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Macedonia: Government Discusses Minority-Rights Bills

The Macedonian government is meeting today to discuss a package of bills due to be debated and ratified by parliament later this month concerning minority rights, the use of the Albanian language in official documents, and changes in the way parliament is elected.

Prague, 14 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The package of bills is the result of last August's Ohrid framework peace agreement that ended seven months of fighting between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces.

As they did at Ohrid, the U.S. and the European Union mediated the latest deal among the country's four main political parties -- two of them Macedonian and two Albanian.

EU mediator Alain le Roy announced the agreement on the texts of the 16 bills on 11 May, following three days of negotiations.

"These four party leaders or representatives have reached an agreement on 16 laws. This concerns also the law on elections, which consists of proportional vote with six districts," le Roy said.

Macedonia will henceforth have six electoral districts, each with just under 280,000 voters. Two of the districts have Albanian majority populations: Tetovo/Gostivar and Kumanovo/Black Mountains. Two districts have sizable Albanian minorities: Skopje and Ohrid/Kicevo/Bitola. The other two are much larger, less densely populated areas in the east of the country, around Stip and Strumica, with overwhelming Macedonian majorities and virtually no Albanian inhabitants.

Estimates of the Albanian share of the population range between one-fifth and one-third of the country's 2 million inhabitants.

The international mediators rejected a demand by one of the two main Albanian parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh. The party had called for Macedonia to be declared a single electoral district, in a failed bid to ensure that votes by Albanians in areas with small Albanian populations would not be wasted. Similarly, the mediators rejected a demand by the ruling Macedonian nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, that pre-election coalitions of parties be banned.

This rejection could pave the way for former rebel leaders to enter politics. The newly elected leader of the other main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Prosperity, or PPD, Abdurahman Aliti, is calling for an election alliance with former rebel political commander Ali Ahmeti and the pro-rebel National Democratic Party (PKD) of Kastriot Haxhirexha.

The new laws will require ethnically proportional representation in public-sector jobs, presumably to be based on a nationwide census to be conducted later this year. Albanians boycotted the last two censuses in 1991 and 1994.

U.S. mediator James Holmes was effusive in announcing the outcome. "From my perspective, these are outstanding compromises, but I am absolutely confident [they will be ratified and implemented]."

Similarly, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, issued a statement yesterday declaring that the passage of these laws "will be a step forward for stability, multiethnicity, and democracy, and most of all, prosperity and eventual integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures."

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, whose peace plan last year served as the foundation for the Ohrid agreement, agrees.

"These new laws foresee the development of democracy and the enrichment of interethnic relations and cooperation," Trajkovski said.

He saif their ratification will establish conditions for fair and democratic elections. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held 15 September.

The weekend deal includes a compromise on one of the most hard-fought issues: the presence of the Albanian language in passports, personal documents, and official forms.

Macedonian Justice Minister Ixhet Mehmeti said the package provides that all official forms in the future be available in three versions.

"One form will be for members of the Macedonian nation. One form will be for members of the Albanian community -- in Albanian and Macedonian. And a third will be in the language of the other groups and communities mentioned in the constitution [Turks, Vlachs, and Roma]," Mehmeti said.

Similarly, Albanians will be granted, on request, bilingual domestic identity documents in Albanian and Macedonian: personal IDs; passports; driver's licenses; birth, marriage, and death certificates. However, place names will appear on official documents in Macedonian only, albeit in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. For example, Shkupi, the Albanian name for Skopje, will not appear on official Macedonian documents. Nor will road signs erected by the central authorities be bilingual. But local authorities in ethnic Albanian majority areas will have the right to erect additional bilingual road signs. The bills also provide for minority language use in courts.

The deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Iliaz Halimi, rules out any serious attempt to block passage of the bills when parliament debates them later this on 29-31 May.

"I don't believe there will be any obstruction, at least not obstruction that would prevent ratification of the laws. In fact, I'm optimistic because the deputies from the [four main] political parties have a majority [in parliament]," Halimi said.

International mediators indicate these laws are the limit of compliance with demands by the Albanian community agreed to in the Ohrid accord and that further demands will not be accepted.