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NATO’s Contribution to Conflict Prevention in Europe: Macedonia

Commentary, 14 March 2008
International Institutions, Europe
A speech by Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Secretary General, NATO, 1999-2003) at the launch of Whitehall Paper 68 ‘Preventing War in Macedonia: Pre-emptive diplomacy in the 21st Century’.

A speech by Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Secretary General, NATO, 1999-2003) at the launch of Whitehall Paper 68: ‘Preventing War in Macedonia: Pre-emptive diplomacy in the 21st Century’.

The year 2001 is engraved on our collective memory because of the events of the 11th of September in that year. In many ways, the horror of that day and what it represented changed the world and the very way we thought of that world.

But the big conflict story of the earlier part of 2001 concerned events in the tiny former Yugoslav country of Macedonia. Had it tumbled, inexorably as it seemed, into another Balkan civil war the casualties would certainly have eclipsed the deaths in the Twin Towers. It would have been Europe’s Ground Zero.

But it did not tumble, and a small country was spared the nightmares which infected Bosnia and Kosovo. In three weeks from now, Macedonia should get its invitation to join NATO. A far cry from the precipice it was perched on just seven years ago.

The reasons why this part of the Balkans escaped the downward spiral of violence and retribution, previously stereotypical of the region, are chronicled in Mark Laity’s memoir of 2001 (now published by RUSI). For those not disposed to endlessly reinventing conflict prevention models, here is a story which is readable, first hand and full of lessons for the future.

Not many conflict studies start with the sentence ‘Over the quiet night air I could just hear the rumble of distant shellfire’, but then there are few conflicts in the Balkans did not have a miserable outcome. The style is unique and personal, but so too was the way in which the conflict was handled and managed.

That is why it is virtually forgotten. We all know about those conflicts which ignited, those which deepened and those which festered. There are plenty of monuments around to remind us; even if there are not war graves, memorials and permanent refugees to be ever-present reminders of our failures.

Even those commentators who forecast disaster that year with fatalistic certainty seem to ignore the fact that one we got right. When, in a crucial phase of the process in Macedonia, NATO deployed troops, one described the mission as ‘the craziest mission British soldiers have endured at the hands of politicians...these half-baked short-term interventions merely turn local brushfires into major conflicts.’ Other commentators were also pessimistic. None have bothered to revisit and wonder if there is something to be learned from its success.

So what did go right, in what former Prime Minister Tony Blair described as ‘a triumph of preventative diplomacy which went largely unsung’? I urge you to turn to the headings in Mark Laity’s final chapter, ‘Lessons of Success’, and how they tell the tale: Teamwork; common aims; a clear and achievable end state; respecting and understanding the host nation; early engagement; high-level engagement; control and delegation; people before plans; flexibility and adaptability; appropriate and speedy use of force; fast decision-making; civil-military coherence; the primacy of information; sustaining the effort.

There, in short, is the recipe for the successful handling a crisis. Mark Laity fleshes out the messages. Hard work, good people, courageous local politicians, face-to-face engagement and inter-institutional co-operation – all of these are the ingredients he lays out for those who would want to learn lessons. And who can doubt that in today’s conflicts these headings might be a guidebook to a much better situation.

Let us press the rewind button for a moment. What happened in early 2001 seemed to follow the Balkan template. A minority with a grievance takes to violence in frustration. Lives are lost and order is threatened. Inappropriate, heavy handed action is taken by the authorities, which inflames the situation and welds the citizenry to the extremists. The populations in mixed areas start to move, a process encouraged on both sides by the hot-heads. Retaliation takes place against ethnic groups with no connection to the violence. The snowball starts moving with over-reaction the name of the game.

And so it usually spirals out of control, but in this case, intervention was timely and effective. We stopped the spiral in time.

It is ironic that at that time NATO and the EU were locked in a long-playing drama called European Security and Defence Policy. In an attempt to get some permanent arrangements in place whereby the EU could access NATO’s hardware for crisis management purposes, negotiations had been ongoing since 1998. They were mired in treacle-walking absurdities.

But when the violence started in Macedonia – a state wanting NATO and EU membership – the new President, Boris Trajkovski, knew which numbers to call in Brussels (even if Henry Kissinger did not).

Javier Solana (to whom I pay the highest tribute for his heroic partnership in that amazing year) and I set aside the stickiness of ESPD negotiations and simply got down to Skopje to try to stop the spiral before the worst began to happen. That partnership, along with the then Chairman in Office for 2001 of the OSCE, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, was to be vital in stopping the reaction-counter reaction which so often leads to civil war.

Together, we tortuously persuaded the political leadership to take responsibility for a national emergency, and a national unity government was formed. Military guidance was supplied to stop heavy artillery being used to smash (or rather not smash) will-o’-the-wisp insurgents. A peace process was established engaging all parties in the Parliament. I used my own powers to appoint a personal emissary, Peter Feith, to talk to the ‘men in the hills’ and to get them signed up to dealing with ethnic grievances in a democratic context.

I sent Mark Laity, and some other crisis experts, to Skopje to handle personal relationships and to let us know what was going on, on the ground. Solana’s people, who he had handpicked and sent to the country, ground away at the detail of what was to be the historic Ohrid agreement. General Joseph Ralston, SACEUR – NATO’s military commander – masterminded the military side, from delicately handling a potentially deadly flashpoint in the Serbian Presevo Valley (with a large Albanian population) to getting the right troops at the right time into Macedonia to receive the weapons of the insurgents.

The Ohrid Agreement was achieved. The military operation to disarm the insurgents, Operation Essential Harvest, was completed successfully in the thirty days laid down. An amnesty was agreed, displaced people returned to their mixed villages, the peace process was carried through – and now that small country is on the cusp of NATO membership.

This sounds easy, but it was not. To get the full flavour of just how hard and tricky it was, read the book. To see the role of individual people and how they overcame the lethal logic of inter-ethnic conflict, I ask you to read the book. To see how close we occasionally came to failure, read it in the book.

Javier Solana and I visited Macedonia personally, and invariably together, eleven times in the months between February and October of 2001. We spent days’ worth of time on phones handling every emergency which came up.

But if there was a hero of that year, it was President Boris Trajkovski. Tragically, he was to perish in a plane crash in 2004. Sensitive, emotional, a Methodist preacher in a land where that minority was almost invisible, he seemed temperamentally unsuited for the brutal world of politics, never mind the exceptional stress of a threatened civil war.

And yet had we not had him, with his transparent decency and integrity and his demonstrable honesty, then Macedonia would have had its civil war. We had to help him, and he needed support in the loneliness of high office. But his sense of duty and morality and love of his country, challenged relentlessly, held. He led his people away from the nightmare.

The current President of Macedonia, Branko Cryenkovski, was leader of the main opposition party in 2001. At President Trajkovski’s funeral in 2004 he recalled the pressures and criticism faced by his predecessor:

You were the most deserving for the fact that we avoided disaster in 2001. You were blamed that you were a traitor, while you made the most patriotic step. You were blamed for cowardice, but you were the most courageous one.

The President was indeed the hero, but the credit must go also to the population of Macedonia as a whole. In the end, they chose the route of peace and reconciliation. They rejected the voices of hatred and rivalry on every side and embraced the plan for lasting progress in the European mainstream.

To have made that choice, and it was not easy or convenient given the provocations, marks out this small country from the others who have allowed themselves to sink into ethnic superiority and competition.

In the years since the crisis of 2001, Macedonia has relentlessly and productively pursued the route to European integration. In a few weeks time they should (and must) be offered the same invitation to join NATO as Croatia and Albania.

Macedonia must not lose this opportunity to join because of a dispute over its name. In the days to come, a solution based on common respect for sensitivities must be found which allows this small, brave country to take its place among the democratic nations of Europe.

So, what lessons do I personally take from those events of 2001 in the Balkans? Let me speak of just a few.

First is the importance of early intervention. What we learned to our cost in both Bosnia and Kosovo is that when the violence has started to move, it is hugely difficult to get it stopped. In this case, we moved when the trouble started and it had a decisive influence on all of the players. We were bold, and we took risks. Talking to the insurgents, demanding a national unity government, giving licence to locally based staff – none of this was without controversy and occasional dispute. But measured against the potential downsides, it was well worth the risks.

Second is the crucial importance of top level engagement. The knowledge that the President, his Prime Minister and other key players could access, day and night, the top people in NATO and the EU built an atmosphere of trust which became invaluable when guidance and exhortation became necessary. The willingness of the top people to keep in touch directly made the follow-through on initiatives more likely to produce results. All the fancy plans in the world will not solve conflicts and crises: only execution matters. That is why Macedonia was saved, and it is why on the other side of the continent, Tony Blair’s hands-on and detailed approach to Northern Ireland brought a solution to that centuries-old problem.

Third is the priority given to people and not plans. Whether it is engaging with the local leadership or the population through the press, both plans and processes matter infinitely less than having the right people in the right place at the right time. In Macedonia, we put in good people, we gave them broad guidance, and then crucially, we let them get on with the job. That was to pay dividends.

Fourth is the influence of continuity. If you want to build trust, and you want people to act in the long-term interest and not be swayed by the fickleness of street pressure, then you do not just want the right people in place: you need the same people in place. Endlessly shifting and rotating faces and personalities both confuses and devalues the local engagement. It erodes trust and reduces the effectiveness of the mission.

Five: never underestimate the impact of inter-institutional co-operation. In Macedonia, in addition to the EU and NATO both on the ground and at international level, other organisations played a significant part in the process. The OSCE, though its energetic and highly effective Chairman in Office Mircea Geoana; the Council of Europe; the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; the international Red Cross; and individuals like European Commissioner Chris Patten and Bosnia High Representative Paddy Ashdown, all played a part in getting Macedonia on the right track.

Finally, but not by any means exhaustively, is the most important point of all.

Do not just learn lessons; implement them. Too often, ‘lessons learned’ become just another library volume, when instead they need to become an action plan. If that were to happen perhaps, we would be faced with fewer painful crises in our new, complex world today.

In my final speech to the North Atlantic Council four years ago, I recalled my visit, after the Macedonia crisis was over, to Tearce – a mixed Macedonian/Albanian village in the Tetovo Valley where the violence had broken out in February of 2001.

The children in the village were hugely excited at the visit – with helicopters, cameras, lights and the whole paraphernalia of a big VIP visit.

They were filled with exuberant joy by the glamour of a celebrity visit. They could not tell the difference between NATO and Tesco, between the EU and Eurovision, but they were alive and cheering, and not dead and buried; they were running about together, not maimed and crippled for life; they were learning together in a brilliant school in their own village, and not scattered to the winds in permanent refugee camps all over Europe. And why?

Because the international community, its leaders, its institutions, its brave and professional troops, and some of its own far sighted, courageous political leaders and ultimately a wise population boldly and decisively did the right thing, at the right time. And one day these children grown up in their peaceful European country will know what was done, who did it and they will give thanks. And when they read Mark Laity’s book they will know whom to thank.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen
NATO Secretary General, 1999-2003



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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