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Macedonia: Ethnic Albanian Party Reopens Division Debate

Macedonia's main ethnic Albanian opposition group, the Democratic Party of Albanians, has reopened debate on the potential division of the country along ethnic lines. Such rhetoric has been heard in recent months on both sides of Macedonia's ethnic divide, prompting the international community to worry the issue may undermine the August 2001 agreement that brought the country back from the brink of civil war.

Prague, 15 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) announced at its weekend congress that its program now includes a potential push for Albanian self-determination in Macedonia.

Veteran PDSh leader Arben Xhaferi, re-elected at the congress as party chairman, said that if the Ohrid peace agreement is not implemented soon, the PDSh is "going to enact the idea of self-determination." Other party leaders earlier had voiced similar warnings.

Both Slav Macedonian and ethnic Albanian opposition leaders have stepped up the pro-partition rhetoric in recent months. They say it may be the only way to resolve the country's simmering ethnic tensions.

Much of the tensions are fueled by Albanians' frustration with the government's failure to push forward with a number of reforms tied to the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, which aimed to put the rights of ethnic Albanians on a par with those of Macedonians. Critics accuse Skopje of stalling on the passage of several key laws -- on the reorganization of territorial administrations and the self-financing of municipalities -- due to be passed by early 2004.

In April, Ljubco Georgievski, former prime minister and long-time leader of the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DMPNE), said the vision of a multiethnic Macedonia at the heart of the Ohrid agreement had failed.

In an article published that month, Georgievski reiterated the idea he first introduced at the height of the Albanian insurgency in 2001 -- that only partitioning the country would end ethnic conflict. This time he went even further, saying a concrete wall should be built to separate the two communities.

The article coincided with Xhaferi stepping down from the PDSh leadership, protesting what he called the failure of the Ohrid agreement and voicing support for an ethnically divided state.

A VMRO-DPMNE and PDSh coalition was in power at the time of the ethnic Albanian insurgency two years ago, and both parties are signatories to the Ohrid agreement.

But both groups suffered heavy losses in parliamentary elections last year and have been in the political opposition since then.

Significantly, neither the PDSh nor the VMRO-DPMNE officially backed the pro-division stance of Xhaferi and Georgievski in April. Georgievski, like Xhaferi, stepped down from his party's leadership that month, and has since been replaced with a more moderate leader.

Both the Macedonian government and the international community have fiercely denounced talk of ethnic division as a call to war.

In April, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski warned that talk of ethnic division could rekindle civil conflict. And the PDSh's weekend decision to unite behind a self-determination program prompted fresh criticism from the European Union.

Irena Guselova, the EU spokeswoman in Skopje, said "The fundamental concept of the framework agreement is a multiethnic, unitary Macedonia. Whoever goes against these principles is simply undermining Macedonia's chances of integration with the EU."

The EU spokeswoman further said that the PDSh, as a signatory to the Ohrid agreement, had committed itself to the peace process and would be held responsible if it undermined it.

The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), the junior partner in the government, dismissed the new PDSh stand as contrary to both the Macedonian Constitution and the Ohrid agreement.

Argon Buxhaku, BDI's deputy leader, refused to comment on the shift, saying only that it did not reflect the views of his party.

"We do not comment on other parties' decisions. They have their program decisions; from time to time [they have] different positions. If we commented on their positions this would take us a lot of time because they often change them," Buxhaku said.

The third-biggest ethnic Albanian political party, the opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), said the implementation of the Ohrid agreement remains its top priority.

But PPD leader Abdulmenaf Bexheti, speaking yesterday at a news conference in Skopje, warned the party may back PDSh's self-determination program if the government fails to carry out the decentralization process agreed on in 2001.

"If the marginalization of the Ohrid agreement continues, of course the PPD will also seek another course of action," Bexheti said. "This means that the PPD could also assume a position [favoring self-determination]."

Analysts in Skopje see the PDSh platform -- like the earlier proposal of VMRO-DMPNE's Georgievski -- as an attempt to regain political standing.

By trying to radicalize the political scene -- say observers like political analyst Georgi Ivanov -- opposition leaders are seeking to score political points.

"When a party is losing [political ground], it seeks to regain [influence] by radicalizing [its position]," Ivanov said. "But that is the responsibility of the authorities -- the authorities must show what a state and statehood mean. Radicalism should not be allowed as a means of political mobilization."

Despite occasional violent clashes, the interethnic peace agreement in Macedonia has been maintained, due in part to monitoring by some 350 European Union peacekeepers.

(The Macedonian Unit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)