Shaky steps toward peace in Macedonia

NATO said yesterday that 1,000 troops will stay as security while peace plan is debated.

With almost 4,000 weapons turned over to NATO, and rebel fighters slipping on civilian clothes and returning to their villages, Macedonia would appear to be headed for peace.

Yesterday, NATO announced that a 1,000-member force would remain in the country, as Macedonian politicians continue to debate constitutional changes that are part of a Western-sponsored peace plan. The Aug. 13 Ohrid peace deal suspended six months of fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces.

Yet, like so many times before in this smoldering interethnic conflict, just when peace seems to be within reach, a new crisis threatens to send the country reeling back into civil war.

This time it is the tiny New Democracy party shaking things up. The party's fiery vice president, Slobodan Casule, and other political leaders have hatched a plan to put the constitutional changes, which grant significant concessions to the ethnic-Albanian minority, to a public referendum - one that both local and foreign analysts agree would get an overwhelmingly negative response.

"NATO and the European Union [which designed the peace accords] behave as if the Macedonian people don't exist and their desires do not matter at all," Casule says. "As a result, we are headed for disaster, because the population is radically against the constitutional changes. A referendum would allow citizens to either uphold the agreement or turn it down, which would open up the procedure to return things to the original situation. It would be democratic."

The controversial changes would drop references to the "national state of the Macedonian people," permit the use of Albanian language in state and legislative business, and give Albanians - who make up about a third of the population - more jobs in the police and civil service. The majority of ethnic Macedonians would gladly discard the plan, but that would dismantle months of diplomatic work by the West and could lead to renewed violence.

After nearly a month of arduous debate, parliament approved tentative drafts for 15 constitutional amendments on Monday by a bare majority, but two thirds of the deputies will be needed to ratify the changes.

On Wednesday, leaders of the powerful Social Democratic Party (SDSM) threatened to withdraw support for the amendments unless cease-fire violations stop. This week renewed clashes between rebels and security forces have been reported near the second largest city, Tetovo.

Casule says that under these circumstances, voting for the constitutional changes would be "political suicide.

"These amendments would effectively divide up the country on ethnic lines," he says. "If they pass, there will be civil war because the Macedonian population will not accept it. Macedonians have been defeated and violated by terrorist attacks, and now you are forcing them to give up their name as the Macedonian people."

Western observers acknowledge that the constitutional amendments would likely be turned down in a referendum, and say they hope politicians will steer clear of that mechanism.

"We will definitely not vote for a referendum," says Radmila Sekerinska, the SDSM vice president. "A referendum is not an appropriate solution in an interethnic conflict. The majority would always decide the issue. It could start the fighting again, and that is a risk we don't want to take."

Ismet Ramadani, a prominent ethnic-Albanian deputy, warns, "If the referendum initiative is passed, we will have to find other ways of solving our problems in Macedonia." Recently, the "other way" was armed insurgency.

In the end, it may not be up to the politicians. The World Macedonian Congress, a group dominated by nationalists in the Macedonian diaspora, is collecting signatures in favor of a referendum. If the petition gains 150,000 signatures, which is likely, given the agitated public mood, a referendum will be required by law.

Western diplomats view the referendum initiatives as stalling tactics. Parliamentary ratification of the peace accords was supposed to be a formality completed by early October, a deadline that will now be difficult to meet.

With the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army officially disbanded this week, attention has turned to an amnesty for rebels not suspected of war crimes. Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski promised an amnesty as part of the peace deal, but none has been formally proposed. Instead, the Macedonian government has issued arrest warrants for several rebels, including the NLA's general commander, Ali Ahmeti.

"The amnesty is a key part of the process," NATO spokesman Mark Laity says. "If people who voluntarily handed over weapons find themselves open to prosecution, they could take up arms again."

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