Comment: Decentralisation Plan: Right Way Forward for Now

There is little substance to the charge that the proposals will increase ethnic segregation.

Comment: Decentralisation Plan: Right Way Forward for Now

There is little substance to the charge that the proposals will increase ethnic segregation.

Many Macedonians feel uncertain about the proposed changes to their country's local government map. In a country whose very name still has not been accepted by the international community, and which looks over its shoulder at the unresolved status of neighbouring Kosovo, a certain degree of nervousness is understandable. But in our latest briefing paper, Macedonia: Make or Break (published on 3 August), ICG argues that these fears are misplaced.


Those who claim that the proposed new map of local government in Macedonia in some way entrenches ethnic division in the country have not examined the current situation closely enough. Macedonia inherited 34 units of local government when it became independent in 1992. In 1996, they were broken down into 123 smaller units. The current proposals would merge a number of these so as to leave 80 municipalities.


The process of redrawing administrative or electoral boundaries is always vulnerable to politicisation, and can generate huge controversy. A look at the municipal map of Belgium, or at congressional districts in the United States, demonstrates that even long-established democracies have great difficulty in tackling these issues, especially when questions of ethnicity and minority rights are at stake. It is not surprising, therefore, that the current proposals in Macedonia have their critics.


What is a bit more surprising is that the proposals stand up very well to a close examination, especially to the charge that they increase ethnic segregation. Of course, it's difficult to prove such a vague claim anyway. But if one considers the proportion of municipalities, before and after the proposed revision, which have a population of over 90 per cent of one ethnicity, the differences are surprisingly little.


To be specific, 48 of the present 123 municipalities are more than 90 per cent Macedonian, 16 are more than 90 per cent Albanian, and one, Plasnica, is 97 per cent Turkish. Although the list includes Kisela Voda, the largest sub-municipality of Skopje, most of these are fairly small rural units; their total population is only 37 per cent of that of the state.


The proposed changes actually reduce the number of such municipalities drastically, to 30 of the proposed 80, with 26 being over 90 per cent Macedonian, three over 90 per cent Albanian and Plasnica with its Turkish majority remaining unchanged; their total population is 32 per cent of that of the state as a whole. On this measure at least, the proposed changes will produce more ethnically diverse municipalities, rather than greater segregation.


If one goes down a step, to consider municipalities where there is a local majority of over 50 per cent, the picture is slightly different. Under the new proposals, 92 per cent of ethnic Macedonians, and 77 per cent of ethnic Albanians, would be living in municipalities where they formed a local majority. But at present 91 per cent of Macedonians and 70 per cent of Albanians live in such municipalities. It is not a very big change.


In fact, the big alteration to the map came in 1996; the old 34 municipalities were much more mixed. According to the 1994 figures, 14 of them had a Macedonian population of over 90 per cent (and none had such a high proportion of any other ethnic group), and these accounted for only 36 per cent of the country's total Macedonian population. Eighty-eight per cent of Macedonians and 45 per cent of Albanians then lived in municipalities where they were a local majority. Albanian opposition politicians in Macedonia have claimed that the proposed decentralisation is a return to the pre-1996 situation; that is clearly inaccurate.


In any case, it should not really matter. The biggest practical effect of having a local majority of one ethnicity rather than another will be on the identity of the mayor. If you happen to be the mayor of Struga, the largest town whose local majority will change from Macedonian to Albanian, obviously this is a big deal.


The other key point of contention is the capital, Skopje, whose boundaries are to be extended to include two neighbouring largely Albanian districts in order to bring the proportion of ethnic Albanians over the magic 20 per cent threshold. This is clearly the result of a political decision to give the country's largest minority an enhanced status in the city. As in any country, delineating the boundary between capital and hinterland is a difficult political question.


But in any case, wherever you are in Macedonia, if you belong to an ethnic group which is over 20 per cent of the local population, you will have the right to address the local council in your own language, and the local council will have the same rights under the decentralisation legislation as any other local council - enhanced to include more responsibility for public services, urban and rural planning, environmental protection, local economic development, culture, local finances, education, social welfare, and health care. Your passport and citizenship will be unaffected, and nobody will be forced to move house - to describe the proposed changes as "ethnic cleansing" is a colossal exaggeration, and a huge insult to those who have been displaced from their homes in the Balkan conflicts since 1991.


It would have been better if the government had been more open to consultations with opposition parties and with the heads of existing municipalities. It would have been better if they had contracted out the drawing of the municipal boundaries to an independent commission of experts, including internationals. But I don't want to be in the position of the fictional Irishman who was asked for directions and replied, "If I were going there, I wouldn't start from here!" We are where we are, and the decentralisation proposals are the right way forward for now.


Nicholas Whyte is Europe Program Director of the International Crisis Group.


Macedonia, Kosovo
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