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Macedonia: Negotiations Falter Again Over Language

  • Jolyon Naegele

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and European Union foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana travel to Skopje tomorrow in an apparent effort to rescue talks -- now in their 10th day -- among Macedonia's four major political parties. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the country's two main Albanian political parties have agreed to withdraw many of their demands and accept the international community's latest modified proposed peace plan. But the two ethnic Macedonian parties reject the new plan.

Prague, 18 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The two main ethnic Macedonian parties are denouncing the latest, modified version of the international community's plan for avoiding civil war in Macedonia -- reportedly because the new plan has incorporated some Albanian demands for language equality.

Independent news media in the capital Skopje say the Macedonian response has caused a "serious deadlock" in the talks among the country's chief Macedonian and Albanian parties.

Macedonian-language dailies today used such words as "ultimatum," "blackmail," and "indecent" to describe the new international proposal. The independent daily "Dnevnik" warned that Macedonia must not be allowed to become what it called a "linguistic federation." At the same time, the Albanian-language press says the modified plan will avert a civil war.

After talks yesterday with U.S. special envoy to Macedonia James Pardew and his EU counterpart Francois Leotard, Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski called on the Albanian parties to desist from demands that could "lead to a deterioration of the security situation." In a statement, Buckovski said that "the talks are very difficult and have lasted a long time, but patience must not be lost."

The Albanian side has agreed to sign the plan. This means giving up its demands for an Albanian vice president with a veto right over legislation and international treaties affecting Albanians, as well as setting up local Albanian police forces in Albanian-inhabited areas.

But the spokesman for Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's nationalist-oriented party, VMRO-DPMNE, last night said the new draft agreement proposed by international mediators means federalizing Macedonia. Party spokesman Giorgi Trendafilov called the draft "shocking and unacceptable," chiefly because of the issue of Albanian language rights.

"VMRO is against this plan and doesn't see any reason even to discuss this proposal because it undermines Macedonia's unity and integrity."

The other main ethnic Macedonian party, the Social Democrats, or SDSM, issued a statement last night saying that "signing a deal is still far off." The statement said that making Albanian an official language alongside Macedonian is "absolutely unacceptable."

SDSM lawmaker Ilija Ilovski spoke to RFE/RL's Albanian unit today:

"We will have to wait until the conclusion of the dialogue to [see which side benefits]. But we are under pressure every day by Albanian politicians. This is not a serious way to solve the problem."

The latest version of the internationally mediated accord grants other languages equal, "official" status with Macedonian in those areas where a minority makes up at least 20 percent of the local population. That will apply chiefly to Albanian, but could perhaps be applied to Serbian in the north around Kumanovo, and in a few communities to Turkish and the language of the Roma. In addition, Albanian would reportedly have equal status with Macedonian in parliament and in government.

Estimates are that Albanians make up as much as one-third of Macedonia's overall population of about two million. They are concentrated in large parts of western Macedonia, from Struga in the south to Kumanovo in the north -- including Skopje, where Albanians also comprise as much as one-third of the population.

Both Albanian parties -- the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, and the Party for Democratic Prosperity, or PPD -- have accepted the latest draft of the agreement.

Mersel Bilali, a PDSh lawmaker says:

"The latest proposal offered by the international envoys is realistic, and the Albanian side supports this plan. Unfortunately, the Macedonians have rejected it out of hand and this attitude could create a dangerous new situation."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Albanian unit last night, a senior PPD official, Iljaz Halimi, also welcomed the new plan. "The most important thing is that there is agreement on using the Albanian language as an official language in those areas where Albanians make up more than 20 percent of the population."

Halimi says the draft also provides for an equitable representation of Albanians in the police force so that "if 80 percent of the population in an area such as Tetovo are Albanians, then 80 percent of the police have to be Albanians."

He says:

"The agreement rules out local police. There will be no local police forces, which means we [Albanians] have made a concession. But this concession will be compensated by proportional representation of Albanians and others in the Macedonian police force [at the local level]."

Another senior PPD official, Zehir Bekteshi, told AP today the agreement could be signed during Robertson and Solana's visit to Skopje tomorrow and Friday (19-20 July), but that this is still open.

NATO had been due to deploy some 3,000 peacekeepers to disarm the rebel National Liberation Army, or UCK, as early as this week. But lack of progress in the peace talks has delayed that deployment.

Both sides in the conflict have used the existing cease-fire to regroup. The independent Albanian-language daily "Fakti" on 16 July quoted a UCK commander, known as Gjini, as reiterating the insurgents' demand to "sit at the negotiating table along with the others." Gjini also told the paper that "the UCK is fully prepared to continue the war in order to protect the Albanian population from the brutality of the Macedonian police and military, if the talks fail."

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday urged an early conclusion to the talks.

"We think that now is the time to bring the negotiations to closure and come to an agreement, because obviously a political agreement is the only solution to the problems that we've seen in Macedonia."

Reeker said the U.S. believes "a political settlement is within reach [but that] difficult decisions, difficult actions need to be taken."

The NATO-brokered cease-fire, now in its 13th day, continues to hold despite sporadic clashes around Tetovo and Lipkovo.