In another signal of Western powers' deepening involvement in strife-torn Macedonia, U.S. and European envoys presented the Balkan nation's politicians Saturday with a framework for constitutional reforms aimed at defusing ethnic conflict and reversing a slide toward civil war.
"It is the basis for further negotiations," European Union representative Francois Leotard told reporters in Skopje, the Macedonian capital. "Now we need to have reactions, comments and amendments to this document."
The plan, which is intended to create a political basis for ending an ethnic Albanian insurgency that erupted in February, was based on proposals drawn up recently by a French legal expert. Details were not released, but U.S. envoy James Pardew called it a "comprehensive framework." Among the issues it is believed to address are greater official use of the Albanian language and strengthening of local governments.
A Western-brokered truce between the guerrillas and Macedonian security forces took effect early Friday. It is meant to improve the atmosphere for ongoing negotiations within the multi-party and multiethnic government.
An army spokesman said troops exchanged fire overnight Friday with guerrillas who he said were trying to enter Macedonia from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. But otherwise, the truce appeared to be holding Saturday, with no daytime clashes and only sporadic gunfire reported at night.
Talks among Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian politicians based on the new proposal--which was drawn up after consultations with the two sides--are expected to start Monday.
If political leaders can reach agreement on constitutional reforms and other issues, guerrilla leaders will then be asked to agree to a peace deal and disarmament of their forces. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently approved a standby plan for deploying 3,000 alliance soldiers to help with that disarmament.
Meanwhile, the two main ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia released a list of the demands they intend to present in the upcoming talks.
The Democratic Party of Albanians and the Party for Democratic Prosperity clarified some of their positions but showed little movement toward compromise in the demands, which were published Saturday in Koha Ditore, a leading Albanian-language newspaper in Kosovo.
The two parties called for a peace conference outside Macedonia mediated by the United States and the European Union, deployment of NATO troops in Macedonia, revision of the constitution, an election within 60 days of an agreement and a census by the end of the year. They also demanded the creation of the post of vice president, to be filled by an ethnic Albanian, and proportional representation of ethnic groups in the army and police.
Ethnic Albanian factions have generally sought greater Western involvement in the Macedonian crisis in hopes that such involvement will boost their leverage in negotiations. Macedonian Slav leaders have opposed an international conference for similar reasons, including fears of being pressured into accepting constitutional changes that they say could lead toward separation of heavily ethnic Albanian regions from the rest of Macedonia.
Ethnic Albanian leaders have suggested, for example, that the constitution be revised to require that some legislative decisions be approved not just by a majority of the parliament but also by a majority of its ethnic Albanian members. Macedonian Slavs generally see that demand as a threat to national unity.
The heavily ethnic Albanian parts of the country are in the west and northwest, near Albania and Kosovo, which is a province of the main Yugoslav republic, Serbia, and is predominantly ethnic Albanian. The guerrillas say they are simply fighting for equal rights, but Macedonian Slav politicians charge that the rebels want to split the country.
Ethnic Albanians make up at least one-quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people. A new census could boost their influence because their numbers are believed to have grown significantly since the last formal count about a decade ago.