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Peace Accord

August 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: For more on the situation in Macedonia, we get three views. Vasil Babamov is president of the Macedonian American Friendship Association. Ilir Zherka is president of the National Albanian American Council. And Daniel Serwer is director of the Balkin program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Gentlemen, welcome. Daniel Serwer, will this agreement hold?

DANIEL SERWER: Hard to tell, Gwen. I think it’s an agreement that is difficult to implement. There are extremists on both sides who will try to undermine it, but it’s better than not having an agreement. There will be a real need for international support in implementing it.

GWEN IFILL: Now, in order for these NATO troops to come in and disarm the Albanian rebels, which is part of this agreement, there are a couple of hurdles which have to be crossed first, aren’t there?

DANIEL SERWER: Well, they’re saying they want a durable cease-fire and they’re saying they want a clear indication of willingness to turn in arms. It seems to me that NATO will help make that cease-fire durable. So far as the willingness to turn in arms is concerned, I find it difficult to believe that a lot of arms are going to be turned in within 30 days. I think a NATO presence of considerably longer duration is needed.

GWEN IFILL: Now, even after this agreement was initialed but before it was formally signed there was still violence going on. There were still attacks going on even though there was supposed to be kind of a cease-fire in effect or at least the hopes of one. What reason do we have to believe that this cease-fire can be made durable?

DANIEL SERWER: We don’t have a lot of reason. What we know is that there are people on both sides who want to make it durable. The question is whether they really control the situation. And there are certainly extremists who want to undermine the agreement. It’s not at all guaranteed that this is going to work.

GWEN IFILL: Ilir Zherka, why did the Albanians agree to this? What do they have to gain?

ILIR ZHERKA: I think this offers the real chance for significant reforms in Macedonia, reforms that will make Macedonian society of equal citizens. Up until now Albanians have been second-class citizens. They haven’t enjoyed the same rights as Macedonians. The Albanians for the last decade — since the independence of Macedonia — have been pressing for the reforms that are represented in this agreement: Greater local control, the use of the Albanian language as an official language, changes to the preamble that basically discriminated against Albanians; consensual democracy in the parliament; and a number of other changes that if implemented are significant.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the people who signed onto this agreement? There were Albanian rebels who weren’t present for the negotiations and didn’t sign on, which, it seems to me, might be kind of a hole in the logic.

ILIR ZHERKA: Well, the political leaders were at the negotiating table and they signed the agreement, but they have been talking to the National Liberation Army as have internationals. So I think that the NLA has bought off and joined the negotiations. On Friday the political spokesperson endorsed the agreement, said that the rebels will disarm. And my understanding is they’re now working on a disarmament agreement and an amnesty agreement and maybe within the next day or so we might see it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Serwer, very pessimistic about the chance that this agreement can hold. What do you think?

DANIEL SERWER: Well, I think if there’s the will, it will hold. What we’ve seen on the Macedonian government side is not necessarily the will in terms of the government, the prime minister and the interior minister just a few days ago said that the answer to the conflict is a stronger military response, which is not what the president of Macedonia has been saying and certainly not what the international folks on the ground have been saying as well.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s turn to Mr. Babamov and maybe ask you to respond to that. Where is the Macedonian government in this? What do they have to gain by this peace agreement holding, and can it hold?

VASIL BABAMOV: The Macedonian government can gain stability and peace in Macedonia, which have not been existing for six months, and the Macedonian government has a record of supporting democracy since its formation, the democratic rights of the citizens in Macedonia have been developing pretty well for the last ten years and the Albanians have already had quite advanced minority rights in Macedonia by Balkan standards, probably by far the best minority rights and by European standards very highly rated minority rights. The Macedonian government will go along with this, I’m pretty confident, as long as there is a good indication of respect for the cease-fire and a meaningful disarmament. However, I’m not very hopeful that either of those will happen. Every cease-fire in the past have been broken immediately by the Albanian rebels or terrorists, depending on which side of the fence you sit. And I don’t expect anything different. We have seen disarmaments like this in Kosovo. They have been essentially a farce. The few non-working Kalashnikov get turned in and the arms just get shifted across the completely powerless border into Kosovo and everything goes on as before.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Zherka just said that Albanians are treated as second-class citizens. You just said they have rights, which are all out of proportion to their percentage as a minority in Macedonia. Which is so?

