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Macedonia: New Law Clears Way for Aid

Parliamentary approval of key ethnic minority reforms meets West's condition for financial assistance.
By Ana Petruseva

After months of political haggling, the Macedonian parliament has bowed to international opinion and passed a crucial devolution law to improve the rights of the Balkan republic's ethnic Albanian minority.


Squabbling parliamentary deputies finally recognised that the bill must go through if the country wants foreign aid to repair the ravages inflicted by last year's seven months of ethnic conflict.


Known as the local self-government law, the measure forms a key part of a Western-sponsored peace accord. Unless it reached the statute books, there seemed little chance that a donors' conference would be convened to decide how much foreign aid should be allotted and how it would be distributed.


Now European Union officials say the conference may meet in early March.


The legislation provided some cause for optimism at a time of mounting political turmoil whipped up by hard-line nationalist prime minister Ljupco Georgievski who seems bent on a new round of ethnic conflict. Georgievski has been plainly warned that his policies could jeopardise the arrival of Western aid.


The devolution law covers budgeting, municipal planning, education, health


care, public services, culture and welfare. Albanians sought more control over their affairs in the areas where they represent the majority.


Albanian parties blocked the proceedings after deputies from Macedonian parties submitted dozens of obstructive amendments to the original draft. Many of these were aimed at a clause granting municipalities the right to merge - a step Macedonian deputies said would eventually lead to "federalisation" or "cantonisation".


Other Macedonian amendments challenged the proposed devolution of health care and education on grounds that these services would collapse because no local funding existed.


Marathon mediation by EU special representative Alain le Roy brought the parties to compromise. The deadlock was broken after Albanian parties dropped their demand for municipalities to merge (they will be allowed to form joint administrative bodies instead) and agreed that health care funding should remain in the hands of the central authorities.


The assembly passed the bill by a two-thirds of majority, the margin now required for all measures relating to ethnic minority rights. Only hours after it was approved on January 24, the EU`s foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived in the capital to meet top officials and oversee the implementation of the peace process.


"I think it (the new law) is a very important achievement and I am very pleased to see it has been approved," Solana told reporters on arrival.


He announced that the preparatory work for a donors' conference would start immediately. And in a clear rebuke to Prime Minister Georgievski, he added, "The conference will go ahead on the understanding that the behaviour of the government is going to be compatible with it."


Analysts agreed that Solana's message "to go all the way to the end of the


(implementation) process" was a warning to Georgievski over his latest


extremist outbursts. Last week's resignation of the government's moderate vice-president, Dosta Dimovska, had raised fears that Georgievski and the hawkish interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, might use special forces to re-ignite the conflict.


At the time, an unnamed NATO source quoted by the Belgrade-based Beta News Agency said Georgievski seemed prepared to provoke a new crisis in order to stay in power and distract the public's attention away from the devastated economy and growing corruption.


Macedonia, one of Europe's poorest countries with nearly 40 per cent unemployed, badly needs foreign aid. EU officials say the donor's conference will most probably take place in early March.


The government expects financial assistance to cover the balance of payments deficit, the increased costs for the municipalities, as well as the reconstruction of demolished property. Local officials say they initially expect 90 million US dollars from the donors.


Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.


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