Macedonia: Mixed Feelings Over Constitution Birthday

Changes to Macedonian constitution cast a cloud over anniversary celebrations.

Macedonia: Mixed Feelings Over Constitution Birthday

Changes to Macedonian constitution cast a cloud over anniversary celebrations.

Wednesday, 21 November, 2001

Macedonian politicians marked the tenth anniversary of their constitution last Saturday, days after parliament passed crucial changes which it is hoped will defuse the violent conflict with the Albanian minority.

"The Macedonian constitution was a good one, but it is also good that we have changed it," President Boris Trajkovski said at the November 17 ceremony.

Two days earlier, abiding by the terms of the internationally-brokered Ohrid Agreement between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian politicians, parliament altered 15 articles in the document.

The changes extend the use of the Albanian language, offer Albanian parties new safeguards against being outvoted in parliament, boost local government and generally improve the status of religious and ethnic minorities.

The historic vote ended a fierce debate on the rights of Albanians - who officially constitute 23 per cent of the population - which has dogged Macedonia since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The changes cast a cloud over the anniversary celebrations, hosted by the parliament speaker, Stojan Andov. The deputies know compromise was only reached under massive international pressure, and against a background of armed struggle between Albanian militants and the Macedonian security forces.

Since the Ohrid agreement in August, militants from the National Liberation Army, NLA, and its successor, the Albanian National Army, ANA, have shot dead dozens of Macedonian soldiers and police officers, mostly in ambushes.

While parliament celebrated the constitution's birthday, the ANA announced it was responsible for last week's killing of three police officers and the wounding of three more near the village of Trebos, in western Macedonia.

The ANA warned it would not halt its violent campaign "until the final liberation of all ethnic Albanian territory in the Balkans", adding that it would not lay down its arms under international pressure.

The warning showed that the militants have no intention of honouring the full amnesty the government offered Albanian gunmen after the Ohrid agreement was signed.

Plans drawn up by OSCE officials and NATO forces in Macedonia envisage an ethnically-mixed security force resuming control of rebel-held territory in the west of the country over the next few months.

But seasoned observers suspect clashes will continue for years, as battles between Yugoslav forces and Albanian paramilitaries in western Macedonia continued after the end of the Second World War.

Most Macedonian nationalists remain deeply unhappy about offering concessions to the Albanian minority and hope the deal will be justified by the restoration of government-control over the insurgents' territory.

"Now we have adopted the constitutional changes, I cannot see a single reason why we should not start a full reintegration of the entire Macedonian territory," said Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, head of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party. Without his party's support, the changes to the constitution would not have taken place.

But the impoverished state's desperate need for financial aid made compromise inevitable. Macedonia hopes an international donors' conference next month will produce pledges of up to 700 million German marks to cover the hole in Macedonian budget, though the IMF has insisted on supervising the way the money is spent through a new "monetary board", which should monitor the state budget.

As the political crisis recedes, the country's old political divisions are re-emerging, as parties jockey for position before the next elections, expected in April or May 2002.

The Social-Democrats who joined the "crisis government" six months ago, have already announced they will leave the government and go back into opposition.

Polls show they have increased their lead over Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE, which has lost support over its handling of the crisis since it took power in November 1998.

The Albanian parties, meanwhile, are jostling for the blessing of the NLA's political leadership, under Ali Ahmeti, and which is seen as the key to the Albanian vote.

Parliament will have to set a date for early elections on November 23, which the Ohrid accord envisaged taking place in January. However, only a minority of deputies, mainly Social Democrats, want an early dissolution. The majority do not want a new poll until the security situation has improved.

If the Ohrid deal holds, Macedonia stands to benefit from the West's long-term strategy for the Balkans, which diplomats say will unfold in three phases over the next decade.

The first phase, encompassing two to five years, will kick off with a regional conference at a ministerial level in March 2002, where participants will re-affirm the so-called Helsinki principles. These centre on pledges to renounce any use of force to alter frontiers and to solve all political disputes through peaceful means.

This first phase of regional integration will involve the promotion of "soft" forms of cooperation, including agreements on fighting corruption, trans-border energy deals and the development of regional infrastructure.

The second phase is expected to involve a more substantial regional dialogue, in which EU will use stability pacts with the various states as a tool to channel this cooperation in the right direction.

The third phase at the end of the decade will see contested issues, such as Kosovo's final status, discussed in what is hoped will be a changed context and improved atmosphere.

Brussels diplomats are aware of the limitations of most of the current Balkan political elites.

As a result, Europe will follow the same strategy it adopted in Serbia, where it backed the G-17 and Otpor movements, which contributed to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

More effort will be put into supporting opposition parties in the region, assisting the independent media and encouraging the growth of a politically active civil society.

Saso Ordanoski is IWPR project editor in Skopje and editor-in-chief of Forum magazine.

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