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Macedonia: Leaders Resume Talks As Fragile Cease-Fire Holds

Talks resumed in Skopje today among the leaders of Macedonia's four main ruling parties, two ethnic Macedonian and two ethnic Albanian. Leaders of the Albanian parties have warned that the NATO- and European Union-backed peace plan is not a solution for staving off war.

Prague, 9 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's political leaders today resumed their consultations on a document designed to map out the country's road to ethnic stability as a shaky cease-fire continued to hold.

The U.S. special envoy to Macedonia, James Pardew, said during a break in the talks: "All parties are committed to working productively with the document, so we are very pleased with the first meeting."

Similarly, Francois Leotard, the European Union's special envoy to Macedonia -- who also attended the meeting -- described today's discussions as "interesting and positive." He says the talks will continue at the expert level.

Attending the negotiations are President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski -- who heads the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party -- Social Democrat leader Branko Crvenkovski, Arben Xhaferi, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Albanians -- or PDSh -- and Imer Imeri, the head of the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity -- or PPD.

An eight-point draft plan, based on guidelines drafted by French constitutional expert Robert Badinter, was presented to the political leaders on 7 July. U.S. envoy Pardew described the draft as a "comprehensive framework," and expressed the hope that an accord could be reached quickly "because the cease-fire is in effect and we don't want war to resume in Macedonia."

The EU's Leotard said the next step is to get "reactions, comments, [and] amendments to the document [as] it is the basis for future negotiations."

The document calls for a unified, multiethnic state with a constitution that meets the needs of all of the country's two million citizens. That may be a tall order after more than four months of fighting between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents, who say they are fighting to bring about constitutionally guaranteed equality in all walks of life.

The draft plan provides for enhanced powers to local elected officials to improve public services. And it calls for all the parties to revise the boundaries of the country's system of municipalities or districts within one year after a postponed census is completed late this year.

The document also calls for ensuring that police services reflect the composition of the population. The police at present have a disproportionately small number of ethnic Albanians in their ranks. Similarly, the document stipulates constitutional changes to ensure that minority groups will have a say in the appointment of one-third of the country's Constitutional Court judges. The plan also touches on bilingual education and minority emblems.

The draft plan insists on the need for an open-ended cease-fire that, among other things, will enable NATO troops to launch a program to disarm the Albanian rebels.

Ethnic Macedonian leaders say they have reservations about some aspects of the proposed document but find it, nevertheless, generally acceptable.

Albanian political leaders say that the eight-point program is insufficient to resolve the crisis. Former Deputy Prime Minister Naser Zyberi, a PPD deputy, told RFE/RL's Albanian subunit last night:

"Unfortunately, the [guidelines] of Mr. Robert Badinter and the joint document now of Leotard and Pardew are far from [meeting] our demands. The major problem consists in the concept of regulating the state. This means that Mr. Badinter's proposal remains within the same old concept of the constitution, according to which Macedonia is a state of the Macedonian people."

As a result, Zyberi says, the package retains the basic concept of Macedonia as a nation-state.

"The state infrastructure would be built on this basis. This means one state, [one] nation, one language, one religion -- and thus one that from the very outset discriminates against the other [ethnic communities] which live in Macedonia -- their languages, education, position in society, and so on."

Zyberi's party chairman, Imer Imeri, announced yesterday that he and the country's other main Albanian political leader, Arben Xhaferi, would challenge the plan at today's talks. He said there was "no substantial difference from what was on the table before" -- a reference to President Trajkovski's peace plan last month. Last night, Xhaferi told Reuters that "this offering cannot stop the war."

The biggest obstacle appears to be Albanian insistence on the introduction of a veto right that would enable the Albanian parties to block any bill they deem is not in their nationality's interest. Macedonian parties reject any suggestion of an Albanian veto right over legislation.

At the same time, the security situation remains shaky despite a cease-fire in effect three days ago.

After meeting with President Trajkovski this morning, Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said the outlook appeared relatively good and that there was "no need for concern" over the security situation [because] it is peaceful [today] in the Kumanovo region and the villages [near] Skopje." But he told Macedonian TV the continued shooting around in Tetovo is quite a different matter.

"Today will show whether [the insurgents] are nervous about the contacts being made for a political dialogue. These two to three days are key for sorting this out."

The interior ministry today confirmed that ethnic Albanian fighters captured two Macedonian soldiers on 7 July near the village of Slupcane -- west of Kumanovo -- and that representatives of the OSCE mission in Macedonia have "made contact" with the two prisoners. The rebels say one of their fighters was killed by security forces near Tetovo last night.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski told Macedonian state TV today that the cease-fire is generally holding.

"We are keeping the situation under control. The security forces are refraining from responding to the attacks. And we hope to find a solution [to get the country] out of the crisis. As long as we don't find one, we're ready to respond to attacks by terrorist, extremist groups."

The Interior Ministry also reported today that insurgents attacked security force positions at Vratnica and Jazince, northeast of Tetovo on the Kosovo border. In addition, the ministry said, insurgents dressed in uniforms of the rebel National Liberation Army were manning a roadblock at Poroj, just outside of Tetovo, where they are alleged to be checking documents and searching vehicles. It issued an appeal "to the Macedonian and Albanian nationalities, to refrain from any kind of provocation, as the ministry is doing everything in its power to keep the peace and contribute to President Trajkovski's peace plan."