Macedonia’s leaders searching for peace deal

SKOPJE, Reuters

Politicians from both sides of Macedonia’s ethnic divide locked themselves away together on Saturday under intense pressure not to emerge until they hammer out a deal to prevent a new Balkan war.

European Union leaders told Skopje’s fractious multi-ethnic government to leave nothing undiscussed, including major constitutional concessions to ethnic Albanians — a key demand by Albanian guerrillas for ending a four month insurrection.

A declaration adopted at an EU summit in Sweden said the 15-nation bloc, which has taken the diplomatic lead in the search for a peace deal, wanted “a true dialogue covering all issues on the agenda, including the constitutional issues.”

The rebels, who have called a truce until June 27 while the emergency unity coalition thrashes out details of a disarmament plan, are waiting to see what role NATO will play in the process after calling for the deployment of troops throughout Macedonia.

Diplomats expect the alliance to accept a formal government request for NATO help in disarming rebels and decommissioning their weapons, provided the guerrillas agree to the terms being hammered out by politicians in Skopje.

But the New York Times quoted senior U.S. officials on Saturday as saying the United States had told its NATO partners it would not take part, leaving Europe to take the lead.

“There is a clear logic for NATO to get involved,” a senior Western diplomat in Skopje said, pointing to Macedonia’s role as the main supply route for 36,000 NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. Truce remains fragile

Although both sides called ceasefires on Monday, daily exchanges of light fire punctuated the shaky truce. Detonations were audible near Tetovo, the second biggest city, and there was sporadic gunfire near rebel-held villages east of Skopje.

“The army and police will act only if seriously provoked and not to every shot fired,” a security forces spokesman said.

The rebels claim to have Skopje in their sights, raising the prospect of all-out civil war if they strike. To defuse tension, Macedonia is recalling guns issued to civilians to bolster the capital’s defenses, fearing some had got into dangerous hands.

Witnesses have reported uniformed men in the city brandishing assault rifles and firing into the air.

“Yesterday, a group of them was ordered to give back their weapons, which they did and the procedure of handing out weapons has been stopped,” a security forces spokesman said. High stakes

The open-ended talks in Macedonia’s parliament have to produce results if the crisis is to be contained, diplomats say.

“Some of the issues that need resolving are very complex and what we’ll end up with is a very quick fix,” an envoy said.

Progress was expected this weekend on reforms to improve the lot of the one-third Albanian minority. Changes to its status in the constitution, greater use of the Albanian language and more Albanian civil service and police jobs are the top priorities.

But rewriting the constitution to appease Albanians requires the Slav majority in Macedonia, a tiny part of Yugoslavia until a decade ago, to swallow its pride and accept the sort of sweeping change that would take most countries years to secure.

Experts propose deleting all references to ethnic groups in the preamble, which Albanians feel is discriminatory because it labels them a minority in a country of “the Macedonian people.” This would anger a majority of Slav descent, anxious to preserve the definition of Macedonians as an ethnic group.