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Macedonian Peace Deal in Jeopardy

Hardliners on both sides of the conflict are close to torpedoing the latest peace talks.
By Ana Petruseva

One hour after signing a controversial peace agreement with leaders of the minority Albanian population, hard-line premier Ljupco Georgievski announced the launch of a military offensive against ethnic Albanian fighters hiding in the hills around Tetovo in north-west Macedonia.

The reversal in government policy came on the day that National Liberation Army, NLA, rebels attacked a military convoy west of the capital, Skopje, killing 10 soldiers and injuring three. The operation was the bloodiest episode since the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, brokered an uneasy cease-fire a month ago. Analysts said the attack came in retaliation for the shooting one day earlier of five alleged NLA members in the Albanian quarter in Skopje.

As news of the ambush spread, demonstrators in Prilep, the central Macedonian town home to several of the families of the killed Macedonian soldiers, set fire to a mosque and six Muslim-owned shops. Following Georgievski's announcement, ethnic Macedonians in Skopje smashed Albanian shop windows, in spite of a curfew.

Yet until the very last moment, it seemed that killings by both sides in the dispute had failed to disrupt the 12-day peace talks in the lakeside resort of Ohrid, which closed last night with a tentative agreement. The peace accord IS due to be signed on August 13 by the presidents of the four main Macedonian and Albanian parties, but still needs to be ratified by parliament.

The deal provides for wider use of the Albanian language, the recruitment of more Albanians into the police force, greater recognition of Islam and Catholicism in the constitution and steps towards improving living standards for Albanians.

Even if the Ohrid peace talks survived the violence, there remains no guarantee that the outcome will be accepted by parliament. The most crucial factor is the vote of Macedonia's two largest parties, the Social-Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM, and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE, headed by Prime Minister Georgievski.

SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE occupy key portfolios in Macedonia's coalition government. SDSM controls the ministries of defence and foreign affairs, while VMRO-DPMNE has the premiership and the ministry of interior. Since the crisis began in February, the parties have taken opposite positions on how to resolve it.

VMRO-DPMNE controls 46 seats in the 120-seat assembly and the SDSM a further 27. But any alteration in the constitution requires approval by a two-thirds majority. This would be difficult to achieve without the two parties' views on the issue converging. A further 25 seats are occupied by ethnic Albanian deputies.

Furthermore, the NLA, which did not take part in the Ohrid negotiations, is required to lay down its arms before NATO honours its pledge to deploy a peacekeeping force of 3,500 troops in Macedonia. This is seems unlikely to happen after yesterday's escalation.

Indeed, some Macedonian politicians rule out even a debate over the Ohrid terms. "As long as there are occupied territories," said parliamentary president Stojan Andov in a National Day speech on August 2, "there won't be any debate on an agreement in parliament."

Andov leads the tiny Liberal Party, but would have played a critical role in coordinating the new procedures required for this unique debate, as well as scheduling the relevant parliamentary sessions.

The most vocal politician calling for a military response to the NLA is the prime minister himself. Even as he was negotiating the agreement with Albanian representatives at Ohrid, he insisted that no deal could be reached with "Albanian terrorists in the hills". He said recently that "signing an agreement while there are still occupied territories would be a disgrace for Macedonia".

But analysts say that Georgievski is equally concerned about his grasp on power, especially if constitutional amendments making concessions to Albanians are passed by parliament. Early elections are scheduled for the beginning of next year. According to opinion polls, neither Georgievski nor his party stand a chance of winning.

Georgievski's most loyal follower is Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who publicly backed his announcement for an all-out offensive against the NLA. A long-time resident of Croatia, Boskovski fought on the Croat side during the Serbian war and enjoyed close ties with Agim Ceku, commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps. In May, the KPC denied any connection with the NLA forces operating in Macedonia.

Opposed to Georgievski's hard-line position were President Boris Trajkovski and the SDSM, headed by former president Branko Crvenkovski and Defence Minister Vladimir Buckovski. Trajkovski was VMRO-DPMNE's candidate for president in the 1999 election. But at least until last night, Trajkovski and the SDSM agreed that political negotiations were the first step towards defusing the Albanian rebellion.

Trajkovski had so far remained aloof from the party wrangling, but he has come under intense pressure from VMRO-DPMNE loyalists to support a military offensive.

Former president Branko Crvenkovski was perhaps the most intriguing Macedonian attending the Ohrid talks. Crvenkovski is a long-standing rival of Georgievski, personality as well politically. While it is clear that he wants to return to the political limelight, his chief obstacle is how to do it without being denounced as a "traitor to Macedonia".

For six years as president, he sat alongside ethnic Albanians in government, earning nothing but vilification from VMRO-DPMNE, then a radical nationalist party. In the past two and a half years, however, VMRO-DPMNE was in coalition with the ethnic Albanian parties. The SDSM regularly denounced it for making concessions and "rotten deals" with Albanians secessionists.

Though a moderate, doubts lingered about Crvenkovski's ability to stick to the terms of any signed agreement that might have emerged from the Ohrid talks.

"It is time that we heard the truth about the crisis," Crvenkovski said recently - without explaining precisely what it is he believes "the Macedonian people need to know". But he did refer to the ongoing tensions between President Trajkovski and VMRO-DPMNE which, he said, were contributing to the insecurity in Macedonia.

In the absence of any more detailed information, Macedonians devised a number of conspiracy theories about the "real" causes of the conflict. Opinion polls by Skopje's Forum-Centre for Strategic Research and Documentation suggest a large proportion of ethnic Macedonians think the West is actively siding with the NLA in the conflict. For evidence, they site the fact that most of the fighters and their weapons enter Macedonia from Kosovo.

Indeed, last night the president and prime minister appeared at last to have found common ground when they accused NATO of failing to uphold the truce it had brokered between the NLA and the security forces, and said the western military alliance was "losing credibility" in Macedonia.

Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.

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