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Macedonia: Possible Turning Point In Macedonia's Interethnic Conflict

Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski will meet with the leaders of the country's two main ethnic Albanian political parties this weekend (3 June) in a resumption of their dialogue aimed at finding a solution to Albanian demands for equal rights. A turning point appears to have been reached in the country's interethnic conflict, with the government conceding the need for constitutional changes and the president considering an amnesty for Albanian fighters. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele brings us up to date.

Prague, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Events may finally be moving in the direction of a resolution of the armed conflict in Macedonia, now that Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has conceded the need for constitutional changes that would give ethnic Albanians equal rights with Macedonian Slavs.

In a television interview on the evening of 30 May, Georgievski said that the government has an obligation to the international community to create a Macedonia acceptable to the country's ethnic Albanian minority, estimated at upwards of a quarter of the overall population of two million.

Georgievski said the constitutional changes could include modifying its preamble by dropping the reference to Macedonia being a "nation-state of the Macedonian people." The Skopje daily "Dnevnik" said today the replacement clause would state: "Macedonia is a state of the Macedonians and of the Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Roma, and Vlachs who live in it."

Georgievski says Albanian could be recognized as an official language along with Macedonian, and he says the reference in the constitution to the Macedonian Orthodox Church would be dropped. He also spoke of recognizing Albanian as an official language. The constitution currently stipulates that Macedonian is the sole official language.

Georgievski described the proposals as "an agenda for peace."

The prime minister, who heads the nationalist-oriented VMRO-DPMNE, also used the TV interview to accuse the rival Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, or SDSM, of blocking military operations against the Albanian fighters.

SDSM leader and former Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski rejected the accusation. He said that Georgievski had had three months to resolve the conflict on the battlefield, and that now was not the time to flex his muscles. Crvenkovski also said attempts to change the constitution will cause a rift within the current government of national unity, which includes all of the main Slav and ethnic Albanian parties in parliament.

Politicians representing ethnic Macedonian parties have so far been extremely cautious in commenting on Georgievski's proposal, clearly because they represent a substantial policy change.

In contrast, a spokesman for command of the National Liberation Army, or UCK, welcomed Georgievski's proposals. Speaking to reporters by telephone from the battlefield in northern Macedonia, Nazim Beqiri said the proposed changes to the constitution are "a step in the right direction for bringing peace and stability to the country," adding that the UCK had never asked for anything more. Beqiri called on the government to order the security forces to return to their bases, which he said would result in an end to the UCK's attacks.

At the same time, President Boris Trajkovski has proposed a partial amnesty aimed at persuading the UCK to lay down its arms. In a letter to NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, Trajkovski said the amnesty would apply to "local Albanians," but would exclude UCK fighters who have led or organized the fighting as well as those responsible for killing Macedonian soldiers or policemen or committing atrocities. The UCK claims some 60 percent of its fighters are from Macedonia while the rest are believed to be largely from Kosovo.

A possible sticking point is a lack of communication between the government and the UCK. The national unity government almost collapsed last week after the leaders of the two Albanian parties in the coalition met in Kosovo with the UCK's political representative, Ali Ahmeti, and agreed on a peace deal. The Macedonian parties then denounced the Albanian parties for consorting with what were termed "terrorists."

The Macedonian government is now reported to be trying to persuade the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, to act as a go-between with the UCK. Last month, KFOR performed much the same role in regard to Albanian insurgents in southern Serbia, disarming them as they crossed into Kosovo.

The UCK's Ahmeti, who is believed to be in Kosovo at present, issued a statement yesterday saying what he termed "international courts" must examine the government's amnesty proposal.

UCK command spokesman Beqiri said the fighters do not accept the amnesty. He said that "one of the key conditions to end this conflict is that the UCK participates in discussions on the future of Albanians in Macedonia."

But an even greater political storm is brewing over a proposal by members of Macedonia's Academy of Arts and Sciences, including its president, for an exchange of population and territory with Kosovo and Albania. The academy as a whole has yet to vote on the proposal.

At least two Skopje dailies, "Vecer" and "Nova Makedonija," yesterday published a map showing the territories that would be exchanged.

These include most of the Sar mountain range and adjacent ethnic Albanian villages in the Polog district, stretching from Gostivar northwest through Tetovo to Jazince, which would be transferred to Kosovo. Similarly, the Debar district would be ceded to Albania, which lost Debar after World War I to what was later Yugoslavia.

In exchange, the plan calls for Albania to cede all its territory along lakes Ohrid and Prespa, including all of the Pogradec district and much of Bilisht and Korca districts.

The plan also calls for Albanians living in the regions of Skopje, Kumanovo, Veles, Bitola, Kicevo, Ohrid, and Struga -- that is, more than 300,000 people -- to resettle in the mountainous territories to be ceded to Albania. Similarly, Macedonians from Gostivar, Polog, Debar and Tetovo, who number only about 50,000, would be required to resettle in Skopje and those towns Albania would cede to Macedonia.

The exchanges clearly would be of greater benefit to Macedonia and Macedonians than to Albania and Albanians. Hard to defend, sparsely populated mountainous areas, plus a population of over half a million, would be traded for some 15,000 Macedonians from Albania, along with fertile agricultural lands and the cities of Pogradec and Korca. Albania would not be able to absorb the 300,000 ethnic Albanians who would be uprooted from other parts of Macedonia.

The proposed exchanges of territories and populations have provoked outrage among most political parties -- both Macedonian and Albanian -- for being all-too-reminiscent of old Serbian proposals for transferring populations in the Balkans. But they received support from the speaker of Macedonia's parliament, Stojan Andov, a former senior communist official in the former Yugoslavia.

Academy of Arts and Sciences chairman Gjeorgji Efremov defends the proposals on the grounds that it would avoid another war:

"We are living at the beginning of the 21st century. There have been enough wars, enough killings." Prime Minister Georgievski said the proposals were unacceptable and went against his party's goals. But he added that he would not block the initiative.

Ethnic Albanian parliamentarian Ridvan Sulejmani says the Academy proposals are counter-productive:

"We are not asking for territory or separation of any part of Macedonia. The proposals won't be supported by the international community. They are counter-productive and will add new tensions to the Republic of Macedonia."

The president of Albania's Academy of Sciences, Ylli Popa, says that in discussions over the years he has told his Macedonian counterpart Efremov that the Albanians of Macedonia do not want to be a part of either Albania or Kosovo.

"The idea is not realistic and impossible to achieve, because although the Albanians are concentrated in western Macedonia they are also living in other parts of the country. [The ethnographic map] of Macedonia is like a leopard skin -- you can not divide it." Popa concludes that the Macedonian Academy's proposals "will only cause more trouble."