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Macedonia Hoping for International Aid - 2001-10-16

The government of Macedonia still hopes it will receive a large new infusion of aid by the end of the year from the international community. But the donors - particularly the European Union - are insisting that before the aid spigot is opened, the parliament in Skopje must implement pledges made two months ago to grant increased powers to the country's Albanian minority.

The good news is that even after three months of sporadic fighting a real civil war hasn't yet erupted in this mountainous southern Balkan land. The bad news is that even with the Albanian rebels disbanded and three thousand weapons destroyed, the August 13 agreement to give more rights to the Albanian minority has not been implemented.

This was to have been the week that Macedonia's good behavior in accepting the framework agreement would be rewarded with aid pledges of up to 100 million dollars. But the EU, furious at the foot dragging and obstructionism of the Macedonians, canceled the donors conference. Brenda Pearson is a specialist on Macedonia at the Brussels based research group,International Crisis Group. She says the aid is badly needed. "Macedonia is absolutely dependent on foreign assistance to alleviate the economic crisis that the country is undergoing," she said. "And there is probably is going to be a lot of inflationary pressure on the currency, the denar, as well, which could make things much worse."

The aid money would be used to close a widening budget deficit and provide jobs for an economy that is expected to shrink four percent this year. Biswajit Bannerjee is the International Monetary Fund official responsible for Macedonia. Just back from Skopje, Mr. Bannerjee worries about declining export revenues and a worsening economy. "The problem with donor support is that it is linked to conditions on the political side, ratification of the peace framework agreement, which involves constitutional amendments and also the passage of the law on local self-government," says Mr. Bannerjee. "The indications that we have received from the European Commission and some other donors is that until these two steps have been completed, they're unlikely to consider a new date for a donors conference."

Experts say even with the delays the aid conference could be rescheduled and could still take place before December if parliament acts within the next two weeks. Christiaan Poortman of the World Bank, which would co-chair the donors conference, says the aid meeting would address critical economic concerns. "The conference would cover a variety of needs. First of all balance of payments needs, short-term balance of payments financing. Secondly, costs associated with material destruction during the conflict," he said. "And thirdly, at least an initial requirement for the implementation of the framework agreement, which as you know has a number of facets which if they are implemented will contain a certain cost."

Brenda Pearson of the International Crisis Group says the now delayed aid package has become a sensitive political issue in Macedonia. "That relates to an issue of good faith. The Macedonian government believes that in some ways it has been betrayed. That the donors had never really intended to help them through this [crisis]. That this was something intended to help the Albanian community more than themselves," she says. "So again we've taken a pretty straight forward concept and turned it into a nationalist lens, through which many people are viewing it."

Few experts are willing to predict the future of Macedonia, a fragile country of two-million where the Albanian minority comprises about a third of the population. A NATO force is in the country providing welcome stability. But people remain tense and the ethnic divide has not yet narrowed.