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Comment: Territorial Proposals Safeguard Unity

Protesters have got it all wrong when they say the new local authority boundaries are paving the way to partition.
By Vlado Buckovski

As Macedonia’s parliament starts to debate the package of decentralisation laws, the opposition parties are protesting that the changes will lead to a federal, or cantonal, state.

The law that foresees cutting the current 123 municipalities to 80 has met particular resistance from Macedonian opposition ranks.

They claim the main criteria used for deciding the boundaries of the new, enlarged local authorities was the ethnic principle.

They say the implementation of the new laws will gradually lead to federalisation and eventually even to Macedonia’s division.

They also claim that ethnic Macedonians will be forced to move from those areas coming under an Albanian-majority local council.

All these claims are absolutely groundless and unacceptable. The new territorial organisation was done according to the same objective criteria that have been applied in other European countries.

Far from paving the road to partition, the new system will help preserve and guarantee Macedonia’s unitary character. Decentralisation will secure stability, unity, economic development and Macedonia’s faster integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.

The country has, in fact, now entered the most crucial and politically sensitive phase of the implementation of the Ohrid peace accord, which ended the ethnic conflict that wracked the country in 2001.

This accord foresaw that one year after a national census was undertaken, the country’s municipal boundaries would be revised. We must now fulfill this obligation, as the Ohrid agreement has become part of our constitution and our laws.

It has taken the various parties in Macedonia’s coalition government a long time to reach a consensus on decentralisation, and especially on the law concerning new municipal boundaries.

Negotiations were difficult and slow. Despite all the progress made since the 2001 crisis, a degree of ethnic mistrust surfaced once more, making an agreed solution more difficult.

The fact that the parties in the end reached a deal shows there are political forces in Macedonia strong enough to reach compromises even on issues as tough as new territorial organisation.

The main goal of decentralisation is to increase the competences of local authorities in key areas and bring these authorities closer to people.

Decentralising power will mark a significant step in the business of strengthening democracy, as it will give people a more direct influence on the decision-making process in important issues related to their lives and jobs.

At the same time, it will increase the power of local authorities over urban and rural planning, education, health, economic development, social security, finance, sports and culture.

While the opposition claims the new municipal boundaries were drawn up on ethnic criteria, the basic goal was in fact to enable the new municipalities to function efficiently.

The criteria used were not ethnic but geographical, the existing infrastructure of the areas concerned and their economic and institutional capacity.

The opposition parties say that it is unacceptable for some municipalities, where Macedonians were majority, such as Struga, to be merged with Albanian villages into predominantly Albanian municipalities.

In fact, the plans for Struga involve no more than restoring the borders used for 30 years until the town’s boundaries were changed in 1996. In that earlier period, when Albanians comprised the majority, there were no great problems.

In any case, the peace deal guarantees Macedonians living in areas where they are the minority protection on the lines of the so-called Badinter mechanism.

This mechanism means local councils cannot make any decisions affecting the basic rights of a minority without the consent of half the local representatives of that minority.

In addition, the opposition has protested against the plan to merge some municipalities into the capital, raising the percentage of Albanians in Skopje above the 20 per cent threshold required to make Albanian an official local language.

But these municipalities were all part of the capital before the boundaries were changed in 1996, and they belong there. Besides, if the Ohrid peace deal foresees Albanian as a second official language in the country, why should it not be the case in Skopje?

Under the new territorial organisation, 95 per cent of Macedonia’s Albanians will live in municipalities where Albanian is an official language. That will boost the process of integrating Albanians into society and make them feel equal citizens, which is in everyone’s interest.

The new laws will grant both communities equal rights but also require an equal share of the obligations involved in preserving a multi-ethnic society.

Under the Ohrid peace deal, the major Albanian parties committed themselves to supporting a unitary, democratic and multi-ethnic Macedonia in which all people are equal, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

In the forthcoming period, Albanian representatives in those areas where they are the majority will have to show they will protect the rights of Macedonians and other ethnic groups, just as Macedonians will have to do.

Macedonians should not be afraid of living in communities where Albanians comprise the majority. If that is the case, a joint life in Macedonia will become impossible, as the same could apply for Albanians – they, too, may not want to live in areas where Macedonians are the majority.

The government’s proposals are now before parliament and I hope they will be adopted. International support for this key part of the peace deal has already come from the EU’s Council of Minister as well as from EU`s high representative for common foreign and security policy Javier Solana and the NATO secretary-general, Jaap De Hoop Sheffer.

The adoption of these laws will present a major step forward in our effort to build a democratic, multi-ethnic and prosperous state, which will soon be fully integrated into the family of European democracies.

Vlado Buckovski is Macedonia`s defence minister and vice-president of the ruling Social Democratic Alliance.

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