SKOPJE, Macedonia — As NATO troops begin to leave Macedonia today at the end of a one-month mission to disarm rebels, uncertainty prevails over the country's peace process.
The mission, which NATO Secretary-General George Robertson this week called "a resounding success," collected 3,875 weapons, along with mines, explosives and ammunition, from ethnic Albanian guerrillas. It also broke the cycle of violence that had gripped the country for seven months.
However, its larger and more important goal was the creation of a political climate for the Macedonian parliament to implement a Western-brokered peace plan and for displaced citizens to return to their homes.
On those issues, the outcome is far from clear. The parliament has yet to complete work on reforms called for under the agreement, and at least 100,000 people remain displaced.
"The military part of the operation is only in support of the political process, and ultimately it is the political process that has to deliver the future," said British Brig. Barney White-Spunner, a leader of the 4,500-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization force.
The politics have proved more complicated and the peace plan more controversial than Western negotiators appeared to recognize at the beginning of the mission. The difficulties have created a potentially dangerous situation in which ethnic Macedonian politicians are reluctant to move forward with the parliamentary process that is expected to grant more rights to the ethnic Albanian minority. That foot-dragging in turn has bred distrust among ethnic Albanians and could foster a willingness to return to violence.
The parliament was scheduled to act by Friday to change the constitution and pass the new laws needed to make a reality of the peace agreement signed in August. But debate has been drawn out, and many ethnic Macedonian politicians are raising questions about key aspects of the agreement.
Lawmakers now are scheduled to renew debate next week. In the meantime, they are taking public comment on the peace agreement. A promised amnesty for ethnic Albanian guerrillas who laid down their arms has yet to be formalized.
Macedonian officials say they doubt that the reforms can win approval until security forces regain control of some areas held during the conflict by ethnic Albanian guerrillas, allowing ethnic Macedonians to return home. Ethnic Albanians make up at least 25% of the nation's 2 million people.
"We need to see significant steps, visible progress, in returning our security forces and displaced people to occupied territories, re-integrating them, before [lawmakers] finally vote to reform the constitution," said Stevo Pendarovski, a spokesman for President Boris Trajkovski.
Officials from international aid organizations agree that the country faces a serious problem because of the large number of internally displaced people. At least 71,000 people within the nation's borders cannot go home; about 60% of them are ethnic Macedonians. An additional 27,000 ethnic Albanians who during the fighting fled to neighboring Kosovo--a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic--have not returned.
"For most of these people, the big thing is the security issue," said Maki Shinohara, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "While some of them have had their houses destroyed, a lot of them are just afraid, and we cannot yet say to them that we've seen the end of the conflict."
Shinohara and others point to certain roads where ethnic Macedonian police and paramilitary units have appeared along one side and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, known as the National Liberation Army, hold the hills on the other side. Even if only one shot is fired, it can set off a round of gunfire that leaves villagers caught in the middle.
The refugee agency and other international groups have been urging the Macedonian government to allow the deployment of a new NATO force to help create a secure environment. Late Wednesday, the alliance and the government appeared near agreement on a force of 700 soldiers, led by Germans, who would spend a minimum of three months in the country.
However, their mission would be limited to protecting unarmed international monitors who are going to help integrate ethnic Albanians into the nation's police force, which currently is more than 95% ethnic Macedonian, and bring security forces back into guerrilla-controlled areas.
Goran Mihajlovski, the editor of Vest, the nation's second-largest Macedonian-language daily newspaper, said he believes that the country is splitting along ethnic lines. Even without a shot being fired, he said, ethnic Macedonians will continue to leave areas where ethnic Albanians are in the majority. And they leave with a bitterness about the NATO intervention and the peace deal.
"The bottom line is everybody thinks NATO is great, but they also think they shouldn't be telling us what to do. . . . Yes, the violence has stopped, but there's a stronger feeling among Macedonians that they were swindled," Mihajlovski said. "NATO didn't let us take care of this problem with ethnic Albanians on our own."
Most ethnic Albanians believe, however, that NATO is all that stands between them and an ethnic Macedonian police force that often targets them for punitive treatment.
A force of just 700 alliance soldiers seems too small to Kim Mehmeti, a longtime writer for Lobi, a leading Albanian weekly magazine.
"Anything less than 3,000 troops is too few. That number, psychologically, would make me feel safe," Mehmeti said. "Now the [Albanian guerrillas] cannot defend me because they have given up their arms; Macedonian government forces will not defend me, so then I have only one choice if NATO does not come, and that is to leave the country."