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Referendum May Threaten Macedonian Stability

Macedonia could pay heavy price for controversial vote.
By Nevena Angelovska

An upcoming referendum in Macedonia on the redrawing of municipal boundaries threatens to plunge the country into political crisis, analysts warn.


A failed vote of confidence instigated against the ruling coalition by opposition parties over the weekend appeared to mark the unofficial start of the referendum campaign, due to begin formally on October 7.


The plebiscite itself, set for November 7, has been called to try and block government moves to reduce the number of municipalities from 123 to 80, which would result in ethnic Macedonians losing their majority status over the country’s large ethnic Albanian minority in some areas.


If the referendum is successful, it would delay decentralisation reforms vital to EU membership – but the very act of holding the ballot could provoke ethnic conflict, analysts warn.


Since over 50 per cent of Macedonia’s total electorate of 1.6 million need to turn out for the referendum to succeed, and since the ruling Macedonian and Albanian parties are leading a boycott, it seems likely that the vote will come to nothing anyway.


Parliament adopted a law defining new municipal boundaries in August as part of a decentralisation package, the last key component of the Ohrid peace deal that ended ethnic fighting in 2001 by granting greater civil rights to Albanians.


But the move rekindled the frustration that many Macedonians feel about concessions made to Albanians since the conflict. And a petition of 180,000 signatures - a significant figure in a country whose population is little more than 2 million – was drawn up in protest at the new law, forcing the government to accept a referendum on the matter.


“It is clear that we are entering into a political crisis because the entire energy of society is focused on the referendum,” Denko Maleski, an international law professor at Skopje university, told the A1 TV station.


Opposition parties, led by the nationalist VMRO, deny claims that the call for a referendum is a move against the Albanian minority.


“We support the peace deal and the process of decentralisation,” Vlatko Gjorcev, a VMRO official, told IWPR. “The referendum is not against the Ohrid deal but against the bad decisions of the coalition government.”


Fearing possible violent incidents during the vote, the government has asked the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, to send international monitors to observe the proceedings, a move which is usually reserved for parliamentary and presidential elections.


Gjorgji Ivanov, politics professor at Skopje university, told IWPR that the current situation has “opened the wounds of 2001 and raised questions over the peace deal that have brought us back to where we were”.


“Instead of putting it behind us we are again dealing with the same issues we thought we had managed to overcome,” he added.


And Radmila Sekerinska, vice premier for European integration, told IWPR that an opposition victory in the referendum could do further damage.


“If the referendum is successful it will annul all efforts to create a new quality in the inter-ethnic relations,” she told IWPR, underlining that Macedonia is currently in a very sensitive phase of the EU integration process.


In October, the EU commission is due to present Macedonia with 5,000 questions pertaining to its efforts to become a candidate country. Decentralisation reforms are vital to these ambitions and Brussels has warned that if the latest attempts at reform are blocked, that would certainly affect Macedonia’s prospects.


If opposition parties manage to block the change in municipal boundaries, the government will need to freeze the rest of its decentralisation plans, which were designed to fit the new system of 80 municipalities.


And according to the Macedonian constitution, if the majority of voters choose to stick with the current boundaries the law cannot be revised for another year, during which time decentralisation reforms would be stalled.


“The clock is ticking and the longer Macedonia waits to fulfill the needed criteria, the longer it will wait to enter the EU,” warned Sheena Thomson, a spokeswoman for the EU in Skopje.


Others say the process of organising the referendum itself will delay reforms, regardless of the outcome. Parliament has already twice postponed local elections, originally set to take place in October this year but now put off until late next March.


“In blunt terms it is going to delay the whole process of the reforms. The fact that it is happening delays everything for a couple of months,” said Thomson.


“This is a waste of time,” agreed Nazmi Maliqi of the Union of Albanian Intellectuals. “We will spend a lot of money and time on the referendum instead of concentrating on vital matters such as answering the questionnaire of the EU, and the implementation of the Ohrid peace deal.”


Decentralisation reforms are not the only thing to be held up by the referendum. Observers say Macedonia, with employment running at 40 per cent, really needs to concentrate its efforts on economic issues.


“In the current social crisis people are much more interested for their welfare rather than a referendum that some are using to get back in power,” said Maliqi, arguing that “all parties are involved in political marketing that does not help the stability of the country”.


Nevena Angelovska is a journalist with the Skopje-based monthly magazine Forum.