SKOPJE, Macedonia — As this country's national unity government tries to cope with an ethnic Albanian guerrilla insurgency and its own fierce internal divisions, only severe foreign pressure and fear of a full-scale civil war keep it together.
The multiethnic government formed in mid-May is like a critically ill hospital patient, already on life support from the international community, said Arben Xhaferi, the country's leading ethnic Albanian politician.
"They are keeping us alive," he said, "pumping us with very powerful drugs."
In a fresh blow to the coalition, a government spokesman said Wednesday that Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski will call for a declaration of war against the rebels. The announcement came after five soldiers were killed in fighting near Tetovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian city in northwestern Macedonia.
The prime minister also demanded that leading ethnic Albanian politicians "state publicly what side they are on--the side of the murderers or the side of the state," spokesman Antonio Milososki said.
A state of war would give President Boris Trajkovski the power to rule by decree and appoint a government of his choosing, but the proposal does not appear to have the two-thirds approval it would need in parliament. The idea is also opposed by Western governments.
Coalition Members Fight for Advantage
Georgievski's proposals fit into a pattern of fierce infighting for advantage within the government.
The four main parties in the ruling coalition are split by two fault lines, either of which could bring the government's collapse at any time. One is the gulf between ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav politicians. The other is political rivalry dividing the two key parties representing each ethnic group, which is exacerbated by jockeying for advantage in parliamentary elections set for early next year.
Georgievski, a key Slav leader, suggested Sunday that because of the deadlock, elections should be moved up to September. "I do not see a big future for this coalition," he told the private A1 television network.
Macedonia has often been praised for its multiethnic democracy and its success until this year at avoiding the ethnic warfare that racked many other areas of the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s.
The unity government was formed, under intense international pressure, with the idea that all parties would share the political price of necessary compromises. But as the focus turns toward elections, hopes for some kind of grand reform package seem to be collapsing into bickering.
Meanwhile, the guerrillas, who call themselves the National Liberation Army, say they are simply fighting for equal rights for ethnic Albanians, while Macedonian Slav leaders say the rebellion is aimed at splitting the country. At least a quarter of the nation's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian.
Trajkovski and Georgievski, with strong support from international leaders such as George Robertson, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have rejected any direct negotiations with the guerrillas, whom they describe as terrorists.
While providing financial aid and diplomatic support for a tough line against the rebels, Washington and European capitals have pushed for quick reforms that they hope might undermine support for the armed uprising.
At the core of the conflict in Macedonia is whether this should be a country that exists first of all for its Macedonian Slav majority, with Macedonian as the only official language, or whether it should be a country seen as belonging equally to ethnic Albanians.
In the case of the second option, favored by almost all ethnic Albanians, the argument is then made that Albanian should become a second official language and that neither Macedonian Slavs as a group nor the Macedonian Orthodox Church should have a privileged constitutional status, as each does now.
The preamble to the constitution declares that the country is "a national state of the [ethnic] Macedonian people" but that citizens from other ethnic groups should have "full civic equality."
One proposed reform would change the preamble to read: "Macedonia is a state of [ethnic] Macedonians, and of Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Roma [Gypsies] and Vlachs [a small ethnic group]." This change is vehemently opposed even by many relatively liberal Macedonian Slavs, yet doesn't go far enough to satisfy ethnic Albanian demands.
The core of the Macedonian Slavs' argument is that to remain a unified state, the country must have only one official language. Many also say that ethnic Albanians' demands for greater rights are only a cover for their real desire to split the country, and that because of this no concessions will ever be enough.
Dispute Bears on Employment, Education
The constitutional dispute is important because it relates to employment in government and state-run industries of people who are fluent only in Albanian, or to issues such as the use of taxes to fund Albanian-language university education.