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Macedonia: Are The Amnesty, Aid Conference Enough To Keep The Peace?

One year after Tetovo erupted in violence, Macedonian authorities have lifted a curfew in Macedonia's largest majority Albanian city. An amnesty for former ethnic Albanian insurgents enacted in early March by Macedonia's parliament has resulted in the release from prison of former insurgents of the disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK). And today, international donors are meeting in Brussels to raise money for Macedonia's reconstruction. But just how stable is the peace?

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian police have lifted their curfew in the northwestern city of Tetovo, one year after ethnic Albanian insurgents seized a former Ottoman fortress on a hilltop overlooking the city.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski says the curfew was lifted "in view of the stabilization of the situation in Tetovo."

In fact, the situation has changed little in recent months as the city remains calm, but isolated shooting in the nearby Sar mountains is being reported in the Macedonian news media almost daily.

The only place in the country where a curfew still remains in effect is the Albanian-majority Skopje suburb of Aracinovo, the scene of heavy fighting between insurgents and Macedonian security forces last year.

Meanwhile, following an amnesty which took effect on 8 March, authorities released from prison yesterday 10 convicted insurgents and 18 detainees awaiting trial, and dropped charges against 270 others still at large. Several thousand additional Albanians who are also Macedonian citizens and who fought with the rebel UCK last year are also now free from the threat of being prosecuted.

The only exception to the amnesty is for war crimes. Macedonian Justice Minister Ixhet Mehmeti explained the amnesty to RFE/RL's Skopje bureau last night.

"In accordance with the law, the whole thing [amnesty] has until 2300 hours tonight [11 March] to be carried out. That means all people who are being held in prison for acts committed in the conflict will be freed today," Mehmeti said.

In Mehmeti's words, "all former members of the UCK who were convicted are now free."

Among the prisoners to be released was Muharem Ramadani, one of 12 former UCK guerillas, who yesterday left Skopje's Idrizovo prison a free man.

"We are morally strong. I was sentenced to three and a half years. Thank God we are alive and free," said Ramadani.

Ramadani, whose seizure by Macedonian police last year was reported by local Albanian-language media as a kidnapping and not a legal arrest, accused the police of mistreating UCK prisoners.

"We were mistreated physically and psychologically. But we survived. Now the most important thing is the political struggle," Ramadani said.

Ramadani said the important thing now is for all sides to concentrate on implementing August's Ohrid peace agreement. That accord provided for the disbanding and disarming of Albanian insurgents in return for greater rights for Macedonia's Albanian population, including the use of the Albanian language in the public sector.

The prompt release of the prisoners was not coincidental. The amnesty had to be implemented prior to today's international donors conference in Brussels, at which 40 countries and organizations are expected to raise some 256 million euros to help Macedonia's economy. EU officials say most of the money -- 185 million euros -- is needed for shoring up the domestic budget. An additional 45 million euros is required for the reconstruction of homes, schools, and general infrastructure in the country's war-damaged northwestern region. Twenty-five million euros is needed to implement the Ohrid agreement, which includes de-mining, decentralizing the government, improving multilingual teaching, and expanding the use of the Albanian language in official business.

Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Krstevski told RFE/RL's Macedonian service yesterday the final sum may well be more than 256 million euros, due to various bilateral arrangements. He noted that so far, the Netherlands and Greece have been the biggest donors, and that negotiations are continuing with Italy, as well as with Japan, which has expressed interest in direct economic investment.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank is calling for any assistance to Macedonia to be tied to the country undertaking what it terms "serious anticorruption and reform efforts." The ICG is calling on the Macedonian government and the European Commission to send an anti-corruption adviser to Macedonia.

Meanwhile, the peace is fragile in Macedonia. While most former key UCK commanders have welcomed the amnesty, Albanian splinter groups and Macedonian nationalists alike continue to threaten the peace. The circumstances surrounding the 2 March killing near Skopje of seven South Asians by a Macedonian police patrol remains a mystery. There are growing suspicions in the diplomatic community that the incident was a set-up by Macedonian nationalists to derail the amnesty.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Slobodan Casule, who in early March threatened that war could erupt with Kosovo over their common border, is now challenging the UN's chief administrator in the province, Michael Steiner. Casule said if he cannot get a satisfactory statement from Steiner about the functioning of the Kosovo government he will demand that Steiner be replaced.

Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi have both rejected a border agreement that the presidents of Macedonia and Yugoslavia signed in February 2001. The accord also covers the Kosovo stretch of Macedonia's northern border -- but Kosovar Albanians, who were not consulted, note the deal transferred some 2,500 hectares of Kosovo territory to Macedonia.

Steiner has scolded Rexhepi for suggesting that he will take up the border issue with the UN Security Council. Kosovo's status -- as a Yugoslav province under UN administration and occupied by NATO-led peacekeeping forces -- bars him from doing so.

Macedonia, while an internationally recognized state, has somewhat limited sovereignty due to the presence of NATO peacekeepers, OSCE monitors and international mediators -- without whom a peace agreement and amnesty would probably not have been reached. For now, the international community remains the best guarantee that peace will prevail.