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Comment: Macedonians Turn Away From Ethnic Divisions

Referendum result shows public have no appetite for reopening old disputes.
By Ana Petruseva

There seems little doubt that America’s decision to recognise Macedonia under its constitutional name played a major role in the failure of Sunday’s referendum, which would have seen the reversal of a law that would result in more power for the Albanian minority at regional level.

Macedonians largely ignored the nationalist-inspired plebiscite, as only 26 per cent of eligible voters showed up at the November 7 polls, well short of the 50 per cent threshold needed.

The outcome was a defeat for nationalist attempts to derail the reforms instituted since the ethnic conflict of 2001.


But it was not just the US decision, announced three days beforehand, that killed off the referendum.

Even without this diplomatic intervention, it was apparent that most voters planned to signal their approval of the multi-ethnic formula introduced under the Ohrid agreement that ended the fighting in August 2001, and their opposition to reviving old ethnic disputes.


The referendum about a law redrawing administrative boundaries within Macedonia, part of decentralisation package which see more power devolved to local government. Ethnic Albanians would become the majority in some merged municipalities. 

The legislation was passed in August 2004 at the Social Democrat-led government’s prompting, and is seen both as a crucial chapter in fulfilling the terms of the Ohrid peace deal, and a pre-condition for Macedonia’s application for European Union and NATO membership.


The referendum has been a burning issue for months, jeopardising the fragile relations between ethnic communities, and raising the dual spectres of Macedonian partition and a “greater Albania”.


The vote was backed by the main opposition force, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, in company with several marginal parties. VMRO-DPME upped the stakes with dire warnings that the new law would effectively split the country in two by according the Albanians majority status in some regions.


However, the vote showed that most people rejected that argument, as well as the idea that Macedonians will be forced to flee areas that come under the control of Albanian-led local authorities.

It also demonstrated that the majority did not wish to see the nationalists using the referendum to derail a deal which had already been approved by parliament.


While the terms reached at Ohrid are not greatly loved by many Macedonians, there is a growing acceptance that the peace deal has introduced a new, more positive dynamic to inter-ethnic relations.

Nationalism may not have disappeared, but people on both sides have accepted there is no alternative to a multi-ethnic society. The fact that the conflict in 2001 was relatively brief and casualties were limited helped this process.


The referendum campaign itself created more ethnic tension, and raised suspicions among the Albanian minority that Macedonians did not endorse a multi-ethnic society. Yet the low turnout showed that the majority among all communities do back Ohrid plan. 


That result should now prod the Albanians into proffering a hand of friendship, and showing Macedonians that they have no hidden agenda of secession. 


Although the bulk of the electorate recognised - and rejected – that the vote amounted to a power struggle in which certain politicians were seeking to ride back into power on a wave of nationalist sentiment, that does not mean that they were prepared to let the government off the hook entirely.


In the run-up to the plebiscite, opinion polls indicated that up to 60 per cent of the electorate intended to exercise their right to vote. This high figure suggests that people wanted to signal their anger to the ruling coalition that it had failed to communicate its proposals for local government restructuring to them properly.


The government urged voters to boycott the referendum, warning that a yes vote would be a serious setback to Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU and NATO.

The international community reinforced this line. High-profile officials including US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, European Commission president Romano Prodi and Britain’s Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane flew to Skopje bearing hard-hitting messages that rejecting decentralisation would turn back the clock.


Many local journalists and politicians condemned this as an unwarranted intrusion - but some analysts believe the result justified intervention by the international community, which has played a similar role in ensuring that earlier decisions linked to the Ohrid accord were pushed through.


Over the past year, Macedonia has faced numerous challenges. In late February, it lost its president, Boris Trajkovski, in a tragic accident. Two weeks later, neighbouring Kosovo exploded in violence. A month after that, a presidential election in Macedonia led to the government resigning as the prime minister took over as head of state.


Throughout these tumultuous events, including the latest referendum, the Macedonian people have displayed considerable maturity and an ambition to move forward towards the goals of political normality and economic prosperity.


Getting there is the next big challenge facing this small country. As Macedonia moves into a new phase, shedding at last its fundamental dilemmas about ethnic and political stability, and looking for a place in the EU membership queue, the government confronts the crucial task of economic and systemic reform.


Only when it reforms its judiciary, public sector, and impoverished economy will Macedonia finally be able to rid itself of the stereotypical image of a Balkan state permanently wracked by pointless tribal feuding, and so develop into a stable, prosperous democracy.

Ana Petruseva is IWPR’s project manager in Macedonia

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