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Macedonia: Talks Make Progress Toward Peace Deal

Ethnic Macedonian and Albanian leaders appear to have made significant progress in solving the controversial issue of the ethnic composition of local police forces. The issue is seen as one of the most difficult between the two sides in negotiations to end a six-month-old ethnic Albanian insurgency. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at yesterday's agreement and what obstacles still lie ahead.

Prague. 6 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union security chief Javier Solana yesterday announced a breakthrough in the Macedonian peace talks in the southern town of Ohrid, saying a tentative deal had been reached on adjusting the composition of the country's police forces.

Solana said he would leave it up to the country's politicians to divulge the details, but he praised the deal as important to reaching an overall peace agreement. Once that is achieved, Solana had encouraging words for Macedonia's future.

"It is my wish and the wish of the international community that this will lead to a country which is stable, which is prosperous and which has a European perspective."

Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that under the Solana-brokered plan, ethnic Albanians won pledges to increase their numbers on the police force. Although ethnic Albanians make up as many as a third of the country's 2 million people, they are currently only six percent of the police force. They apparently failed, however, in a bid to have police chiefs answer to local leaders rather than to the central government in Skopje.

Michael Taylor is an analyst for the Economist's Intelligence Unit. He tells RFE/RL that with a deal now reached on language issues and the police force, the main impediments to an overall peace accord appear to have been removed.

"The Albanians have actually given way on quite a lot of their original demands. They were asking for a vice president and also a right of veto so that the Albanian minority would be able to veto any laws, any legislation which they felt was not in their interest. They've dropped that one, so I think really we've come down to the two big issues that the Albanian minority couldn't really give way on, so that way the agreement covers those two -- most other issues have been dropped. So that's why we think we're near to having a deal, because there's not much else to be resolved."

The real issue now -- which no one is venturing to predict -- is whether hard-liners on both sides will accept any accommodation struck by the politicians.

NATO spokesman Barry Johnson said in Skopje today that some 3,500 alliance troops could help in "the collection and destruction of arms and ammunition" from ethnic Albanian insurgents. The envisaged mission would be called Operation Essential Harvest. But the mission still needs final approval from NATO headquarters in Brussels pending the conclusion of ongoing peace talks. And Johnson noted, for the peace process to work, the issue of amnesty for the rebels will have to be addressed by the Macedonian government.

In addition to the government, a peace deal will also have to be approved by the Macedonian parliament. Here too, Michael Taylor says, key legislators appear bent on opposition.

"There a possibility on the Macedonian side that, similarly, hard-liners will not go along with the deal. There's a particular threat that comes from a parliamentarian -- Stojan Nandov -- who's actually speaker of the assembly. He's sort of threatened that if they don't like the deal that's been reached, then parliament won't ratify it. So, we're not out of the woods yet. There's still a possibility that hard-liners on either side may 'unpick' the deal that's been reached."

It is also unclear whether the general population, both ethnic Albanian and Macedonian, will be ready to forget the past six months of fighting and nationalist rhetoric. Solana himself was uncompromising on this point: "All these efforts will be useless if the people of the country do not want to forget the past and look forward."

But Michael Taylor says this will be difficult. Not only have the two populations grown farther apart psychologically, but also physically, as a result of the conflict -- each side retreating to its own ethnic enclaves.

"Inevitably, after six months of fighting going on, there's a big divide between the two sides in Macedonia, which is worse than it was before. Macedonia was never quite the interethnic paradise that some people say it was. There were various incidents before the latest guerrilla outbreak, but this must leave things much worse. I imagine what may well happen is a kind of 'separating out' of the populations. I mean, that is the danger that always lies in the background, that Macedonia in fact might split [along] ethnic lines, because geographically people are becoming much more distant from each other."

Taylor cites the example of ethnic Albanians leaving the town of Bitola following a destructive rampage by ethnic Macedonians and a similar exodus by ethnic Macedonians from Tetovo following ethnic Albanian guerilla activity there.

Ultimately, much may also depend on the reaction of Macedonia's neighbors. For now, Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria have shown restraint, despite their opposing vested interests in the conflict. If that were to change, it would make any peace deal all the harder to accomplish.