, is meant to warn the Serbs not to provoke any cross-border trouble. The intended message is underlined by the presence of American soldiers. Yasushi Akashi, the civilian in charge of all U.N. operations in ex-Yugoslavia, calls the Macedonian deployment "a tripwire" that has "stemmed the tide of nationalist conflict."

So far, the Serbs seem to have been paying attention. Visiting the observation post of U.S. Army platoon Uniform 51 Bravo, 25 miles northeast of Skopje, all looks calm along the beautiful green rolling hills that overlook Serbia. The U.S. troops, who live in air-conditioned trailers, watch out for Serb border incursions on a mounted platform, gazing through the sight of a TOW anti-tank missile from which the weapon has been removed.

Mostly, the soldiers just see smugglers. They have been told that their mission is to observe, monitor and report any incidents along the border and show a U.N. presence, not to be warriors. Occasionally a Serb has walked up to their perimeter wire, but they don't initiate any conversation.

In their spare time, the troops watch videos or pump iron in a makeshift "hole in the wall gym" set up in an abandoned Macedonian house.

Why have the Serbs behaved? Probably because they see no need to expand the war southward with the danger that this would involve Greece, Bulgaria or even Turkey. The territory of Macedonia is not considered a part of southern Serbia except by that country's most extreme nationalists.

But just maybe, the fact that it is American troops who make up half the preventive deployment force has convinced the Serbs that the Clinton administration is serious -- that it has drawn a line limiting expansion of the Balkan fighting. Certainly the impact would not be the same if all of the troops came from Sweden, or from Kenya.

Nor can one predict what would happen if the Serbs decided to test the mettle of the preventive troops. The White House claims there would be a forceful reaction, but Pentagon officials say U.S. troops would be withdrawn in case of attack. The platoon I visited has practiced what to do in case of evacuation.

But the biggest threat to the U.S./U.N. experiment may come not from the Serbs but from misguided U.S. and European diplomacy that threatens to destabilize Macedonia from within.

Greece, Macedonia's southern neighbor, has slapped an economic embargo on Skopje for refusing to change its name and national symbols. The Greeks claim these signify that Macedonia has aspirations against Greece's northernmost region, which is called by the same name. Any such danger is hugely exaggerated, but Greek hysteria has been fed by political demagoguery at home.

The Greek economic embargo threatens to strangle tiny Macedonia (population: 2 million), which already is reeling from the U.N. embargo against Serbia, formerly its largest trading partner. Macedonia's main highway north passes through Serbia, and its only sea outlet is through Greece. Caught in this pincer, the country confronts economic chaos that could spark just the kind of internal ethnic troubles that everyone fears.

But neither Western Europe nor the Clinton administration has exerted tough pressure on Greece to lift the embargo.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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