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

Skopje Talks Survive PM Setback

Harsh words by the Macedonian prime minister nearly derail negotiations, as international mediators struggle to keep the dialogue on track.
By Saso Ordanoski

The peace process in Macedonia has been given another chance, after talks hit an impasse, and tough language appeared to presage renewed fighting.


With Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski dismissing plans by Western mediators as "brutal", and Albanian political leaders refusing more concessions and boycotting recent talks, the country seemed headed for a fresh outbreak of violence. But speaking on Thursday, July 19, President Boris Trajkovski said the parties had "reached a procedural agreement to continue with the dialogue."


Trajkovski and Western mediators appear to be trying to downplay expectations and lift the spectre of any ultimata, in order to keep negotiations on what is definitely a bumpy track. "If we do not reach an agreement today or tomorrow, it doesn't mean that there will be a war," Trajkovski said. "The citizens of the Republic of Macedonia do not want a war."


US special envoy Ambassador James Pardew concurred, insisting that negotiations are continuing and that there is no "D-Day" for reaching a final agreement.


"No, the talks are not broken down. They are continuing in Skopje," insisted US State Department Spokesmen Phillip T. Reeker, on July 19. "We are in touch with all sides."


Trajkovski's office confirmed that talks continued Friday, with separate meetings of Macedonian and Albanian experts, lead by Pardew and EU special envoy François Leotard.


The process appeared to have come completely off the rails mid-week, when Georgievski, leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, dismissed the proposals put forward by the mediators. All ethnic Macedonian parties similarly rejected the proposal.


"The offer by Mr. Pardew and Mr. Leotard represents a serious interference in the interior affairs of the country and they de facto mean federalization of Macedonia," he said. "Their text is brutal and with their cowboy style they are trying to break the institutions of the country."


One senior western diplomat close to the talks, speaking to IWPR on condition of anonymity, shared criticism of the tone of the international mediators. Deeming Pardew as "arrogant", the source claims that Pardew told western diplomats, "This is a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and Trajkovski will have to live with it".


"Although warned that the Macedonian side would not accept making Albanian a second official language, next to Macedonian, in the state, he seemed not to care," the source said.


With Albanian political leaders Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians and Imer Imeri of the Party for Democratic Prosperity boycotting talks on July 18 and 19, the process seemed at a breaking point - and fresh violence likely. Rumours of foreign mercenaries supporting Albanian fighters and reports of guns distributed to ethnic Macedonian civilians have raised fears that the next round of fighting could be the worst so far.


Following Georgievski's sharp remarks, top Western mediators NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson and EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana cancelled a visit - and responded with harsh words of their own.


"Mr. Georgievski's statement yesterday in reaction to the proposals of EU and US envoys in Skopje was an undignified response to the international efforts to assist in the search for a peaceful solution," they said in a joint statement, July 19.


A key feature of the latest proposals is partial recognition of Albanian as the country's second official language. The use of the Albanian language in Macedonia is already legally guaranteed within local government, the judiciary, education, culture and other parts of the society in all local communities where the Albanian minority represents a majority or where Albanians are in significant number.


In practical terms, the shift would be financially and practically extremely difficult to implement, as it would require the use of the language to be mandated in areas where ethnic Albanians do not live. But the two sides largely struggle over the issue as a political, rather than a pragmatic, matter, with Albanians seeing it as a potential validation of equal status within the country and Macedonians warning of "language federalisation".


Regarding police forces, Albanian mediators are insisting that the ethnic structure of local police reflect the ethnic mix of that local community - and that they be under the control of local authorities. Macedonians insist that police must be controlled by the central government - to avoid increased corruption as well as an ethnically divided force.


Branko Crvenkovski, a leader of the Socialist Democratic Union of Macedonia, one of the two major Macedonian parties and a former prime minister, said that the proposals put forward by the western mediators violate the unitary character of the state and from that aspect are unacceptable for our party".


For the moment, the parties are still talking. The latest problems in the negotiations come five months into the Macedonian crisis. The June 6 cease-fire reached through NATO mediation has largely held, despite almost daily small violations largely incited by Albanian extremists. If a political settlement can be reached, the plan is for a NATO "MFOR" mission of 3,000 largely British troops to disarm Albanian fighters.


As long as talks stay on track, hope remains that the parties may reach a settlement. But as they drag on, the risk also increases that the cease-fire could collapse, and open fighting could again break out.


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