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Macedonia: Parliament Debates Constitutional Changes

The peace process in Macedonia has moved to the floor of Macedonia's parliament following reports from NATO that ethnic Albanian militants have turned in more than a third of the weapons they are expected to surrender by 26 September. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the latest developments.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's parliament resumed debate today on a Western-brokered peace deal as legislators considered whether to move forward with the political and legal reforms promised in the accord.

An initial symbolic vote on the peace deal is expected by lawmakers within the next few days and could come as soon as later today. Under a multiphased implementation plan for the accord, debates on proposed constitutional changes can start only after parliament backs the peace deal in principle. More than 20 legislators are registered to speak in parliament about the peace plan before the initial symbolic vote takes place.

But a crucial step toward acceptance of the accord came late yesterday when Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski urged parliament to ratify the deal. Georgievski told deputies that they need to face reality and support the pact. His position is expected to reflect the majority of legislators in his leading VMRO party.

But Georgievski also left open the option of future wrangling on key reforms promised in the pact, including greater representation in government for ethnic Albanians and making Albanian an official language in some parts of the country.

The Western-backed accord aims to bring a peaceful resolution to an insurgency launched by ethnic Albanian militants more than six months ago.

NATO is currently collecting weapons surrendered voluntarily by the militants. The implementation plan calls for the ethnic Albanians to give up their arms in staggered phases in return for a series of parliamentary votes that move toward the promised reforms.

So far, NATO says the militants have turned in more than a third of the weapons they are required to surrender. The alliance says the mission -- code-named "Operation Essential Harvest" -- remains on schedule.

That means the next step is for parliament to support the peace accord.

If the process continues on schedule and the Macedonian parliament approves a series of proposed constitutional changes that enhance the rights of ethnic Albanians, the militants are to disband and hand over a total of 3,300 weapons to NATO by 26 September.

Yet despite Georgievski's call for parliament to support the accord, the prime minister yesterday criticized NATO and Western mediators who helped broker the pact. He told parliament that Macedonia is being forced to change its constitution "under pressure and aggression." He said the end result is that Skopje is sending out a message that says "terrorism pays."

Georgievski told the legislature that NATO shares responsibility for the crisis in Macedonia because the insurgency is ultimately the result of NATO's intervention in Kosovo since 1999:

"Unfortunately, by voting in support of that [peace] initiative, we have to keep in mind that Macedonia is collateral damage of that [NATO] intervention [in Kosovo]. And we cannot expect from those who committed that mistake in 1999 to admit it today. On the contrary."

Georgievski also said he does not think Macedonia's Constitution is the root cause of the country's crisis:

"Absolutely. I don't think that the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia is the real reason for the crisis in Macedonia during the last six months. This is only -- I don't know how to say it -- one way for some people from the international community to save themselves from taking responsibility for the crisis. And maybe for some regional politicians, as well."

NATO's 30-day mandate to collect weapons under Operation Essential Harvest began a week ago. But there are reports the alliance is considering ways to extend the mission beyond its initial 30-day deadline.

Some reports say new proposals from NATO call for time lost while the peace process is stalled to no longer count toward the 30 days.

Earlier, U.S. envoy James Pardew said that NATO's mission may have to be extended in order to protect hundreds of international civilians from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after 26 September. The monitors would have to operate 24 hours a day in the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian villages where the heaviest fighting has been concentrated. Pardew said their work in the northern and western parts of the country could only be effective if they are protected.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said yesterday during a visit to Macedonia that he is confident that some 1,900 British troops in the 4,500-strong NATO operation will be back in Britain by the end of this month. But Hoon confirmed that talks are underway between NATO partners on a follow-up operation by the alliance.

(Translations by RFE/RL's Julia Guechakov and Zoran Kuka of the South Slav Service.)