Ethnic Albanian negotiators have accepted a Western-backed political reform plan aimed at heading off civil war here, but their Macedonian Slav counterparts are balking on two key issues, Western diplomats said Saturday.
The dispute on these points--an official role for the Albanian language and selection of local police chiefs--could lead to a breakdown of the talks, said one of the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.
That would almost certainly mean the end of a 16-day-old cease-fire between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces.
The difference over making Albanian an official language, the diplomat said, is "a very narrow gap, but it's very deep."
Ethnic Albanian politicians have insisted that their language must be made official, while Macedonian Slav leaders have expressed fear that agreeing to this demand would set the stage for the breakup of the country along ethnic lines. Ethnic Albanians make up at least 25% of Macedonia's population of 2 million.
Macedonian Slav politicians engaged in the Western-mediated talks are also opposed to a proposal that municipal governments select their own police chiefs from a list of candidates chosen by the central government, the diplomat added. Police throughout the country would still be under central control, he stressed.
The diplomat said he believes it's still possible that an agreement will be reached soon despite fierce public criticism of the latest draft proposal last week by Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.
Georgievski charged that the Western-drafted plan accepts 95% of the demands of the ethnic Albanian insurgents and that Western mediators "are trying to break up the Macedonian state" with a proposal that amounts to "blatant violation of Macedonia's internal affairs."
The next day, Macedonia's leading ethnic Albanian politician, Arben Xhaferi, said that his side had given up 70% of its demands.
"Despite all the high-blown rhetoric of Wednesday and Thursday," the diplomat said, "there was no indication from the Macedonian side that they wanted these talks to end."
He said he strongly believes that if Macedonian Slav politicians agree to the reform plan, ethnic Albanian guerrilla leaders, who are not directly involved in the talks, will agree to a separate peace deal, including voluntary 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 if an agreement is reached.
NATO hasn't described what might happen to the guerrillas if a political reform deal is reached and they refuse to disarm, the diplomat said. But the rebels would have strong incentives to support a political agreement rather than torpedo it, he said.
"What do they get out of it?" the diplomat said. "They get no war. They get significant resolution of political issues that have been on the table a long time. They get reconstruction assistance. If the war reignites, the population that's most threatened is the Albanian population, because that's where the rebels are, and the guerrillas don't have the heavy weaponry the Macedonians have. [The rebels] would have to consider the potential damage to Albanian communities."
Another Western diplomat stressed that the current draft plan would bring "an improvement in the system here."
"It brings Albanians into the system," the first diplomat said. "The argument that the Macedonians are using is that it is divisive. We don't agree with that. . . . We did try to write this in a way that would be integrating and not segregating."
One of the key accomplishments of the negotiations so far, the second diplomat said, is an agreement between the two sides on procedures to give ethnic Albanian and other minority group representatives in parliament a stronger voice in legislation directly affecting ethnic issues or culture.