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Macedonia: Constitutional U-turn

Ethnic Macedonians renege on promises to change the country's constitution.
By Vladimir Jovanovski

Europe's top envoys left Skopje in a rage last week, accusing the government of reneging on a cast-iron pledge to alter the constitution within three days of the completion of the internationally supervised disarmament of the rebel Albanian National Liberation Army.


They cancelled a donors conference planned for this month, which set to inject millions of US dollars into the bankrupt state as a reward for implementing a package of EU-mediated constitutional changes agreed at the southern resort town of Ohrid on August 13.


The Ohrid agreement was aimed at terminating a four-month armed rebellion by ethnic Albanians in the west of the republic this spring, which almost plunged Macedonia into a full scale civil war.


"It is absolutely inconceivable that the donors' conference can take place on 15 October," the European Union Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Chris Patten, said, on leaving Skopje. " In these circumstances, I could not possibly get donors to write large cheques in order to support a political agreement that still hasn't been endorsed and implemented."


"Solana and Patten left Skopje insulted and disappointed", the Macedonian media reported after the departure of the two senior European guests. The EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, was reportedly so dismayed that he cancelled a press conference, planned to take place after his discussions with Macedonian officials, without explanation.


"The absence of Mr Solana at the press conference revealed the level of his anger," a representative of Solana`s staff in Brussels told the Macedonian newspaper Dnevnik.


General Gunar Lange, commander of the NATO-controlled disarmament operation, called Operation Essential Harvest, announced the completion of the mission on September 26 and said all the weapons the NLA offered to surrender had been collected. In total, the ethnic Albanians handed in 3,200 automatic rifles, 483 machine-guns, 161 mortars, 17 air defence systems and 4 armoured vehicles.


On September 27, the NLA leader, Ali Ahmeti, duly announced that his guerrilla organisation was disbanding. Speaking at a press conference in the NLA stronghold of Sipkovica, he added that regular Macedonian police would be permitted to enter villages under former NLA control if the police units included ethnic Albanians. His words were confirmed by the NLA military commander, G`zim Ostreni. "The NLA does not exist any more," he told a Skopje TV station.


However, while the Albanian militants and the international community have fulfilled their side of the bargain, the Macedonian parliament has not. Instead, the speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov, a key opponent of the August 13 peace deal, has presented a series of excuses to obstruct the reform of the constitution.


At first, he blamed the delay on the existence of guerrilla road blockades. Then he cited problems created by anti-agreement riots in front of the parliament building. After that he issued a demand for all civilians kidnapped by the NLA to be released as a pre-condition.


Andov's latest manoeuvre is a proposal for the constitutional amendments to be debated and enacted in sections, instead of as a package, which is what the ethnic Albanian parties demanded. The speaker said only six of the 15 amendments agreed in Ohrid would be submitted to parliament at a session on October 9.


The ethnic Albanian parties denounced this move as a betrayal and now threaten to boycott parliament. The vice-president of parliament, Iljaz Halimi, a senior official in the Democratic Party of Albanians, the largest ethnic Albanian party, told a Skopje television station on October 7 his party would never agree to the change. "If the president [of parliament] does not submit all 15 amendments, we are not going to take part in the work of parliament," he said.


The second largest Albanian Party, the Party of Democratic Prosperity, said it would join the threatened boycott. "All the amendments must be immediately submitted and adopted without any changes," said Abduljhadi Vejseli, a deputy in parliament.


The biggest stumbling block is a proposed change to the constitutional preamble. At Ohrid, the parties agreed to replace a phrase which says sovereignty rests with "the Macedonian people" with new wording that makes it clear sovereignty rests with all citizens on Macedonian territory.


The distinction is small but significant. The ethnic Albanians consider the current formula discriminates against them, in that it appears to give ethnic Macedonians an exclusive title to sovereignty. As a result, they boycotted the passage of the constitution, when Macedonia became independent in 1991.


Ethnic Macedonians feels just as strongly. Fearful of demographic changes that may eventually bring about an ethnic Albanian majority in the country, they are determined to enshrine their claim to statehood in the constitution.


The change in wording has aroused enormous opposition from deputies in parliament, elder statesmen, such as the former president Kiro Gligorov, a host of cultural institutions, including the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, MANU, and scientific bodies.


All of them insist that the elimination of the term "Macedonian people" from the preamble would mark a dangerous step towards what some call the "disintegration of the state".


The preamble of the constitution has become the focus of debate to such an extent that if the phrase "Macedonian people" was left alone, the other 14 amendments would probably be adopted without further ado.


Dosta Dimovska, vice president of the ruling nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO-DPMNE, told state radio that her party colleagues would have great difficulties accepting the amendments if the phrase "Macedonian people" vanished from the constitution. "If we can just find a common language the [other] constitutional changes will happen sooner," she said.


There is some support for a re-think at the European level. According to Doris Pack, head of a European parliament delegation on southeast Europe, which visited Skopje on October 6, the EU was not against relatively minor changes to the Ohrid agreement.


"If all the other parts of the Framework Agreement are accepted apart from the preamble we as [European] MPs are ready to initiate a new discussion in the European parliament on a compromise," Pack said, "having in mind the historic aspiration of the Macedonian people to have a state and a future of their own."


But the Europeans will only nod through changes to the deal if the ethnic Albanians can be brought round as well. So far there is no sign of that. On the contrary, attempts by the Macedonians to reopen the issue seem certain to evoke strong opposition from ethnic Albanian parties.


The author is a journalist at the Skopje-based Forum Magazine.