Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonians Threaten Revolt Over Decentralisation

Street protests calling for a plebiscite on laws that Macedonians say grant too much to Albanians have brought ethnic tensions to boiling point.
By Tamara Causidis

While parliament debates a controversial law on new municipal boundaries, opponents who say it concedes too much to Macedonia's Albanian minority this week claimed they had gathered more than 90,000 signatures aimed at forcing the government to hold a referendum on the issue.

Legal experts say that if the opposition collects 150,000 signatures - the figure stipulated in law as the number needed to oblige the authorities to call such a vote - the government will have to go ahead with a poll.

They will have to do so by August 23, however, as the law says those calling for a referendum have a maximum of six months to collect the minimum number of signatures; the six-month period expires on the aforementioned date.

The outcome of the vote will be delays to the process of decentralisation - a key part of the 2001 Ohrid agreement that ended an ethnic Albanian armed revolt - and the possibility of more referendums and protests to come, intensifying ethnic tension and mistrust.

Most analysts agree ethnic tensions have not been so severe since 2001, when Albanian guerrillas launched their insurgency demanding greater civil rights. The six-month conflict ended with a western-brokered peace deal that conceded to many of their demands.

But the last, crucial part of the Ohrid deal, laws on decentralisation, which are seen as a key condition for the country's ambitions to join the EU and NATO, have brought to light popular anger among the Macedonians about the peace deal's provisions.

On July 26, thousands of Macedonians stood for hours in pouring rain in front of the parliament in Skopje protesting against proposed new municipal boundaries, which will see mainly Albanian communities merged into municipalities dominated until now by Macedonians.

The Macedonian critics of the new laws say the moves to grant greater powers to local authorities over health, education, some taxes and local economic development, will enable Albanians to quietly "ethnically cleanse" the districts under their control.

Anger has focused on a clutch of Macedonian-majority towns that stand to be merged into larger Albanian-majority districts, which Macedonians fear will then lose their former character.

One flashpoint is Struga, in south-west Macedonia, where Macedonian protesters on July 29 attacked the headquarters of the ruling Social Democrats, trapping a government minister who had been sent to calm tensions for hours inside a building. More than 40 people were injured in the clashes between police and the crowd.

Another grievance centres on the future status of the capital. Skopje is to become bilingual, with street signs and documents in both languages. There’s irritation over the fact that two Albanian villages will be incorporated into the city to boost the number of Albanians and make Skopje eligible for bilingual status.

The peace deal stipulates that a minority language can only be made an official one where an ethnic minority comprises more than 20 per cent of the population. At present, Albanians make up 15.3 per cent of Skopje's population but with the merger of these two villages, that figure will rise to 21 per cent.

Defence Minister Vlado Buckovski, a key player in the negotiations over the deal, said although it was clear that ethnic tensions in the country had not dissipated over the past few years, it was too late now to renege on the decentralisation laws.

“We now see that the efforts we made to boost trust between the communities in the period since the crisis have not been enough to heal all the wounds,” he said.

But he added that decentralisation was still a step that needed to be taken. "In four years this will probably seem ridiculous," he said, referring to the current furore. "Right now, it is something we have to do."

Analysts say the explosion of popular discontent stems partly from the way the government and its coalition partners conducted their talks over more than 40 days, with much hard bargaining between Macedonian and Albanian representatives.

Mirjana Maleska, an expert on ethnic relations, told IWPR that the protracted haggling had accentuated problems. “The way the government negotiated on this issue caused chaos and ethnic tensions even were they did not exist before, such as in Struga, where local people feel betrayed,” she said.

Even before the government had reached a final agreement on the new boundaries, opponents had staged 41 municipal referendums all over the country against the proposal. The government did not take them seriously, however.

Maleska says a new, nationwide poll may be inevitable, but is unlikely to achieve anything. "I'm afraid a referendum cannot bring much good but it seems the Macedonians have no choice," she said. "They have their backs against the wall."

Trifun Kostovski, an independent parliamentary deputy who supports a plebiscite, says that it may be the only way to force the government to change its course, adding that it has missed the main objective of decentralisation by allowing the debate to focus on ethnicity.

