Macedonians stave off war, but patience frays

A deal reached yesterday may give ethnic Albanians more rights.

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.

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.

Mr. Badinter is understood to have proposed mechanisms that would counterbalance the automatic majority that ethnic Macedonian parties enjoy in elections, thanks to their numbers, and give ethnic Albanians a greater role in political life.

A deal in principle has already been made, Western diplomats close to the talks say, to incorporate more ethnic Albanians into the police force, the judiciary, health and education services, and other state institutions. The parties have also agreed to set up the country's first Albanian-language university and a new Albanian-language TV station.

Only 176 of Macedonia's 9,000-strong police force are ethnic Albanians. There are no Albanian judges on the nine-member Supreme Court, nor any Albanian staffers in Mr. Trajkovski's entourage.

In the talks, Trajkovski has also offered an amnesty to National Liberation Army (NLA) guerrillas who lay down their arms, and NATO last week finalized plans to create a 3,000-man force that would oversee the rebels' demobilization and monitor a permanent cease-fire.

Whether the guerrillas would abide by any deal reached among the political parties, however, is still unclear, and the government has refused to allow NLA representatives into the talks.

Western governments have repeatedly insisted that they do not support the NLA in Macedonia in the way that they supported the Albanian guerrillas who made up the Kosovo Liberation Army against Yugoslav forces two years ago - though many of the leaders appear to be the same men.

President Bush signed an executive order last week forbidding US citizens and groups from financing the NLA, and banning its members from entering the US. The 40,000-strong NATO force in Kosovo says it has stepped up its efforts to interdict arms and supplies crossing the border into Macedonia.

Western diplomats in Kosovo are understood to be pressing Albanian leaders there to abide by any political agreement. "The [Macedonian] government does not want to be seen as capitulating to the guerrillas' demands, but it understands that this is an imperfect system, and changes need to be made," said one presidential adviser who asked not to be identified. "Some third party will have to do the talking to them."

So far, the fighting has seemed mostly half hearted. Only 33 Macedonian soldiers and policemen have been killed, rebel casualties also appear to be low, and only six civilians have been killed.

"The NLA just wants to send a message with its attacks, to remind people that they are there," says Mr. Ordonovski.

The government, on the other hand, is under strong Western pressure to show restraint. The Army is constitutionally barred from operating in built-up areas unless a state of war is declared, and is allowed only to support police units that are ill-trained and ill-equipped for counter-insurgency operations, according to Western military observers.

But the guerrilla advances are worrying the authorities. "We have a political process under way now, but the situation on the ground is deteriorating," says one European diplomat here. "We are still on the edge of the abyss."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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