World

STAYING PUT

Canada's plan to host refugees abruptly goes on hold

BARRY CAME,JOHN GEDDES April 19 1999
World

STAYING PUT

Canada's plan to host refugees abruptly goes on hold

BARRY CAME,JOHN GEDDES April 19 1999

STAYING PUT

World

Canada's plan to host refugees abruptly goes on hold

BARRY CAME

JOHN GEDDES

Eranda Balaj and her aunt Valbona spend their days haunting one particular tent in the vast city of canvas that sprawls across the old grass airstrip at Stankovic in northern Macedonia. Inside the tent, there is a desk where ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo can sign up for flights to safe havens overseas, in Germany or Norway or even farther abroad. But the two young women have their hearts set on Canada. “When are the Canadians coming?” asks 28-year-old Valbona, until a few days ago a primary schoolteacher in her native Pristina. ‘We love Canada,” chimes in Eranda, 23, who used to be a nurse in the Kosovar capital. ‘We’ll stay up all night just to make sure we get a place in the line.” Peering above the rim of sunglasses, she pauses to direct an inquiring gaze at a visitor. “Do you think we have a chance?”

For a moment last week, the odds looked pretty good for people

like Eranda and Valbona as Canada sent a six-member team of _

diplomats and immigration officers to the Macedonian capital of Skopje to begin selecting 5,000 of the 130,000 Kosovo refugees sheltered on Macedonian soil. But the situation suddenly changed when the Canadian authorities, at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, withdrew the country’s pledge of safe, if temporary, haven. “The offer is now on hold, perhaps for use on a later day,” said a harassed Raphael Girard, Canadian ambassador to both Yugoslavia and Macedonia, moments after consulting by telephone with Ottawa from Skopje. “UNHCR originally came to us and said,

We have a protection problem for the refugees on the Macedonian border. Can you help?’ Now, there appears to be no longer a need for our help.”

So the spectacle of uprooted Kosovars arriving to clean sheets and warm meals at Canadian Forces bases is off, at least for now. And so are the political benefits. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had relished the chance to raise his public profile on Kosovo in an uplifting way as he praised the many Canadians who volunteered to take refugees into their homes. But the focus quickly returned to the dispiriting daily grind of the war itself and Canada’s role in it. Canadian officials, like their counterparts elsewhere in NATO, portrayed the news from the air campaign as promising: pinpoint strikes were amounting to more than pinpricks in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s military machine and industrial infrastructure. His armoured vehicles were being hit as they rolled through Kosovo; Yugoslavia’s two oil refineries were knocked out. ‘We are using all available resources to make sure Mr. Milosevic feels the heat from the air campaign,” Jim Wright, director general for the Balkan region in the department of foreign affairs said in Ottawa. ‘We think that it is starting to take real effect.”

Not fast enough, though, to silence speculation that air strikes § alone might not be enough to win. NATO’s official position has I always been that land forces would be used only in a peace| keeping role after Milosevic has been bombed into accepting ¿ terms. But Defence Minister Art Eggleton put Canada’s allies £

on the spot last week by declaring publicly that Canadian military planners are “in the course of looking at other options as to when ground troops might be involved.” He later stressed, echoing officials in Washington, that such options were merely military contingencies—not yet a matter for discussion at NATO’s political level. Both U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair felt compelled to stress their confidence that ground troops would not be needed. Washington later said it would send another 82 warplanes to join the 600-strong NATO contingent.

While Liberal insiders declined to criticize Eggleton for moving NATO’s goalposts, neither did they spring to his defence. For some, the bigger concern was jibes that Chrétien was invisible in the early days of the crisis, when he left the heavy lifting of explaining Canada’s war effort to Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. In an attempt to remedy that last week, Chrétien stood on the tarmac

to welcome home an armed forces contingent returning to Bagotville, Que., after serving at the NATO base in Aviano, Italy, through the first phase of the bombing. He also shortened a planned trip to Latin America in preparation for this week’s House of Commons debate on Kosovo. Strategists in the Prime Minister’s Office even killed a proposal to poll Canadians for their views on the Kosovo conflict—sensitive to any potential criticism that the government was gearing its policy to public opinion (a survey of Canadians for Southam News showed 79 per cent of respondents backing NATO’s action). And officials portrayed Chrétien as playing a low-key but strategic role behind the scenes, holding a telephone conversation last week with Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, aimed at keeping the former Soviet republic from drifting towards Moscow’s stridently anti-bombing stance. As well, Chrétien spoke with Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis, a key figure because Greece is viewed as the NATO member most ill at ease over prolonging the air strikes.

For all that, however, Canada was mostly at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere. The UN high commissioner’s sudden move to halt the refugee airlift, in which up to 125,000 Kosovars would have gone to Europe, the United States and Canada, was evidently prompted by Albania’s agreement to accept as many as 100,000 of those who had fled to Macedonia. That cleared the way for the likely transport of most of the refugees in Macedonia to neighbouring Albania, where conditions were improving as aid organizations built tent cities. The move at once solved the political fears of the Macedonian government as well as the objections of Britain, France and others to moving so many of the 700,000 exiled Kosovars to countries outside the region. Canada’s Girard tended to share that view. “Milosevic will be delighted if we settle all of these people,” he remarked. “That, after all, was his objective in the first place.”

The determination to one day see those exiles go home—to

reverse Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing—raises the thorny question of Kosovo’s political future. Chrétien left little doubt that Yugoslavia’s long-term claim to Kosovo is no longer viewed as sacrosanct among NATO leaders. In London, Blair went further, telling the BBC it was “difficult to foresee autonomy” for Kosovo within Yugoslavia, as the West had once envisioned, after the fighting stops.

But any move to make Kosovo fully independent could face a formidable obstacle: Russia. Last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin took his opposition to NATO’s campaign against a fellow Slavic nation to a new level—warning that a world war might result if Russia was drawn into the conflict. The speaker of the Duma, or parliament, even claimed that Russian nuclear missiles had been retargeted against NATO countries, but Moscow quickly denied that (the issue was symbolic: retargeting can be accomplished in a matter of minutes). Yeltsin, ever a political tightrope walker, has to tread the fine line between pro-Serbian nationalists and Russia’s need for Western financial help. But some analysts still believe Russian mediation could be the key to any diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Such political stratagems seem far removed from the reality of life for the Kosovars. With the airlift plan dropped, Canadian officials in Macedonia will now concentrate on finding people with relatives in Canada, then processing them under existing legislation on reuniting families. Whether Eranda and Valbona Balaj will qualify is an open question. Neither woman has laid eyes on Canada and neither has relatives in the country. “But we’ve seen pictures of Canada on television and in the movies,” said Eranda, a tall, stylish blond who worked as a nurse at the now ransacked Mother Teresa Institute in Pristina. Summoning her best colloquial English, she pumped a fist in the air and shouted: “Yeah, Niagara, man!” She may yet be lucky: Canada needs nurses. But her benighted homeland could use a few as well. □