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Macedonian: President Pledges Reform Talks After Insurgency Ends

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski says talks on political and economic reforms will begin with elected ethnic Albanian officials as soon as security forces complete their offensive against Albanian insurgents. Speaking after a meeting late yesterday in Skopje with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, Trajkovski said the talks will focus on political and individual rights and economic reforms for the benefit of all Macedonian citizens. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Skopje.

Skopje, 27 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With government forces now saying they are firmly in control of the hills overlooking the western Macedonian city of Tetovo, attention is increasingly turning to the question of how a political dialogue can resolve complaints of discrimination by ethnic Albanian citizens.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski confirmed late last night that the military operation is not yet finished. Our correspondent reports that many of the ethnic Albanian fighters who had held the villages in the heights over Tetovo have escaped into the Sar mountains further to the northwest. Some have crossed into the UN-administered province of Kosovo, where KFOR peacekeepers detained a few of them.

There are concerns among government officials in Skopje that the Albanian fighters may return to northern Macedonia in the months to come.

Trajkovski says political and economic reforms in the country, aimed at establishing equality for all citizens, will be begin as soon as the ethnic Albanian fighters are driven from Macedonian territory.

"Macedonia and all of its citizens and the reforms in Macedonia have become hostages of these [insurgent] groups. They have put pressure on inter-ethnic relations, and, as soon as they are driven away, we will return to the reform processes."

Trajkovski says the reform process will be conducted through negotiations with the country's legitimately elected ethnic Albanian representatives -- but not with any of those who have been fighting police and army troops for the last six weeks.

"I must say that the action which was undertaken [on 25 March] was a function of protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Macedonia, to avoid losing control of inter-ethnic relations, and to keep the Republic and the international community from being hostages of these [insurgent] groups. This was an operation that was in the interest of inter-ethnic relations."

The Macedonian military campaign at Tetovo has won praise from Western leaders for its restraint, which has prevented large-scale casualties among civilians. European Union foreign policy representative Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson both commended the government after meeting with Trajkovski last night to discuss the offensive and the renewed prospects for political dialogue.

Speaking after the meeting, Robertson indicated that those living in ethnic Albanian-dominated regions of the country should not expect to be granted the status of an autonomous republic within a federal Macedonia.

An autonomous ethnic Albanian entity in western Macedonia would increase the political powers of ethnic Albanian officials there significantly. But it also would give the entity the right to break away from Macedonia through a public referendum and form an independent state. Robertson said:

"I would like to be blunt and say that I believe that there are two options for the people of this country. It is a united Macedonia or another Balkan bloodbath."

President Trajkovski says the reform process should focus on improving the rights of individual citizens. He said he wants the agenda to focus on the needs and requests of all citizens -- Roma, Serbs, Turks, Vlachs, Macedonian Slavs, Macedonian Muslims, as well as ethnic Albanians.

Trajkovski also said that the discussions about the rights of ethnic Albanians should include, in his words, the "the emancipation" of ethnic Albanian women. Discussion of that issue, he said, already has been incorporated into Skopje's request for support from the international community.

Trajkovski said resolving the complaints of those who suffer because of economic difficulties must begin at a grassroots level. He said all citizens should have broader economic opportunity as well as access to an improved health insurance system and more responsive political institutions.

The ethnic Albanian party within Macedonia's governing coalition, the Democratic Party of Albanians, has not opposed the military offensive against the Albanian fighters. Abedin Imeri, the party's chief in Tetovo, told our correspondent that his party still plans to remain within the coalition. Imeri described the offensive as relatively restrained because it has held civilian casualties to a minimum.

"Fortunately, the offensive is over, and it has not caused civilian casualties. ['Yugoslav'] methods were not used. There are no victims on any side."

Imeri also says members of his party believe the grievances of ethnic Albanians can still be resolved through a peaceful dialogue under existing democratic institutions.

But parliamentary deputies in the ethnic Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity, or PDP -- who served in the previous Social Democrat-led government -- told RFE/RL that they feel betrayed by the government's use of military force to drive out the Albanian fighters.

The PDP, which has its headquarters in Tetovo, announced Sunday (25 March) that its deputies were walking out of parliament to protest the offensive.

PDP deputies last week signed a declaration together with the governing coalition that called for an end to violence. Azis Pollozhani, a PDP deputy, explained to RFE/RL that his party views government statements about their support for the declaration as a misrepresentation of their position. He said government officials had insinuated that the PDP supported the offensive -- which he said was not true.

Pollozhani said PDP members felt that both the Albanian fighters and government forces should refrain from violence.