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Macedonia: Albanian Party Seeks Stronger Position

The two junior partners in Macedonia's ruling coalition met in Skopje last night to discuss whether Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's government can survive the political crisis that has been growing since clashes erupted in February between security forces and ethnic Albanian militants. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Skopje on the discussions.

Skopje, 2 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of one of Macedonia's junior coalition parties says that ethnic Albanians in the alliance have given a conditional guarantee that they will continue to support Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's government.

Liberal Party leader Risto Gusterov told our correspondent last night that the Democratic Party of Albanians, or DPA, wants to obtain a stronger position within the government in exchange for its continued support of the three-party alliance.

"We have received [guarantees that the DPA will remain in the governing coalition] and we have to strengthen their position in the government. And we will work in this direction. It means [strengthening the DPA's involvement in the] economy through their representatives in the government."

Gusterov's remarks came after he and other senior members of his party met with DPA officials yesterday to discuss how a political solution to the country's inter-ethnic crisis can be reached -- and whether the present government has the necessary backing to continue in office.

The talks at a hotel in Skopje included Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim of the Liberal Party and parliamentary deputy Menduh Thaci, who is the vice president of the DPA.

DPA leader Arben Xhaferi has said in recent weeks that his party would remain within the coalition as long as civilians are not injured by a government offensive against ethnic Albanian insurgents, and so long as security forces do not use what he called "Serb methods" of ethnic cleansing.

But Gusterov's remarks show that the DPA could also gain greater power within the government in exchange for its continued support. The DPA offered no immediate comment, and Gusterov did not indicate whether the DPA might gain additional ministerial posts. The DPA already heads the ministries of Justice, Economics, Labor and Social Welfare, as well as the Ministry of Local Self-Government.

The senior party in the coalition, known as the VRMO-DPMNE, has indicated it would be most flexible in increasing ethnic Albanian powers in the area of local self-government and on economic matters.

Gusterov said there are concerns about increased tensions in the country following a call for street demonstrations by an ethnic Albanian opposition party -- the Democratic Alliance of Albanians in Macedonia. Leaders of that party say that a new, wider coalition is needed to give the government enough political credibility to resolve the current crisis.

Some analysts say that the present coalition could disintegrate before the end of the summer over disagreements about the constitution and its preamble. But Gusterov told RFE/RL that as long as the DPA is given increased powers, the government can survive the crisis without widening the coalition.

"We think that the current political parties who participate in the government have the capacity and knowledge to lead the country until the next parliamentary elections."

Gusterov said the DPA and the Liberal Party have agreed to initiate three-way talks -- together with the VMRO-DPMNE -- by Wednesday (4 April) at the latest. He said the aim will be to "conclude and straighten [out]" the positions that each coalition partner will present in Brussels a week from today when Macedonian officials are due to sign an Association and Stability Agreement with the European Union.

He also said the Liberal Party and the DPA agreed last night upon the need to continue their dialogue with ethnic Albanian officials in the opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity.

Gusterov said the three coalition partners should meet as soon as possible after the conclusion of a visit to Skopje this week by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. He is due to arrive in Skopje later today.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who met with Solana in Brussels today, will also be in Skopje tomorrow and Wednesday (3-4 April). Speaking to reporters today, Robertson said both he and Solana would be delivering one message to Macedonian political leaders

"That message is that in a democracy a political route forward is the only way forward and in this context an intensified and broad political dialogue among all democratic parties is critical and must be pursued urgently."

Last week, VMRO-DPMNE spokesman Igor Gievski raised fresh concerns about the durability of the governing coalition when he announced that his party will not agree to any changes in Macedonia's Constitution.

The constitution's preamble refers to the country as one in which Macedonian Slavs are a single dominant nationality. Other ethnic groups are specifically referred to as minorities. Many ethnic Albanians want that language removed, saying that there should be no references to ethnicity in a constitution that is supposed to guarantee all citizens equal rights.

DPA leader Xhaferi told a Western news agency (AFP) 31 March that he was considering asking his party's ministers not to attend the signing ceremony in Brussels unless negotiations on changing the Macedonian Constitution are underway by then.

In his talk with RFE/RL, Gusterov described Xhaferi's remarks as not constructive, and said that he expects the DPA ministers to attend the Brussels signing. Gusterov said that issuing ultimatums does not help in finding a political resolution to the Macedonian crisis, and that no party leaders should be using such tactics at this time.

"We expect the full support of all the political parties of Macedonia for the contract we have to sign for the Association and Stabilization [Agreement] between Macedonia and the European Union."

EU foreign policy chief Solana has made several visits to Macedonia since fighting began between security forces and ethnic Albanian militants. Two weeks ago, Solana said that the EU would never put pressure on any democratic country to change its constitution because such a move would interfere in its internal affairs.

But speaking in Brussels last week, Solana suggested that there could be room for Macedonia to change its constitution in order to resolve some of the grievances aired by legitimately elected ethnic Albanian officials.

Solana said that the Macedonian government must swiftly integrate ethnic Albanians into mainstream Macedonian society through reforms, as well as start negotiating with all democratically elected ethnic Albanian parties.

Gusterov says that, ultimately, any questions about constitutional change must be decided by parliament and that talks over possible amendments should take place within the legislature.

"We are for the continuation of our talks and we think that all of the talks should take place in the (appropriate) institutions -- in the first place, I have in mind the parliament of the Republic of Macedonia. We are not opposing [anything that] concerns the position of improving the civil rights of the people -- of all the people in Macedonia, not only of the ethnic Albanians. Everything will be on the table with all of the political parties. We should be open to improve the civil rights of all the people in the Republic [of Macedonia]."

The Macedonian government has the power only to initiate procedures on changing the constitution. Approval of constitutional amendments requires support from two-thirds of the 120 deputies in parliament.

That means that the 46 parliamentary deputies in the VMRO-DPMNE party have the power to block any proposed constitutional amendment. But the VMRO-DPMNE, which is the party of both the prime minister and of the president, needs the support of the 10 deputies in the DPA in order to maintain a parliamentary majority.