Comment: “Secretive, Unprincipled” Law Sows Public Distrust

If new law on municipal borders is simply pushed through parliament, it will undermine inter-community relations.

Comment: “Secretive, Unprincipled” Law Sows Public Distrust

If new law on municipal borders is simply pushed through parliament, it will undermine inter-community relations.

The new law on Macedonia’s internal municipal boundaries has provoked a stormy reaction from both the public and the opposition.

In the middle of the summer holidays, some 30,000 to 40,000 people recently stood in the middle of a rain storm in Skopje to support the united opposition, led by VMRO-DPMNE, in its protest against the proposed law.

We have not seen such a revolt on this scale for a long time in Macedonia, not even in earlier, much more difficult, moments of our country’s history.

It will do no good, therefore, for the government to go ahead with trying to force through a contested solution. If the new law is simply pushed through parliament, it will diminish the level of trust between the communities. It will also increase the risk that Macedonians will start to move out from some areas.

That Macedonia needs decentralisation is not a new idea. Plans for this were drawn up in 1999 and the process was supposed to be wrapped up in 2002. Then the events of 2001 occurred and the process was delayed.

But it is clear that the current government has lost its way with its proposed law on territorial organisation. Its decisions have been unprincipled and far from transparent.

As a party, VMRO entirely supports the implementation of the Ohrid peace deal [of which decentralisation is a key component] and it has actively participated in the process, in spite of our reservations on the provisions concerning disarmament and the issue of displaced and missing persons.

Our party supports the process of decentralisation and is one of the main supporters and initiators of the process of Macedonia’s integration into the European Union and NATO.

But we have a serious problem with the law on territorial organisation.

Firstly, the law is weak. For example, one of the supposed criteria is that each of the new, larger municipalities should contain a population of at least 5,000. In the proposal, however, 13 municipalities have less than this number. At the same time, more than 20 other ones are to be wiped off the map because they do not fulfil this condition.

Secondly, the business of changing local, municipal boundaries is supposed to be carried out with the consent of local authorities. But when some 41 municipalities held referendums showing local people do not want the proposed new boundaries, the government simply ignored them.

Thirdly, there is the issue of transparency. The government held talks on the new municipal boundaries for months, which did not involve the opposition and were well away from the public eye.

During those talks, the government repeatedly said that all decisions would be made on the basis of agreed criteria rather than ethnic demands. Once the negotiations were over, they admitted the solutions did contain an ethnic dimension – but said this was something they could not get away from.

The Ohrid peace deal stated clearly that no solutions should be made on the basis of ethnic criteria.

One example of the government’s handling of the talks, however, is the proposed merger of rural, mainly Albanian municipalities into the towns of Struga and Kicevo, which have a Macedonian majority.

As a result, we will end up with several huge, predominantly Albanian municipalities.

This kind of merger of five municipalities into one not only creates an opposite effect from the one intended – ie, one of centralisation - but also gives the public yet more reason for indignation, as the ethnic structure in these municipalities appears to have been changed artificially.

Until now, the people of Struga and Kicevo had no ethnic problems, not even during the 2001 conflict. Today, thanks to the government’s proposals, these two places are becoming hotspots, with daily protests, roadblocks and escalating violence.

Put simply, Struga has certain needs that are not compatible with those of the four rural municipalities that are now being merged into it.

Another concern is whether Macedonians will move out of the new predominantly Albanian municipalities. This is a trend we have already seen in previous decades. There is no history of Albanians leaving areas where Macedonians comprise the majority.

What guarantee can be given to the people of Struga and Kicevo that this trend will not continue, if they start to come under institutional pressure? Regardless of what politicians and the international community say, the people in these areas are afraid and do not want to accept this proposal.

If this law is adopted as it is, and the pattern of Macedonian emigration from certain areas continues, all hope of sustaining a multi-ethnic society in these communities will die. That was not the purpose of the Ohrid peace deal, or of the decentralisation process.

The behaviour of Ali Ahmeit’s Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, the government’s main Albanian partner, has been equally reprehensible.

Ahmeti’s almost fanatical determination to obtain the solutions he wants has boosted tensions and even raised questions about whether some radical Albanians harbour a hidden agenda.

The DUI especially fuelled tension with its demand for two rural Albanian municipalities to be included with the capital, boosting the Albanian percentage in Skopje to 20 per cent and ensuring that it gained bilingual status.

In the early days of the talks, government representatives categorically denied that Skopje would become officially bilingual. After 40 days of closed talks, the same people came out with the opposite and then tried to convince the public that it was the best possible solution, and one that would bring the country into Europe.

As a result the government has only worsened the situation and fuelled ethnic tensions. I believe that if this particular law is pushed through parliament it will, in fact, damage relations between the two communities.

It will also, as I said earlier, increase the risk of Macedonians leaving some areas. If Macedonians leave most of western Macedonia, this entire area will then become overwhelmingly Albanian.

Such a development would raise doubts in many minds about whether some Albanian radicals have a hidden agenda to start a new armed conflict, which could only end badly for Macedonia`s territorial integrity.

If the government does its work well, I believe Macedonia has a good chance of becoming an EU member within six to nine years and a full member of NATO in 2007.

At that point, ethnic tensions will cease to be a major issue. That is why it is important in the meantime that no risky decisions should be taken, or decisions made that undermine mutual trust.

After all, for decades the various communities in Macedonia have already shared, are sharing, and will continue to share, the same destiny and live together.

Nikola Gruevski is leader of Macedonia`s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE.

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