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Macedonia Visit Shows Policy Shift Powell’s Trip A Sign of Increased U.S. Role in Balkans

By Robin Wright
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- SKOPJE, Macedonia

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell dove into the Balkans quagmire Thursday, helping to launch a new initiative to ease ethnic tensions in Macedonia -- and perhaps prevent a new Balkans war.

The mere involvement of the United States in this troubled former Yugoslav republic is a major shift, especially by an administration that has repeatedly resisted a high-profile role in the region and even eliminated the position of special envoy to the Balkans.

Officials here said U.S. support is crucial to the success of the initiative, which centers on bringing together five ethnic Albanian and Macedonian political parties to reform the country’s constitution.

Macedonia has witnessed the Balkans’ newest round of violence over the past two months, sparked by guerrillas demanding greater rights for the ethnic Albanian minority. Albanians make up at least a quarter of Macedonia’s 2 million people, but basic laws make Slavs the main nationality and Macedonian the official language.

Powell’s visit is considered a kind of stamp of approval that will prod the parties to act with speed. It also signals tangible support for the government of President Boris Trajkovski.

Ethnic Albanian rebels have claimed U.S. support for their separatist movement against the government, playing off NATO’s campaign against Yugoslavia for that country’s mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

But Powell’s high-profile talks with Trajkovski -- and later with the foreign ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and Yugoslavia who assembled here -- were a sign of the depth of U.S. commitment to a single, united Macedonia.

“You can be sure of the American support of your efforts, political support, economic support and military support,” Powell told the Macedonian leader during his first stab at Balkans diplomacy. Powell also extended an invitation to Trajkovski, a former Methodist minister and one of a new, younger generation of Balkan leaders, to visit President Bush in Washington on May 2.

In an interview, Trajkovski said a U.S. role would be critical to jump-starting the stalled process of reform and addressing Albanian demands. “We want more American involvement here. America has not a moral right but a moral obligation to be more involved” in Macedonia, he said.

Trajkovski also pledged to invigorate talks on constitutional changes. “We have to create effective democratic institutions. We have to strengthen affirmative action. We have to speed up this process ... so citizens find equal opportunities to reach their God-given potential,” he added.