"With this proposal, the government is creating a bi-national state and so destroying the concept of Macedonia as a multi-ethnic state, which will only worsen ethnic relations," Kostovski said.

The opposition parties endorse this view. Several parties, led by the nationalist VMRO-DMNE, along with various NGOs last week adopted a declaration condemning the proposals. "The national ethnic structure is being artificially changed [in a way] that could only jeopardise inter-ethnic relations," the declaration said.

They urged people to support the referendum initiative, launched by a diaspora association called the Macedonian World Congress, led by Todor Petrov.

"The only constitutional mechanism to stop this law is a state level referendum," said Petrov, who runs the Skopje-based association, aimed at promoting the interests of Macedonians at home and abroad. "I believe we will collect enough votes for one."

Legal experts say that if the opposition collects the 150,000 signatures needed by the August 23 deadline, the parliament will have no choice but to announce a plebiscite. “If a referendum is successful and over 50 per cent vote against the law, parliament will not be able to pass the proposed law,” said Renata Deskoska, a law professor at Skopje University. “If already adopted, it will have to be withdrawn.”

However, even the initiative for a referendum, regardless of the outcome, has already severely damaged ethnic relations, deepening the gulf between Macedonia’s two main communities. Moreover, the Macedonian call for a referendum has met an echo among Albanians who are threatening to organise a counter-referendum.

Vladimir Milcin, director of the Open Society Institute in Skopje, told IWPR that a vote could open up an alarming scenario.

"In this referendum, Albanians will not participate," he said. "They will make their response in a counter-referendum that could open up a process of destabilisation and make way for a real division of the country."

Milcin added that the present initiative was "a very dangerous and irresponsible game" and the work of people "who think they can profit from the frustrations of the Macedonians. While screaming against the possible division of the country they are de facto dividing it".

Analyst Ferid Muhic has a similar view. "Unlike Israel’s concrete walls, we are building walls of stupidity," he said. "Every delay [to the decentralisation plan] will only worsen the situation."

The ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, led by Ali Ahmeti, which is part of the government, has also warned of what it calls a pattern of referendum and counter-referendum.

"This is not an appropriate moment for such an initiative, as it will plunge the country into an endless cycle of similar initiatives to collect signatures in both communities," Ahmeti said.

Ahmeti, a former guerrilla chief, has repeatedly reassured Macedonians that he opposes any division of the country. “Macedonia is our country, my homeland and together we will build the true values that lead us towards Europe," he said recently, in an open letter.

Attempts to renegotiate the terms of the deal are unlikely to win support from abroad. The international community has already given full support for the government’s package, repeating that the laws are a condition for progress on Macedonia`s ambitions to join the EU and NATO.

Diplomatic sources warned that a plebiscite - "though a legitimate democratic right," as one put it - will stall the decentralisation process and move the country further away from the EU.

But voices urging calm have to struggle to make themselves heard against the background of popular agitation, in which many ordinary people have been caught up.

“The Albanians are really pushing it. Macedonians will not accept becoming a minority in their own country,” said Nikola, 45, from Skopje. “Macedonians will not stay to live in municipalities where Albanians are in control for the Albanians have shown in the past and especially in 2001 that they have a hidden agenda - a Greater Albania."

On the other side of town, Muhamed, 26, an Albanian, said anti-Albanian prejudice was all that lay behind Macedonian opposition to the new territorial boundaries. "The main problem is simply that we are Albanians," he said. “What this revolt shows is that the Macedonians never really accepted the peace deal.”

“The way the Macedonians react about Struga one would think that somebody was planning literally to take Struga and move it out of Macedonia,” Gzim Ostreni, vice-president of the DUI, commented. "This law will not make any dramatic changes.”

The next days will be crucial, as the municipal boundaries bills have to be adopted by parliament by an August 7 deadline if local elections are to go ahead as planned on October 17. If parliament fails to meet the first deadline, local elections may also have to be postponed.

Some analysts say that the government is already showing signs of panic. Government members have already hinted that they doubt the validity of the signatures that have been collected.

“The referendum initiative is making them nervous,” agreed Pande Lazarevski, an analyst with the Institute for sociological, legal and political research in Skopje.

Tamara Causidis is a journalist with Radio Free Europe in Skopje.

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