Talks aimed at reversing Macedonia's drift toward civil war appeared close to deadlock Thursday over several core issues, including the structure of police forces and whether Albanian should be made an official language.
With Macedonian Slav politicians bitterly criticizing Western mediation efforts, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana postponed a scheduled Thursday visit here that diplomats had hoped would help seal a deal.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski charged Wednesday that Western-backed revisions to a proposal for political reforms meant that the document now incorporates 95% of the demands of an ethnic Albanian insurgency launched in February in northwestern Macedonia. Western mediators "are trying to break up the Macedonian state" with a proposal that marks "blatant violation of Macedonia's internal affairs," Georgievski charged.
"I disagree profoundly with this statement of the prime minister, and I think it's a very unfair statement," Solana responded Thursday. "We are trying to help the country with the best of our intentions. We cannot forget, it's a country that wants to be part of European institutions and also part of NATO."
Macedonia's leading ethnic Albanian politician, Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, on Thursday characterized the situation as "very serious."
"We have already made a compromise by giving up 70% of our demands," Xhaferi said. "I don't think we can give up any more now."
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.
But if no agreement is reached, a truce launched earlier this month could break down, with renewed fighting between rebel and Macedonian security forces.
The guerrillas say they are simply fighting for greater ethnic Albanian rights after peaceful political efforts failed to win gains they considered sufficient. Macedonian Slav leaders charge that the rebels seek to split the country.
Ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia lie in the west and northwest, close to Albania and Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. Kosovo, with its mainly ethnic Albanian population, has served as a base for rebels despite growing efforts by NATO-led peacekeepers there to cut off cross-border supply routes.
While details of the negotiations and of revisions to the draft proposal for reforms have not been officially released, one point of dispute is believed to be the degree of decentralization of police power. In general, ethnic Albanians favor more decentralization, so that local governments and police forces in areas where they predominate can reflect their wishes.
But Macedonian Slav politicians stress the importance of a "unitary" state, and fear that decentralized police forces could fall under the control of today's guerrillas.
As for the language issue, Macedonian newspapers have reported that the proposal that so angered Georgievski would make the language of any minority constituting more than 20% of Macedonia's population an official language. Ethnic Albanians make up at least one-quarter of the population, so this is a way to declare Albanian an official language alongside Macedonian.
No other minority in Macedonia composes more than 20% of the population.
Under the proposal, as reported in the Macedonian media, ethnic Albanians would gain the right for all official documents to be issued in Albanian as well as Macedonian. They would have the right to use Albanian in communications with all institutions of the national government, and officials would need to respond in both Albanian and Macedonian. Laws would be published in both languages, and Cabinet ministers could use either language in their work.
President Boris Trajkovski said talks would continue today at the "expert," or technical, level. "It is obvious that the issues, the subjects we need to talk about, will be the use of language, the responsibility of local police and adopting constitutional [revisions]," Trajkovski said.