Macedonia is clutching at a tenuous second chance for peace, in the two-month-old conflict between ethnic-Albanian rebels and the Macedonian Army.
On Sunday, Parliament ratified a fragile unity government, which many observers say is the country's last hope to avoid civil war in a region where ethnic insurgencies and territorial claims threaten to touch off wider conflict.
Even so, it almost didn't happen.
Just minutes before the vote, an angry debate raged in the offices of the Party of Democratic Prosperity (PDP), the opposition ethnic-Albanian party that presented the main stumbling block to formation of the coalition.
Analysts regard the party as the political wing of the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), which controls 11 villages in the northwest of the country.
"The PDP holds the keys to stability in this part of the Balkans," says Sam Vaknin, an analyst for Central European Review and United Press International. The relationship between the PDP and the NLA "is very akin to the relationship between [Northern Ireland's] Sinn Fein and the IRA. If the PDP were left out of the coalition, it would be proof positive to the less sophisticated elements of the Albanian community that the Macedonians are not ready for compromise."
But the party is wracked by internal disputes, and its politically weak leader, Imeri Imeri, is suffering from severe health problems.
On Sunday, after the shouts had subsided to a murmur of discontent, it was a smiling Azis Polozhani, the party vice president, who emerged to announce: "We have decided to give peace a last chance."
Mr. Polozhani, who has become the public face of the PDP during Mr. Imeri's illness, said, "This is probably the last opportunity to solve the interethnic problem through democratic institutions, and we must take it."
The governing Macedonian VMRO-PMNE party and its partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians, were joined by the Macedonian Liberals and Social Democrats a week ago. The PDP initially refused to join the coalition, demanding a cease-fire as a precondition to negotiations.
Yesterday, the Macedonian Army reportedly called a temporary halt to its assault on rebel-held villages near the northern city of Kumanovo, giving civilians until 8 p.m. to leave. Heavy shelling was reported in the area on Saturday.
Polozhani pushed to bring the PDP into the governing coalition over the objections of more radical elements.
A surgeon from the southern town of Struga, Polozhani likes to present himself as an accidental politician, but a civil rights activist at heart. He claims he and his party have no control over the NLA, but admits that he sympathizes with the rebels' struggle.
"I appreciate their sacrifice for Albanian rights," he says. "The demands of the rebels are the same issues we have been bringing to the Macedonian Parliament for 10 years, and nothing happened until they took up arms."
Polozhani says he believes the NLA would end its insurgency if four main demands are met: first, for Albanian to become an official state language in schools, Parliament, and other state institutions; second, a publicly funded Albanian-language university; and third, proportional employment in the public sector for ethnic-Albanians, who comprise 1/3 of Macedonia's 2 million inhabitants but hold only 4 percent of the state jobs.
The rebels' most contentious demand is a constitutional change that would make Albanians a "founding nation" of the state, along with Macedonian Slavs. Many Macedonians see this as paramount to a declaration of independence by ethnic-Albanian areas in western Macedonia.
Polozhani rejects the idea of secession, and not even the NLA has called for autonomy or independence, unlike the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Yugoslav security forces during the Kosovo crisis two years ago.
Polozhani is now lobbying for a bilateral cease-fire and talks between the new coalition and the NLA. It's a suggestion Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, who has called called the NLA a "terrorist organization," has rejected repeatedly in the past.
Polozhani says the PDP finally joined the government largely because NATO and European Union leaders promised him a quick resolution of ethnic-Albanian grievances.
"There needs to be a cease-fire in the next few days, otherwise the dialogue will break down," warns Iso Rusi, editor in chief of the Albanian political magazine Lobi. "The positions of the parties in the coalition are often complete opposites, and none show signs of giving ground."
Even as prospects for peace improved slightly in Macedonia, the most violent clashes in weeks were reported in southern Serbia, along the border with NATO-run Kosovo. Two people were reported killed Sunday in fighting between Serbian police and ethnic-Albanian rebels near Presevo.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor