Western mediators at Macedonia's peace talks have announced a tentative breakthrough on the most difficult issue dividing Macedonian and ethnic Albanian negotiators -- how the Albanian language could be incorporated as an official language in parts of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on the compromise as well as disputes that still must be overcome to bring an end to a five-month-old ethnic Albanian insurgency.
Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's political leaders are taking a one-day break from peace negotiations as the country celebrates its National Day public holiday amid growing hope that a peace deal is close at hand.
The heightened expectations for a political settlement to end a five-month insurgency by ethnic Albanian militants comes after European Union envoy Francois Leotard announced a breakthrough yesterday on the most contentious issue at the negotiations -- the acceptance of Albanian as an official language in parts of the country.
But Leotard is cautioning against too much optimism. He says yesterday's compromise will not go into effect unless all political parties at the talks resolve their disputes over other issues in a draft peace plan -- including the question of how much authority ethnic Albanian officials will have over local police forces in areas where large numbers of ethnic Albanians live.
Leotard says the negotiations will focus on the issue of restructuring the country's police forces when talks resume tomorrow at the southwestern lake resort of Ohrid.
"We have obtained an agreement from the four [main ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian] political parties on the question of language. But this accord is conditional on the continuation of the political discussions, notably on the issue of the police. Therefore, it is a conditional agreement. We will resume talks on the police issue on Friday (3 August) morning."
Correspondents report that Leotard and U.S. envoy James Pardew are expected to push both Macedonian and Albanian negotiators to make concessions on the police issue.
Pardew told reporters there are still a lot of difficult negotiations ahead. But he said the compromise on the language issue is a good deal for all sides.
Pardew says the language compromise will allow Albanian to be used more extensively within Macedonia than ever before. Under the plan, he says Albanian would be accepted as an official language, together with Macedonian, in areas where at least 20 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian. Albanian will also be acceptable in parliament.
In a statement, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski described the deal as "a significant improvement" on the sensitive issue.
But any optimism from ethnic Albanian negotiators is being qualified with warnings that the negotiations still have a long way to go.
Zehir Bekteshi, a spokesman for the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, said he hopes something positive is developing. But other ethnic Albanian officials say they have made a concession on language in order to open the way for talks on other issues, and that they've reserved the right to withdraw their agreement on the language compromise if they remain dissatisfied about other issues.
Xhevdet Nasufi, of the Democratic Party of Albanians, told RFE/RL last night that the language compromise only refers to certain aspects of the issue, and that the language issue should still be considered as an unresolved issue. He also repeated accusations that ethnic Macedonian leaders are still trying to marginalize the use of the Albanian language:
"Unfortunately, we can't say that we have reached any results which will fulfill the demands of Albanians in Macedonia at this moment in time."
When talks start again in Ohrid tomorrow, ethnic Albanian negotiators are expected to demand that ethnic Albanian mayors be given more control over the appointment of local police commanders. Ethnic Macedonian political leaders have said they consider the demand to be part of a strategy to carve out and control parts of the country that already have been seized by ethnic Albanian militants.
The political rhetoric from Skopje remains fiery and contradictory. Just hours before yesterday's compromise was announced, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said that ethnic Albanian gunmen are failing to respect a cease-fire deal. He said peace will only be possible in Macedonia after the ethnic Albanian extremists are defeated militarily.
That statement led to a rebuttal from Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski that is yet another sign of growing division between Macedonian officials in the country's emergency coalition government.
The defense minister said the insurgency has grown too big to be crushed by force alone. That statement follows an accusation by the defense minister earlier this week that the interior minister is fostering a rift between the country's army and its police forces.
In Brussels, NATO said its policy-making council has cancelled its summer holiday in case speedy agreement on the peace deal opens the way for a NATO military deployment. A NATO plan calls for about 3,000 soldiers to be deployed for a month to collect the weapons of ethnic Albanian fighters who would be obliged to disarm under the pact.