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Pressure Mounts for Macedonian Peace Talks
Macedonian security forces are battling Albanian extremists along the country's northern border, after driving them out of the hills around Tetovo.
The army launched a military offensive on March 28 in an area centred on the villages of Gracane, Brest, Malino Malo and Grosine, prompting ethnic Albanian opposition parties to once again suspend their participation in parliament.
With no sign of an end to the fighting, there's an urgent need for formal negotiations between ethnic Macedoninan and Albanian representatives. International pressure for such talks is growing by the day.
The fear is that the extremists are likely to gain in strength if the negotiations continue to be put on hold.
Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Albanian party in the ruling coalition, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, said on March 27 that he has only one month to convince his electorate that Albanian demands can be achieved through democratic and political processes. There's widespread speculation in the press that Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for foreign and security policy, may mediate in hoped for talks between the two communities.
Macedonian language press are not happy about the prospect, as they argue Solana's recent request for a change to the constitution would make him a partial mediator.
If and when negotiations eventually get under way, they are likely to focus on four issues. The primary Albanian demand is to elevate them from a minority to a nation in the constitution. They say their current status is one of the root causes of discrimination against their community.
Albanians have long contested the 1994 census according to which they make up 23 per cent of the population. Some international observers suggest that the next census scheduled for May could show the figure to be around ten per cent greater, strengthening the community's demand.
In addition to the Albanians, international officials have called for changes to the wording of the constitution, but they would prefer to redefine Macedonia as a democratic, pluralistic state, built on citizenship, so obviating the need for terms like ethnic or nation.
The second Albanian demand is that their language be made official - something many ethnic Macedonians refuse to countenance. At present, it may be granted such a status in municipalities where ethnic Albanians constitute a significant percentage of the population.
The third Albanian demand is for a greater degree of autonomy. They want their municipalities to have more powers and a bigger share of tax revenues to implement decisions.
Ethnic Macedonians seem willing to accommodate this demand and improvements are already under way. Parliament is considering a revision of a local self-government legislation.
The draft law, which is supported by the Council of Europe, provides for significant decentralisation of power and for independent budget management at municipal level.
"We have to think of ways in which power of the government can be decentralised and the local governments be strengthened," said President Trajkovski recently.
The Albanians' fourth demand is for members of their community to be better represented in state institutions.
Progress has been made in recent years. In 1993, only three per cent of all public employees were Albanian. Through various reforms and positive discrimination quotas, this figure has increased to ten per cent.
The relatively low representation in state services is not merely due to discrimination, but also the lack of qualified Albanian candidates. Negotiations are therefore expected to address state provision of vocational training for the community.
All four demands relate to recognition of Albanians as equal to ethnic Macedonians and to the former's effective participation in decision-making at all levels of society.
Significant accommodation of these demands is likely to play an important role in conflict prevention, particularly if the negotiations are initiated in the very near future before the two communities suffer further polarisation.
As Macedonia suffers from political instability, it will probably be important for all the major democratically elected parties to be involved in the negotiations, in order to ensure long-lasting support for any decisions that are made.
Karina Johansen is a political science researcher in Skopje.
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