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Comment: Protests May Destroy Ohrid Deal

Opposition marshalling forces of nationalist hysteria in desperate attempt to regain power.
By Ibrahim Mehmeti

Macedonia’s opposition parties are trying to use anti-Albanian sentiment to return to power, riding on the backs of a wave of nationalist euphoria. So far, the damage is not irreparable but the pattern that has been set threatens to push the country backwards.

The opposition protests against the country’s planned new territorial organisation on two main grounds.

The first is that the proposals will erect ethnic barriers, which endanger Macedonia’s very survival. The second is that Macedonia’s unitary character is being jeopardised.

Analysis of the proposals suggests the results on the ground will be the opposite. Far from throwing up walls, it will destroy the barriers created in the past as a result of faulty policies.

The opposition claims that merging purely Albanian communities into bigger municipalities with a mixed ethnic population will create divisions.

The absurdity of their stance on this issue is especially evident in the most contested cases of all, involving the towns of Struga, Kicevo and Skopje.

Here the opposition wants Albanians and Macedonians to stay divided in smaller communities instead of being mixed in larger municipalities, as the government proposes.

It is ridiculous to say that the government’s attempt to improve the conditions for everyday communication between the communities will lead to ethnic division.

Yet, the roadblocks set up all over the country, along with protests and the threats to blockade parliament, suggest that this issue, for all its illogicality, has become a priority for Macedonians.

In an attempt to calm these tensions, Ali Ahmeti, leader of the main Albanian party in government, has issued a message to Macedonians assuring them that Albanians have no intention of dividing the country. For the first time, he has also held a press conference under a Macedonian flag. It had little impact on the hysteria, however.

Though the revolt is, in fact, targeting Albanian demands for equal representation in local authorities and the use of the Albanian language at local level, the opposition has been careful to insist its campaign is based on broader concerns for the country’s future.

In reality, they are appealing to popular anti-Albanian sentiment so that they can improve their own standing and use the climate of nationalist euphoria to win back power.

At the same time, they are careful not to portray themselves as Albano-phobes, knowing they will need an Albanian coalition partner if they ever do regain power.

Though the opposition is trying to convince Albanians that their actions are not directed against them, most Albanians perceive the fact that people are trying to prevent or limit the use of their language as an insult.

Albanians see this as proof that despite all declarations on multi-ethnicity, many Macedonians do not really want to live on equal terms with Albanians.

Albanians who were prepared to built trust and cooperate with Macedonians interpret this revolt against the use of their language as a sign that Macedonians want to tear down the bridges built by the Ohrid peace deal.

The scale of the reaction against the attempt to mix the two communities is also a serious sign that the business of implementing the peace deal has contained serious flaws.

One was the behaviour of the ruling parties who - before they reached an agreement - often came out in public with much the same standpoints that the opposition is now using in its protests. During the talks, the government changed its position but it has failed to explain these changes to ordinary people.

The Macedonian people, therefore, are now only adopting the same positions that the government once held but has since abandoned. This is a tried and tested pattern in Macedonia’s ethnic politics, but this time the government does not seem able to resolve the problem.

It is significant also that most of the media and public opinion-makers have taken the opposition’s side. The Macedonian Academy of Science and Arts, for example, has spoken out against the territorial proposal.

This is the same academy that in 2001 proposed the division of the whole country on ethnic lines, which everyone except the hard-line prime minister, Ljupco Georgievski, then rejected.

Despite the absurdity of their arguments, the Macedonian opposition seems determined to go through with its war against “ethnic walls”, even if it destroys all the links that have been built up in the meantime between the communities.

The opposition is even prepared to use a referendum to reject the new law. Although it may be difficult to collect the 150,000 signatures needed to force such a vote, it is quite possible a plebiscite may indeed take place.

If that happens and the referendum is successful, in practice this will mean the rejection of the Ohrid peace deal.

The Albanian partners in government have already warned that if a referendum goes ahead, a similar response will follow from the Albanian side.

So, the epilogue of the plebiscite issue, and the Albanian response it triggers, will determine the fate of the Ohrid deal.

At this point, the ultimate fate of Ohrid - the first, mutually beneficial deal reached between Macedonians and Albanians - is difficult to foretell. But if this formula for a multi-ethnic Macedonia does not survive, it may open a new tragic chapter in the history of the Balkans.

Ibrahim Mehmeti is a political analyst and editor in chief of the Skopje-based periodical Multi-ethnic forum.

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