The Macedonian parliament is due to conclude its debate tomorrow over 15 changes to the country's constitution. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson warned political leaders in Skopje yesterday that Macedonia could suffer a relapse of the fighting of earlier this year unless they quickly enact reforms and amnesty ethnic Albanian insurgents of the disbanded National Liberation Army, or UCK.
Prague, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson was in no mood for any more compromise or delays during his brief visit to Skopje yesterday.
Squabbling among the country's four main political parties -- two of them Macedonian, the other two Albanian -- since the internationally brokered 13 August Ohrid framework peace agreement has repeatedly delayed passage of 15 changes to the wording of Macedonia's Constitution.
The changes are intended to satisfy the Albanian parties' demands for equal status of the Albanian community -- which makes up nearly a third of Macedonia's population -- with the majority Macedonian community.
Robertson complained that parliamentary ratification of the peace deal was six weeks overdue. In his words, "this means there are sizeable, real risks of a return to the violence that wracked northwestern Macedonia for nearly six months this year."
One of the key problems has been the authorities' unwillingness to put their promises of an amnesty for former rebels into practice.
"There has to be an amnesty in order to heal the wounds in this divided country after this remarkable year."
Robertson said the authorities have agreed to drop charges against more than 200 former insurgents and to release more than 70 who have already been convicted.
When the framework peace deal was signed nearly three months ago, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski pledged that the government would pardon all insurgents who disarm voluntarily and do not stand accused of war crimes. The government issued an amnesty decree one month ago (8 October) but it had little if any effect. Analysts say it was full of loopholes and failed to define "war crimes." The authorities have also charged 11 rebel commanders, including the political leader of the National Liberation Army (UCK), Ali Ahmeti. Still, Robertson said there was still a chance the situation could be resolved:
"We remain optimistic. We remain hopeful that this country can now complete the last stages of this peace process."
Robertson says parliament speaker Stojan Andov assured him that the debate on the constitutional changes will conclude tomorrow.
The current date for a ratification vote on the changes is on Monday, 12 November.
After repeated delays by Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE party resulted in the modification of two of the 15 changes, the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, or PPD, balked, arguing that the Ohrid agreement should be ratified as a whole and unchanged.
PPD Chairman Imer Imeri met with Robertson and OSCE Chairman in Office Mircea Gioana (Romania's foreign minister) and later spoke with reporters.
"They advised us to vote for change in Macedonia. But we have our own stand. We are ready to talk."
For his part, Imeri complained about the Macedonian authorities' tardiness in implementing the amnesty for former UCK rebels.
"There is political will to approve the amnesty. But it is not going to be applied through hasty legislation, but rather through a procedure. In fact it will be approved after the Ohrid agreement is ratified."
Imeri says that the Macedonian authorities have given oral guarantees that prisoners will be released and that those in hiding will not be jailed. But he says he has his doubts about guarantees that are only given orally.
This week's parliamentary debate has been quite lively, particularly concerning with the position of the Orthodox Church in the constitution.
Although some ethnic Macedonian deputies sought to reassure their Albanian colleagues that the Muslim community should enjoy the same rights as the Orthodox Church, several Macedonian nationalist deputies told their Albanian counterparts that they should not forget that they live in an Orthodox country. They praised the allocation of the equivalent of nearly $1 million to build a giant cross overlooking Skopje. One deputy [Vangel Simev of VMRO-True] went so far as to accuse Albanians of destroying Christian shrines, avoiding taxes, and being "ungrateful to the state that has given them everything." He concluded by saying: "we will build a gigantic cross so that you know who is the boss in this country."
With attitudes like that, it is questionable whether the constitutional amendments -- once passed and implemented -- will be able to defuse Macedonia's still-explosive atmosphere.