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Comment: Macedonia Referendum: Step Backwards on Road to EU

Country’s European integration hopes in jeopardy if progress on decentralisation stalls.
By IWPR

Academics often divide countries up into security providers and security consumers. A security provider has a surplus of security, enabling it to contribute to security regionally; a security consumer, on the other hand, only drags itself and its neighbours down. The security consumer is, regionally speaking, part of the problem, while the security provider is part of the solution.


After the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Balkans’ security account went into a deep red deficit and a series of conflicts forced the security providers in Europe and America to inject massive security capital.


Slovenia is now an EU and NATO member, and Croatia has made impressive progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. But in Serbia amd Montenegro and Kosovo the security account is unfortunately still in the red, and Bosnia also has some way to go before it can be considered a viable, stable, liberal democratic state.


As for Macedonia, this country was hailed during the Balkan conflicts as a glimmer of hope in the ethnic havoc, showing it was possible for many ethnic groups to live together within one state – if not in perfect harmony, then at least in peaceful co-existence.


With the “20/20 vision” that hindsight gives, it is clear the 1990s were not effectively used to make Macedonia a real security provider. Reforms of the economy and judiciary – to mention a few important areas – were unfortunately not implemented. And, in many ways, Macedonia slowly declined. In 1996, with the creation of 124 small, unsustainable and powerless municipalities, it became one of Europe’s most centralised states. The constitutional rights of minorities declined compared with the old Yugoslav constitution. And privatisation, rather than bringing new investments, stripped the state of its assets.


In 2001, Macedonia’s positive image really cracked. It became obvious to everyone that the country’s ethnic problems had not been solved, but had merely been kept under a lid and had been fuelled by the general decline of the country.


A short period of fighting ended with the Ohrid agreement, which also aimed to rectify problems that had not been dealt with in the years following independence. The Framework Agreement, FA, was an ambitious document. Among the important issues it dealt with were equitable representation and decentralisation.


Regarding equitable representation, some progress has since been made. Increased equitable representation within the uniformed police force is one area that has really showed why the principle is so important. Although policing in Macedonia still needs to be reformed further - the reason the EU and the OSCE continue to engage so heavily - ethnically mixed policing has markedly decreased tensions.


But there is still much to be done in terms of promoting equitable representation, and Macedonia’s difficult economic situation and bloated public sector continue to make things difficult. It is not easy to increase representation of the country’s various communities in the public administration when that administration as a whole needs to be downsized.


This brings us to decentralisation, perhaps the most important area of reform dealt with in the FA and certainly the most challenging. The aim of decentralisation is to create real local democracy and to improve the delivery of services to all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin.


The need for decentralisation in Macedonia is a reflection of the fact that it is today one of the most centralised states in Europe – with the way in which the public sector is organised failing to give citizens a say in what happens in their local area – as well as the fact that there is a clear need for improved public service delivery.


Implemented decentralisation, including municipal reorganisation, is a necessary ingredient for EU and NATO accession. Unfortunately, planning has so-far been less than adequate and the process is not moving fast enough – the law on Local Self Government, outlining the overall framework for decentralisation, was adopted in January 2002, more than two and a half years ago and has yet to be implemented.


Delays caused by the upcoming referendum on plans to re-draw Macedonia’s municipal boundaries should be used to speed up preparations for decentralisation.


Since the first phase of decentralisation has already been delayed beyond the planned start date of January 1, 2005, this extra time must be used fruitfully.


The referendum is not an excuse to sit back and wait. Popular discontent with the new municipal structure should be a strong incentive for the government to make sure that decentralisation works.


The referendum itself is a step away from EU membership, the quest for which Macedonia embarked on when signing the FA.


This is true for four reasons. Firstly, the referendum, if successful, may result in a serious setback for Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. All capitals in the Euro-Atlantic area will have to wonder whether Macedonia can and will move towards modernity and Europeanisation. Secondly, the political confusion may mean that serious problems with the economy cannot be tackled. Thirdly, reforms of other fundamental areas, including the judiciary, may be put on hold. And finally, there is real risk that the overall security situation might again become more uncertain.


Many find it hard to believe that only three years ago an ethnic armed conflict took place in Macedonia. The progress made thus far has in many ways been impressive. But much remains to be done, and the referendum – having already seriously delayed the decentralisation process and thereby the implementation of the FA, which is a prerequisite for Euro-Atlantic integration – has not made progress easier.


Many people say Macedonia is so far from EU integration that another few months are unlikely to make much difference. And, while it should not be forgotten that candidate status in itself brings concrete security and economic benefits, it is true that full-blown integration is some way off. But NATO membership is not. The progress of military reforms mean that potential alliance membership, with all the security guarantees that come with it, could be only a few years away.


Furthermore, the referendum comes at a critical time for the country’s EU aspirations. The set of questions on the basis of which the European Commission will form its recommendations regarding EU member states will be delivered by EC president Prodi to Macedonia on October 1. An unfavourable assessment by the commission would postpone the date when Macedonia can start serious pre-accession talks for many years.


The EU has a lot to offer Macedonia. Apart from the prospect of increased living standards and improved economy, there is the chance to belong to the most advanced liberal democratic community of states in the world, and to be a security provider. Macedonia is in Europe, and via its history and culture it is firmly part of Europe, but only via the EU can it be part of the modern, prosperous Europe it aspires to be.


The EU, together with the rest of the international community, also remains firmly committed to Macedonia’s territorial integrity - let there be no doubt about that. For the EU, Macedonia, and no other entity, is the potential member state. Ideas floated in the press about a so-called greater Albania, and other questions concerning the viability and survivability of this country, directly challenge the policy of the union.


These are defining times for the Western Balkans. Bosnia will in 2005 mark the 10th anniversary of the Dayton peace accords. A sustainable solution still has to found in Kosovo. And Serbia and Montenegro and Albania still need to shift into a higher gear to move away from economic and political stagnation.


In much of the world the word “Balkanisation” is synonymous with war, ethnic hatred and division. I hope that in the coming years this word will take on a new meaning and that when people use it, it will be to show that the region’s multi-ethnic societies – in spite of tough challenges – were able to move into a better, prosperous future.


Macedonia is fortunate enough to have a choice. It can opt to return to the past, continue the vicious circle and be a security consumer. Or it can break the circle, embark on the hard but rewarding road to Europe and become a security provider. The choice is simple: be part of the solution or part of the problem.


The EU has invested a lot in the political stability of Macedonia and the country has, a mere three years after an armed ethnic conflict, become a living example in the Western Balkans that ethnic communities can live peacefully together. We cannot afford to lose this investment, not only for the sake of Macedonia and the other Western Balkan countries, but for the sake of the rest of Europe.


Michael Sahlin is Special Representative of the European Union in Skopje.


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