Ethnic Albanians play hardball over Macedonia peace plan

SKOPJE, Reuters

Leaders of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority are taking a hard line in cross party crisis talks to hammer out a blueprint for preventing another Balkan civil war, diplomatic sources said on Sunday.

Politicians from both sides of an ethnic divide, widened by a four-month Albanian guerrilla rebellion, are struggling to agree major constitutional concessions to Albanians under a Western-backed plan designed to persuade the rebels to disarm.

“The tone is hard going and the Albanians are being tough,” a diplomatic source said during a break in talks on the summit’s third day.”But I don’t think we’re on the verge of breakdown.”

The main stumbling block is how to rewrite a constitution drawn up just 10 years ago. Slav majority leaders are resigned to making sweeping changes, but Albanian parties want Macedonia to become a consensual democracy, where all sensitive decisions would have to be backed by the one-third Albanian minority.

This and the elevation of the Albanian language to official status throughout public life are tough for the majority to stomach, especially with gunmen at large on Skopje’s outskirts.

“It’s not easy,” the source said. “But the tone of the talks would not support the idea that they’re getting nowhere.”

The self-styled rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), which has called a truce until June 27 while the politicians haggle, is waiting to see what role NATO will play after calling for the deployment of troops throughout Macedonia as a key peace demand.

Diplomats expect the alliance to accept a government request for NATO help in disarming guerrillas and decommissioning their weapons, provided the rebels agree to the terms being debated.

The talks are not expected to produce concrete results this weekend and the carrot of a decision by NATO members on whether to put troops in Macedonia under a peace deal could be decisive.

“The irony is that the one thing the Macedonians and the NLA can agree on is for NATO to get involved,” a Western envoy said.