31, 2001 5:00pm ET
Macedonia's government began debate on reforming ethnic Albanian rights, despite protests from hundreds of Macedonians who say their leaders are selling out to NATO pressure.
|At issue for Macedonia's parliament is whether to change
the country's constitution to give greater rights to ethnic Albanians,
who represent 30 percent of the population.
Such a change would come in accordance with a NATO-backed peace deal signed August 13 between Macedonia and ethnic Albanian rebels. The rebels say they will disband if the reforms go through.
The changes include making Albanian the official second language in communities over 20 percent ethnic Albanian, increasing the number of ethnic Albanians in the country's police forces, and giving broader authority to local governments.
Earlier today, as many as 500 Macedonian protesters blocked entrances to the parliament in the capital of Skopje, forcing officials to delay the start of the body's session for six hours.
The protesters were led by Macedonians who have been forced to flee from their homes since the rebel uprising began. Scores of people have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced.
The group argued NATO is forcing Macedonians to give in to the demands of the ethnic Albanian rebels.
"We are not opposed to discussing more rights for [ethnic] Albanians," Straso Angelovski, an organizer of the demonstrations outside parliament, said. "We just don't want to do it at the barrel of a gun."
Once riot police cleared an entrance to the parliament building and the legislature's session was allowed to convene, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski pressed lawmakers to remain true to the peace accord.
"This agreement is not perfect, but no agreement is. It's the best we have at the moment and it has some very positive aspects," Trajkovski said, warning "the alternative is division and war ... a mass ethnic and civil war."
A two-thirds majority is needed to approve the start of the reforms. Only 80 members of the 120-seat legislature attended today's opening session -- the minimum number needed for approval.
Gjorgji Trendafilov, a spokesman for Macedonia's leading VMRO party, said his group of 47 legislators would vote in favor of beginning reform talks. That group, plus the 24 ethnic Albanians in the parliament, would be just a few people shy to approve the reforms.
Some 4,300 NATO troops have arrived in Macedonia over the past two weeks, more than the 3,500 originally scheduled to arrive. The NATO mission, which includes only weapons collection, is expected to finish on Sept. 26.