VASIL BABAMOV: Well, I said that they do have minority rights, which are very advanced by any standards. Their minority rights are far greater than those of the minorities in the U.S. They have quarters for entering the universities. Five out of the fifteen cabinet members in the government are Albanian. Five out of the fifteen deputy cabinet members in the cabinet are Albanian. The percentage of Albanian deputies in the parliament is almost the same as that of the general population. No minority in the surrounding countries or in the U.S. has that kind of record of participation that close to the percentage in the population in the government or in the parliament. So it’s… The minority rights have been quite advanced. Every minority wants more rights. They have been just developing in the last ten years since the formation of Macedonia, they have been gaining more and more rights. There is willingness among the population to grant more rights as long as they don’t lead to break-up of the country and to ethnic cleansing in the areas that are predominantly Albanian, which we have seen lately in every village that has been taken over by the national… by the NLA.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Daniel Serwer, we just saw two people talk about the same set of facts in totally opposite ways. What is driving this violence? Is it ethnic? Is it political? What is driving this?

DANIEL SERWER: I think the violence is actually driven by some very nasty people who are criminals. And they came in to Macedonia from Kosovo. Some of them had their origins in Macedonia, but it’s being driven by a band of guerillas. But it’s found large political resonance inside Macedonia among the Albanians because they’ve been fighting for things for years without success. And they’ve found that this violence has helped to get them the kind of hearing they had looked for in the past through purely political means.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Zherka, you’ve heard that — what he just said, that this is what’s driving it. What’s your opinion about what is driving the violence?

ILIR ZHERKA: Well, I think Vasil’s comments are inconsistent with President Trajkovski’s comments who has in the past acknowledged that Albanians are discriminated against in Macedonia, the State Department has consistently documented systematic discrimination against Albanians. Macedonians have a bare majority in the country but they have over 95 percent and some ministries over 98 percent of the jobs there in a country where there’s high unemployment. The government job is the only one that’s out there. The discrimination goes way beyond just the workplace.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that NATO does have a role and will be sending 3500 troops in, does the United States have a special discreet role in driving for peace in this?

ILIR ZHERKA: I think so. You know, this peace negotiations was really going nowhere over the last few months. It took U.S. Special Envoy Jim Pardue to shake things up and bring the parties to the agreement, and this agreement really represents the U.S.’s role there. The US, after the agreement, has a very important role to play in terms of implementation, ensuring that the agreement is actually implemented, which won’t be easy.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babamov, does the U.S. have a role?

VASIL BABAMOV: Well, the U.S. has a role, the decisive role. The U.S. can make or break every agreement. First of all, I would like to correct Mr. Zherka on his statement that 98 percent of the government employees are ethnic Macedonians or non-Albanians. The percentage of Albanian in the government sector has gone from 3 percent during the formation, at the time of the formation of the Macedonian state to over 10 percent now and it keeps rising. The problem there is finding Albanians that are qualified to do the work that needs to be done. On the other hand, the key to the problem is in the United States. The problem to Macedonia has come from Kosovo where we have enormous amounts of arms and a surplus of highly trained fighters who have really nothing to do there and they have been coming over the border to Macedonia and causing unrest. And they have recruited some of the local population, much of that is essentially mercenary. They can pay the people and so on.

GWEN IFILL: I want to take time for a final question for Mr. Serwer. Do you think that Albanians and Macedonians will ever be able to live peacefully together?

DANIEL SERWER: Yes, I do. Citizens in Macedonia have not started fighting with each other. This has largely been a war of the Macedonian police and army against the guerillas. And I believe that with a lot of international support, a lot of hard work, Macedonia can be put back together again.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Thank you all very much for joining me.