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Macedonia's Constitutional Changes Will Increase Albanian Rights - 2001-11-16


Macedonia's parliament has adopted a series of constitutional changes that will increase the rights of the Balkan country's Albanian minority in an effort to avoid civil war. Friday's approval has ended weeks of uncertainly and tensions.

After nearly seven months of fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian gunmen that ended with a peace accord on August 13, politicians now hope that Friday's adopted constitutional changes will have a stabilizing effect on the political situation and life in general.

Macedonia's ethnically divided Parliament first voted separately on each of the 15 amendments, ending a legislative process that dragged on for weeks as rival politicians quarreled over language enhancing the status of the country's estimated 600,000 ethnic Albanians.

In a second session following immediately afterwards, the chamber voted overwhelmingly in favor of formally amending the constitution as a whole.

The vote was 94 against 13 with two abstentions. The special hour chosen for the vote - just after midnight Thursday local time - was seen as an effort to avoid a repeat of violent nationalist protests outside parliament, and reduce publicity for a peace accord which analysts describe as widely unpopular among many Macedonians.

Macedonia's new constitution is seen as a breakthrough for the ethnic Albanian community in the impoverished, land locked former Yugoslav republic. The constitution will decentralize power, and grant ethnic Albanians jobs in public service, especially in police forces, reflecting their nearly one-third share of the country's two million people.

It will also allow limited official use of the Albanian language, require two-thirds support from Albanian lawmakers for legislation affecting civil rights, and remove references in the constitution that imply minorities are second class citizens.

The reforms were a crucial part of the peace plan, which was engineered by European Union and U.S. diplomats in an effort to end the fifth ethnic war on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Western diplomats now hope that with a new constitution the ethnic Albanian gunmen will be less inclined to start new battles and that desperately needed foreign aid can arrive to help Macedonia recover from ethnic strife.

As part of the peace plan, the ethnic Albanian fighters have been offered an amnesty, although officials have made it clear they will persecute those responsible for war crimes. In addition the chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, Carla del Ponte, is expected to travel to Macedonia next week, in an effort to investigate alleged atrocities committed by both Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian guerilla's.

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