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Macedonia: Government On Shaky Ground As Talks Hit Snags

Talks on a political solution to Macedonia's interethnic crisis have so far produced complaints of inflexibility on the part of the leaders of both ethnic Albanian and Macedonian parties. Just returned from Skopje, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz assesses the stalemate and its threat to the government's stability.

Prague, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Political talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution to Macedonia's interethnic crisis got off to a difficult start this week, prompting concerns about the ability of the government to remain in power.

The ethnic Albanian party within the governing coalition, the Democratic Party of Albanians, or DPA, continues to insist that parts of Macedonia's Constitution be changed in order to provide equal rights to all citizens.

Many ethnic Albanians believe that discrimination against their community is embodied in the constitution. The Albanians say there is confusion between ethnic and civic nationalism in the document. They say the preamble declares Macedonian Slavs are the dominant national majority, while other ethnic communities are considered minority groups.

The preamble 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."

The DPA and other ethnic Albanian parties want the preamble revised so that Macedonia has what they consider a citizens' constitution.

But the largest party in the governing coalition, the VMRO-DPMNE of President Boris Trajkovski and Prime Minister Ljubcho Georgievski, rejects all calls for constitutional changes.

VMRO-DPMNE party leader Igor Gievski says the talks will break down if the DPA continues to insist on such changes.

DPA leader Arben Xhaferi says he will give the negotiations one month to succeed. He says that if the dialogue fails within that time, the DPA will pull out of the governing coalition.

The DPA has 10 deputies in the 120-seat parliament and heads five ministries. Without the DPA's support, the Georgievski government would fall unless it was able to create a wider coalition with opposition groups.

The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union, has Macedonian Slavs as its main support base. While the entry of its 27 deputies into a coalition would keep a Georgievski-led cabinet in power, it would not resolve the demands of ethnic Albanians.

The largest opposition party for ethnic Albanians, the Party for Democratic Prosperity, or PDP, has taken a more radical position than Xhaferi and the DPA. The 10 deputies in the PDP refused even to attend the talks that began 2 April.

Angered by the VMRO-DPMNE's refusal to discuss constitutional changes, the PDP said this week that the talks are merely an attempt by the government to convince the international community that a political dialogue is underway.

In addition to constitutional amendments, the PDP also is demanding the inclusion of ethnic Albanian insurgents in the negotiations. That is a position that has been rejected outright by the government as well as by the European Union and NATO.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson visited Skopje earlier this week, together with ambassadors from the 19 NATO member-states. He underlined that only democratically elected officials in Macedonia should take part in the negotiations.

"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 in order to achieve early concrete results through reforms and consolidating a true and multiethnic society."

EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana has stated repeatedly that the 15-nation bloc will not put pressure on Skopje for constitutional changes. But Solana has also said he thinks there is room for such changes and that the idea shouldn't be rejected from the start of the talks.

On 2 April Trajkovski presented a document to all of the parties attending the talks. He said the paper was aimed at forming the basis for more concrete negotiations in the future.

"This document and its guiding points are presented to the leaders of the other political parties, and within a week they [the parties] have to express their points of view. They should express their evaluation of this document and how they can contribute to the stated aims."

Trajkovski described the document as a first step toward a political solution to the country's ethnic crisis.

"If I were to summarize the document, it consists of ways to resolve the (ethnic and political) problems and to oust the Albanian extremists in the northern part of Macedonia and the region around Tetovo -- where all factions of international public opinion are in support of the efforts of the Republic of Macedonia."

Macedonian officials are due in Luxembourg next Monday (8 April) to sign a much-heralded Stability and Association Agreement with the EU. The accord is regarded as a critical first step in Skopje's bid for eventual EU membership.

EU officials also have invited ethnic Albanian political leaders to attend the signing. Xhaferi has been asked to present the official position of his DPA party about the interethnic crisis.

But Xhaferi has threatened to boycott the event unless more serious negotiations are launched on the complaints from ethnic Albanians by the end of this week.

In addition to constitutional changes, ethnic Albanians are demanding that the Albanian language become an official language in the country. They also want greater power over local government in Albanian-dominated communities, a state-funded Albanian-language university, and the elimination of Slav symbols from official state emblems.