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Macedonia: Political Spokesmen Reject Constitutional Change

A spokesman for the main party in Macedonia's governing coalition says the party will not accept the demands of ethnic Albanians for changes to the nation's constitution. At the same time, a government spokesman says it is not considering changes to the constitution. Both statements suggest difficulties ahead when elected officials attempt to resolve Macedonia's interethnic crisis through political negotiations.

Skopje, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Another hurdle to peace in Macedonia has appeared as the country's elected officials prepare for negotiations aimed at finding a political solution to the ongoing interethnic violence.

Igor Gievski, a spokesman for the leading party in the governing coalition -- known by its acronym VMRO-DPMNE -- says that his group will not agree to the demands of ethnic Albanians for changes to the constitution and its preamble. Those demands are at the heart of complaints by ethnic Albanians that they are treated as second-class citizens.

Gievski told reporters last night that the upcoming negotiations will break down immediately if ethnic Albanian elected officials raise the issue of constitutional change.

Gievski said the VMRO-DPMNE rejects allegations that the constitution and its preamble discriminate against ethnic Albanians. He said the constitution does not create problems for any of the country's minority groups or limit the rights of any citizens. He also said that changing the preamble would be akin to changing the history of the Macedonian people and state.

Many ethnic Albanians believe that discrimination against their community is embodied in a portion of the preamble that reads: "Macedonia is constituted as the national state of the Macedonian people [along with] the Albanians, the Turks, the Vlachs, the Roma and the other nationalities who live in the Republic of Macedonia."

They want the preamble revised so that Macedonia has what they consider a citizens' constitution rather than one based on a single dominant nation with minorities. They also seek a change that would reflect two dominant nationalities -- ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav -- or even a federation of Macedonian and Albanian mini-states.

But Gievski yesterday ruled out any consideration of a federation, which would imply a right for the ethnic-Albanian dominated western part of the country to secede from Macedonia through a public referendum.

"As for [the creation of] a federation state, there [also] is no possibility for this. This is a basic position of [the VMRO-DPMNE] party. I think that the Albanian political parties and the other minority groups in Macedonia should understand this [from the start], as should the international community."

Gievski said his party also rejects calls for Albanian to be made an official language of Macedonia. He said the only demands that the VMRO-DPMNE will consider are legal changes that would allow greater representation of ethnic Albanians in local government and the creation of a state-funded Albanian-language university.

Gievski does not speak officially for Macedonia's coalition government, which includes five ministers from the Democratic Party for Albanians, or DPA. But his remarks do shed light on the position of the most senior government officials toward the constitutional demands of Albanians. President Boris Trajkovski and Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski are both members of the VMRO-DPMNE.

Government spokesman Antonio Milosovski was asked by Macedonian state television last night to clarify whether the cabinet is considering changes to the constitution. Milosovski said:

"We are open to any kind of questions, but I can say that the government is not thinking about changing the constitution or the preamble. And I think that the government is not the proper forum [for amending the constitution], So it cannot respond to this kind of question."

Under Macedonian law, the government can only initiate the procedures for amending Macedonia's Constitution. Any amendments require the approval of a two-thirds majority of the parliament.

In public remarks this week, Trajkovski has sought to shift the focus of the debate away from the idea of constitutional recognition of two dominant nationalities in Macedonia. Instead, Trajkovski has concentrated on the need to improve individual rights through political and economic reforms.

"I would like my agenda to be directed toward improving the rights of all citizens of the Republic of Macedonia -- not only the Albanians of Macedonia. I also want to discuss the demands -- and means to improve the rights -- of Roma, Serbs, Vlachs, and the rights of Macedonians (that is, Macedonian Slavs) as well -- all citizens who suffer because of the economic difficulties we have been feeling during the transformation to prosperity."

During his recent visits to Macedonia, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana stressed that the EU will not pressure Skopje into changing the constitution. But Solana, who is working as a mediator to get the political dialogue underway, also said that he thinks there is room for Macedonia to change the constitution.

Changing the constitution isn't the only concern of ethnic Albanians. They also complain about an unemployment level in their community that is twice the national average and about a judicial system which they say is biased against them.

Many ethnic Albanians also object to the official use of Slav symbols by the state, particularly depictions of Orthodox Christian churches and icons on banknotes They say that such usage ignores the fact that Macedonia is an ethnically and religiously mixed state.

There also are complaints about the stringency of laws on citizenship, which ethnic Albanians see as a deliberate effort to prevent them from gaining a number of parliamentary seats proportional to the size of their community. Present requirements for citizenship include a minimum 15-year residency in Macedonia, proof of a permanent source of income and the ability to speak the Macedonian language.

Macedonia's Interior Ministry says that as of 1994 -- the last year for which figures are available -- some 150,000 residents of Macedonia, most of them ethnic Albanians, had failed to meet naturalization requirements. Many of those seeking citizenship possessed identity papers from the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

According to the last official census, about one-third of the country's two million people is ethnic Albanian. But political leaders of the Albanian community complain the census has been distorted by the rigid citizenship laws and by boycotts on the part of many ethnic Albanians.