Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia on Edge

International delegations might be prodding the Macedonian government to negotiate a way out of the current crisis but progress is scant
By IWPR
Visits by a clutch of senior European ministers to Skopje this week emphasised the West's concern to avoid another major Balkan war.



So far, signals from crucial negotiations intended to address the grievances of the Albanian minority have left little ground for confidence. There are fears that failure to move forward swiftly might lead to renewed fighting.



The country is relatively calm following the halt in fighting in the hills around Tetovo. But with sporadic incidents and casualties on both Albanian and Macedonian sides people are definitely on edge.



The most immediate issue is acceptance by the government of an Association and Stabilisation Agreement with the European Community due to be signed in Luxembourg on April 9.



The agreement - a preferential trade accord - would initially benefit Macedonian businesses by reducing tariffs. Then should begin the- process of aligning commercial and financial practices with European standards, as part of the long-term goal of joining the European Union.



Famed, until recently, as the only country to win independence from the old Yugoslavia without bloodshed, Macedonia is also the first Balkan country to be offered such an agreement.



The question is not whether the government will sign, but who will attend the party. Albanian political leaders stated that they would not travel to the ceremony if progress, or at least genuine negotiations on key inter-ethnic issues, was not being made. Top Albanian leader in Macedonia Arben Xhaferi has stated he will not attend personally in any case, while a senior representative is likely to travel instead.



However, establishing a pattern that would be confirmed on visits throughout the week, the EU's foreign policy High Representative Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten engaged in open discussions but emphasised they were not mediators. The EC, said Patten, cannot "assume the responsibilities that rest on the shoulders of the Macedonian leaders."



The approach seems to imply solid support for the Macedonian position and little real pressure for early change.



At a supper with the president and all main Macedonian and Albanian party leaders, stern words were exchanged. The European representatives, according to Xhaferi, said it would be "absurd" to pretend that Macedonia could become part of Europe without solving its internal problems.



But over the meal, the two key issues facing the country, the constitution and the Albanian National Liberation Army, NLA, were not discussed. The preamble of the constitution refers in name only to ethnic Macedonians. Albanians say this represents "institutionalised extremism" which gives their ethnic rivals "possession" over the state. Changing this wording is their central demand.



European and Macedonian leaders bent over backwards to insist that no changes are being forced on the government. "It is not for the European Union or anyone else to impose a solution," insisted British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on his own visit later in the week. "It is improper and it will not work."



The Macedonian foreign minister went further: changing the constitution, he said, "has never been an issue with the EU".



For his part, Cook promised British military aid, in the form of body armour and other defensive materiel, "to help the government and the people of Macedonia to defeat the terrorists". His repeated and emphatic use of the word "terrorist" seemed a signal of his support for ethnic Macedonians. Democratic Albanian leaders, while condemning the violence and confirming their support for the integrity and unity of the state, use the terms "radicals" or preferably "fighters" to refer to NLA soldiers.



This is the European's bind. Albanians enthusiastically welcome western involvement, and call for an increased role from the EC, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE. But the West, especially the isolationist US administration of George W. Bush, has little interest in directly meddling in another Balkan conflict.



This is especially the case since, despite cross-party support for European integration, ethnic Macedonians retain resentment and mistrust of the West, especially over what they see as excessive support for Albanians in Kosovo. "Javier Satana," read placards held by a handful of Macedonian nationalists outside the assembly building, "Leave us Alone!"



Without real pressure from the West, however, it is possible that no substantial changes will be forthcoming. Despite the high-level visits - NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson also stopped by - the primary forum for dialogue remains parliament. Yet Macedonian resistance to change remains substantial, and in light of the slow pace of reform delivered through existing institutions to date, Albanians have little faith in this approach.



A second track of negotiations is also being convened by the office of President Boris Trajkovski. This forum could lead to breakthroughs, and there were indications that this process would be formalised with political involvement combined with expert advice.



This process could address Macedonians' frustration over what they say has been the Albanians' consistent failure to make clear and concrete demands. Explosive but complex issues for reform such as the percentage of Albanians represented in public institutions and the mechanisms to guarantee language rights may be better resolved with detailed technical in-put rather than generalised political rhetoric. Since 1998, several reform laws have been passed covering education, decentralisation and other important issues.



Yet Xhaferi dismissed the Trajkovski initiative as "coffee-table" talks with no clear agenda or mandate for implementing any decisions.



A third approach by the president has been to moot the possibility of bringing into the ruling coalition representatives of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM. This could broaden the consensus - and responsibility - for change. But equally it could bog the process down in pre-electoral manoeuvring and cause other delays, especially as Albanians lay most of the blame on the SDSM for the failure to implement reforms during its period in power from independence until 1998.



Both sides in the conflict are hopeful that the negotiations, along whichever track, can result in some kind of breakthrough. But if such high-level visits - and US Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected next week - cannot provide enough pressure to secure it, talks may founder just as they have for many years. In that case, the British-provided defensive armour may just find some use.



Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.