'Progress and Pessimism as Macedonia Peace Plan Moves Forward'

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WOLFGANG KUMM/AFP

German and French leaders discuss NATO's Macedonia mission

TIME.com: Macedonia's parliament voted Thursday to begin debating the constitutional changes on which the peace process depends. Does this mean the process is now on track?

Andrew Purvis: Things are certainly on track, although the vote was no great surprise — everyone expected that it would go through. There was extensive politicking during the debate, and attempts by the legislators to play to their constituences. And, of course, the vote isn't that significant in itself. It keeps the process on track, but this vote was simply over whether to debate changing the constitution to give ethnic-Albanians greater rights. Enacting the changes agreed in Western brokered peace talks requires three votes before the end of September, and the third one is the trickiest, which is to actually approve the specific changes to the Macedonian constitution agreed in the talks.

Are tensions easing on the ground?

The second round of weapons collection begins tomorrow, so the process is moving on and in a limited way things are looking hopeful. On the ground, distrust between the communities is profound, and there hasn't been any improvement in terms of relations between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians. There have been attacks on Albanian businesses in Skopje in recent weeks, and there's no sign of an imminent return home by people displaced in the fighting. The Albanians, in particular, are pretty pessimistic that this is real peace and that problems are now solved.

And, presumably, the Macedonians are forced to accept the deal despite their reluctance, because they've proved unable to defeat the rebels by military means. If they went to a full-scale war, the outcome would still likely be some form of partition, which the Macedonians are desperate to avoidů

I think that's true. But there are still plenty of hard-liners in the government who would like to try and resolve this by force. It's clear they're unlikely to succeed, and you just have to look at how they managed over the past six months to see that. It may have been a recognition of the grim alternatives that actually persuaded many of the hard-liners to vote for the deal today.

How about on the Albanian side?

Well they have nothing to lose by accepting this agreement. If the war was indeed launched simply to improve the lot of the average Albanian in Macedonia, they're on track to get everything they wanted. But it will be interesting to see whether the National Liberation Army, or armed Albanian groups, disappear as the process goes forward. Because if they stick around and keep causing trouble, it will be clear that their agenda was related more to a "Greater Albania" project than to constitutional reform.

Observers had been pessimistic on the prospects for NATO's peace mission a couple of weeks ago. Is the outlook now more bullish?

Not really. NATO set itself some fairly easy objectives in overseeing a limited disarmament, and those objectives are being achieved. But the real test comes after September 26, the date of parliament's final vote on the constitutional changes. One question is whether European monitors will be deployed in the hills in sufficient numbers to build the necessary confidence in the local population. The monitors will also require protection by some sort of extraction force, so some form of international security presence will be necessary in conflict areas beyond the scope of NATO's 30-day mission. Also, there's a question of whether the weapons collection is completed before or after the vote.

The deeper question is whether there's any real hope that these two communities can be reintegrated in the future. Despite the security presence, things are unlikely to get back to normal any time soon. Right now it would take very little to trigger a return to the levels of fighting we saw a few weeks ago. Despite the peace process, there's still small arms fire every night. There's also the issue of how much restraint the Macedonian security forces will show after the disarmament is completed. The recent Human Rights Watch report on incidents last March showed how the police can be quite undisciplined in their approach.

NATO's mission is going well within the limits it defined for itself. But the pessimism is over the larger question of whether what is being done now is going to solve the problem in Macedonia.