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Macedonians stave off war, but patience frays

A deal reached yesterday may give ethnic Albanians more rights.

By Peter Ford Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2001



SKOPJE, MACEDONIA

If this country's ethnic-Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political leaders still have a chance to pull their country back from the sort of bloodbath that engulfed their Balkan neighbors, they have only their voters to thank.

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For the past five months, a rebellion has sputtered in the mountains north of Skopje, as ethnic-Albanian guerrillas demanding greater rights for their people have advanced slowly on the capital against ineffectual Army and police opposition.

But the fighting has not yet sparked a full-scale uprising. And even as the UN's war-crimes tribunal in The Hague prepares to try former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic for alleged atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Western diplomats here are trying to broker a political solution to avert an all-out civil war.

"The Macedonian people's resilience in refraining from inter-ethnic violence is much higher than it was elsewhere in the Balkans," says one senior Western diplomat. "They just don't want to do that."

"There is no energy here for a war," adds Saso Ordonoski, an ethnic Macedonian journalist and political analyst. "People are not interested in fighting."

"For the past four months, both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians have shown they are cleverer than their politicians - they don't want war," says Kim Mehmeti, an ethnic-Albanian writer and minority-rights activist.

Ten years of coexistence between the two communities - since Macedonia won its independence in the wake of the collapse of former Yugoslavia - has fostered habits of tolerance that appear harder to break than in Bosnia or Croatia, say ordinary Macedonians and foreign analysts.

But "patience is wearing thin," warns Mr. Mehmeti. Widespread reports of brutality against ethnic Albanians by the overwhelmingly Macedonian police are fermenting growing resentment, and embryonic Macedonian paramilitary forces are threatening to take matters into their own hands.

Before the country descends into chaos, envoys from the European Union and the United States hope to prod the government into reforms to defuse the crisis.

Former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard and US envoy James Pardew met with political party leaders for the first time on Tuesday night.

At the heart of negotiations among the ethnic-Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political parties in the coalition crisis government is an argument over amendments to the Constitution to make Albanians, who make up some 35 percent of the population, feel more like full citizens.

The current Constitution, for example, describes Macedonia as a state belonging to ethnic Macedonians and other minorities, and refers to the Orthodox Church, but not to the Islamic authorities to which ethnic Albanians owe allegiance.

President Boris Trajkovski said in a statement yesterday that all the parties had agreed to use a set of constitutional principles set out by former French Justice Minister Robert Badinter as the basis for further negotiations. Presidential aide Stevo Pendarovski said those discussions should last no longer than 10 days.