Macedonia's parliament, by 91 votes in the 120 seat legislature, has cleared the first hurdle to ratifying a peace plan. But, one Albanian leader says enacting the deal is still no guarantee of peace in the Balkan country.
After a protracted five-day debate, Macedonia's lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a Western-backed peace agreement.
A procedural measure got the necessary two-thirds majority to put the deal up for full consideration.
NATO's disarmament mission in Macedonia is expected to now collect another 1,000 weapons from ethnic-Albanian rebels.
But Arben Xhaferi, president of the Democratic Party of Albanians, says he is worried that there are no guarantees that the deal he helped negotiate will be implemented.
He says that after ethnic-Albanian rebels hand over their weapons to NATO, civilians could be at risk. When government security forces return to rebel-held territory, Mr. Xhaferi says nothing will stop them from running roughshod over local residents.
One of the provisions of the agreement is the creation of a multi-ethnic police force by hiring 1,000 new ethnic-Albanian officers. But Mr. Xhaferi says the new recruits will not be in place for at least five months while they are being trained in the United States.
He says a planned deployment of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe might never get off the ground if its 55-member states cannot agree on the mission.
Mr. Xhaferi says he fears clashes between civilians and police could re-ignite ethnic fighting. "We will have war again," he predicts, saying it could be worse than before, "with fighting not for rights, but for territory."
The best way to prevent a return to the past six-months of conflict, Mr. Xhaferi says, is to extend NATO's stay in Macedonia. He envisions a force with an expanded mandate to provide security across a broad swath of the north and west of the country.
Macedonians have rejected that out of hand, calling it a recipe for partitioning the state they call their homeland. Mr. Xhaferi counters that their objections are just a mask for attempts to avoid implementing the peace accord.
He said, "There is some kind of linkage of the Macedonian refusal of NATO and the Russian veto in the OSCE. It is a tendency to re-establish ethnic sovereignty over the whole territory of Macedonia."
Mr. Xhaferi denied that Albanians are trying to use NATO as their private army. "There is a picture that we are asking NATO to fight for Albanian interests, but it is not true," he says.
Mr. Xhaferi made no secret of what the alternative to a new international presence would be. "We cannot wait like a lamb," he said, "we have the possibility to organize the Albanians to defend themselves."