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Macedonia: EU's Solana Visits Skopje As Parliament Debates Key Decentralization Bill

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is in Skopje today following an EU-brokered agreement reached by the four main parliamentary parties to finally ratify a law devolving powers to the municipalities as foreseen in the Ohrid peace accord.

Prague, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's foreign policy and security commissioner, Javier Solana, is in Skopje today, one week later than planned. He delayed his trip until the country's four main parliamentary parties -- two Macedonian and two Albanian -- ironed out their differences.

On 22 January, the leaders of the four parties -- together with President Boris Trajkovski and EU special envoy Alain Le Roy -- reached an agreement in which they decided to finally adopt legislation set out in last summer's Ohrid peace accord. The accord resulted in the dissolution of the National Liberation Army (UCK) in exchange for an amnesty and constitutional changes granting greater rights to Albanians and other minorities.

The key issue that has been resolved involves a law on local government, which is under debate today in the Macedonian parliament. Passage of the bill, which requires a two-thirds majority, is expected later this week.

Minister for Local Administration Faik Aslani, an ethnic Albanian, spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian Unit after the deal was reached.

"There is definitely an agreement. We've resolved all four problems and some other technical issues, as well. The problematic issues were education, health, joint [Macedonian and Albanian] administration and their implementation [locally]," Aslani said. "We've agreed that all four party leaders will work to ensure passage. We've agreed that none of the four parties will try to tag on any more amendments or annexes in parliament."

Last night, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the deal: "We expect the law to be submitted to the Macedonian parliament for approval this week, and we'd encourage its rapid passage. This would pave the way for a donors' conference to facilitate Macedonia's economic and political recovery."

In addition to the law on local government, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski promised EU envoy Le Roy that he will finally present a draft law giving amnesty to former UCK insurgents. The authorities have released scores of former rebels from detention but continue to hold seven.

Arben Xhaferi, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), commented on the amnesty in an interview with RFE/RL's Albanian Unit: "Two months ago, the PDSh supported [President Boris] Trajkovski's declared amnesty. But now I think we have an agreement that after the police return to the crisis zone, parliament will approve an amnesty law. There is considerable willingness on all sides to pass this law."

Xhaferi intends to set up a joint committee, made up of domestic and international representatives, whose task it will be to ensure the implementation of laws envisaged by the Ohrid agreement.

Xhaferi praised EU envoy le Roy, who brokered the 22 January breakthrough, describing him as "hard-working, systematic, and methodical."

Le Roy told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian languages service: "I'm very happy with having arrived at this conclusion. But I'm still waiting, because the vote has to be confirmed by parliament this week."

After the Ohrid agreement was signed five months ago, the four political parties found fault with the deal and would insist on watering it down or amending it, often blocking or delaying passage of legislation and constitutional changes. But Le Roy confirmed all four parties are in agreement this time.

"The four principal parliamentary parties said that they will back the texts in parliament," Le Roy said.

Le Roy said responsibility for education, health, culture, and sport will be devolved from the central government to the municipalities -- including, for example, "establishing, financing, and administering primary and secondary schools in cooperation with the central government." And he said, "It will be very important to ensure that Macedonians and Albanians receive the same level of health care."

Le Roy said the EU and the U.S. share identical views on the need to implement the peace accord. He confirmed that an international donors conference will be held three weeks after parliament ratifies the accord.

And Le Roy said there is no evidence at present that former Albanian rebels dissatisfied with the Ohrid agreement are preparing to launch an offensive against Macedonian government forces as soon as warmer weather arrives.

"At the moment, we have no inkling that a spring offensive is being prepared. Our belief is that there is no element of any preparation being made for the spring," Le Roy said. "Perhaps some individual isolated elements are -- they are always interested in attracting attention, that's possible. But there is no tentative [or] concerted effort to our knowledge to prepare this."

Nevertheless, Macedonian news media today report continued scattered shooting in what government officials allege were more than 100 new cease-fire violations overnight in the Sar mountain foothills overlooking the northwestern town of Tetovo and in the hills west of Kumanovo.

After meeting with Le Roy, Trajkovski, and the leaders of the four parties, Solana is due to continue tomorrow to Pristina, where the U.S. mission appears to be in the final stage of brokering a deal between the three main Albanian parties in Kosovo. That deal would clear the way for parliament to elect Ibrahim Rugova as president of Kosovo and for a leading member of Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo to be appointed prime minister.