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Macedonia: Move to Break Decentralisation Impasse

Ruling parties hope foreigners will take responsibility - and blame - for tying last knot in Ohrid deal.
By Nevena Angelovska

Macedonia’s governing Social Democrats and Albanian coalition partners meet on June 18 to try and resolve sharp differences over controversial decentralisation laws, which the country has to implement as part of the Ohrid peace deal.

For weeks, the SDSM and the Albanian-led Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, have failed to break the logjam over the vexed issue of new municipal boundaries in the country and the status of the capital, Skopje.

The decentralisation package is the last, crucial component of the Ohrid deal and the only one promising tangible benefits for both ethnic Macedonians and the country’s large Albanian minority.

This is because it will reverse the centralisation of power in the country, which many say has stifled initiative, emasculated local authorities and alienated people from what is seen as a distant bureaucracy.

The decentralisation laws will shift authority and control over a range of services including schools, health, construction, local economic development and some taxes from central government to local authorities.

But, as ever in Macedonia, the debate has ignited powerful ethnic tensions, as Macedonians and Albanians argue over which of the beefed-up local authorities they will be in a position to dominate.

The new territorial reorganisation proposes to reduce the existing 123 municipalities to just over 70.

The key question is which municipalities will have to be merged, and which predominantly Macedonian municipalities will - as a result - become part of mainly Albanian authorities.

About 40 municipalities have already staged local referendums against the draft proposals and although the votes are not binding, they illustrate the strength of resistance among Macedonians to the new planned territorial division.

Analysts say that the crisis has deepened as a result of the need of all parties to appear tough in the run-up to local elections in October.

With no one wanting to seem to give in months before the polls, the government wants to push as much responsibility for unpopular decisions on the international community. “This is just a pre-election show,” Vladimir Jovanovski, of Forum magazine, told IWPR.

He said the SDSM and DUI had probably already reached a deal on the new municipal boundaries “but are creating an atmosphere in which a third party must be involved, so they can duck responsibility”.

Iso Rusi, editor of the Albanian weekly Lobi, says the governing coalition has a deliberate strategy of drawing in outside arbitration, “Once they do, they can transfer their guilt [to them] and present the laws to the public as a solution imposed by the international community.”

The prime minister, Hari Kostov, has already hinted that international mediation may be needed to end the stalemate. “The [Ohrid] peace deal envisages international facilitation over territorial boundaries,” Kostov said.

Whether or not they have reached a private arrangement, in public both the Macedonian and the Albanian parties have taken a firm line.

The SDSM has refused to merge mainly Albanian municipalities into Kicevo and Struga, in south-west Macedonia, as this would change them from Macedonian to Albanian-majority districts.

The DUI has insisted on the change, as the new Albanian majority in the enlarged authority would then gain control of local institutions that will suddenly enjoy far more power than before.

Instead, the SDSM has offered to agree to Skopje becoming an officially bilingual city. “Either Skopje becomes bilingual or Kicevo and Struga become predominantly Albanian,” Kostov said.

The proposed bilingual status of Skopje has provoked an especially fierce public debate, as many Macedonians feel that changes to such a sensitive site as the capital constitute one concession too many.

According to the present constitution, amended after the 2001 Ohrid deal, minorities can seek bilingual status for their municipality if they make up over 20 per cent of the local population. It means official documents must be printed in both languages, street signs are bilingual and translations are provided in city council sessions.

For the DUI, Kicevo and Struga are a done deal, after the first phase of negotiation a few months ago, when the SDSM agreed to make those municipalities predominantly Albanian.

According to Ivica Bocevski, an expert on local government, the latest attempt to draw in foreign arbitration is part of a pattern of behaviour that has become increasingly pronounced since the Ohrid peace deal.

“Whenever an international mediator presents a solution that the Macedonian side is pushing for, it becomes more acceptable for Albanians if it comes from outside, and vice versa,” he said.

Whether the European Union wants to get involved in another internal Macedonian political quarrel is far from certain, however.

The EU office in Skopje on June 16 said if the government requested it, the special EU representative, Soren Jesen Pettersen, (now appointed to head the UN mission in Kosovo), could attend talks between the parties as a neutral observer - although Pettersen had stated earlier that he believed a deal was already close.

“I cannot even imagine there will not be an agreement,” he said. “We have seen this before when discussing key elements of the Ohrid peace deal. Everybody starts by taking rigid positions so that in the end they reach a compromise.”

Privately, some western diplomats in Skopje are complaining that the government needs to start taking difficult decisions on its own and without relying on international meditation.

“It is time for the government to accept some responsibility,” one told IWPR. “It does not leave a good impression if you are asking for EU membership but at the same time cannot resolve matters on your own.”

Macedonia applied for EU membership in mid-March and is awaiting a questionnaire from the European Commission.

Brussels has repeatedly reminded the government that decentralisation was a key condition before Macedonia’s aspirations to candidate status could even be considered.

Vladimir Jovanovski agrees relying on international mediation once again will have a negative impact on the country’s image, underlining the extent to which Macedonia cannot manage without foreign advice. However, he also believed that once the issue was closed, the overall effect would be positive.

“We are talking about language and about municipal boundaries - the very issues that in my opinion were the causes of the crisis in 2001,” he said. “Once these issues are resolved, the job is done.”

Nevena Angelovska is a journalist with the monthly magazine Forum.

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