Macedonia: Not out of the Woods Yet
Europe Briefing Nº37
25 Feb 2005
Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski and representatives of his government and the opposition converged in Brussels on 14 February 2005 to hand over Macedonia's response to the European Commission's 3,000-item questionnaire, the latest stage in the EU membership application, which was formally submitted almost a year ago. The occasion was celebrated by a concert starring Macedonian musicians at an exclusive Brussels venue. Appropriately enough for St. Valentine's Day, the relationship with the EU had taken on a new depth, but nuptials are far from concluded. The considerable progress Macedonia has made is still fragile. The crucial decentralisation process requires careful implementation, and the coalition government and its constituent parties should apply a number of confidence building measures.
The previous twelve months had been eventful. After experiencing the tragic death of President Boris Trajkovski in February 2004 and the subsequent election of President Branko Crvenkovski, it appeared the government could return to implementing the final elements of the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement for Peace. In April 2004 the ruling coalition -- the Alliance of Social Democrats in Macedonia (SDSM), the much smaller Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and their ethnic Albanian partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) -- opened negotiations on legislation to redefine municipal boundaries. This legislation, the Law on Territorial Organisation of Local Self-Government, would fulfil a critical element of the decentralisation program mandated by the Ohrid agreement.
However, when negotiations within the ruling coalition became difficult, the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, and a little known nationalist group, the World Macedonian Congress, seized the opportunity to make political hay. Playing upon growing concern among ethnic Macedonians that it would unduly surrender power and influence to the Albanian minority, the two parties forced a 7 November 2004 referendum vote on the proposed law.
Although VMRO was a signatory to the original peace agreement, it used the pre-referendum period to question sharply the government's performance and the general wisdom of power-sharing among the ethnic communities. The government worked to reassure its supporters and argued that its plans would guarantee fast track economic growth, European integration and better governance. The emergence of Albanian paramilitaries on the outskirts of Skopje increased tensions and gave rise to concerns that Macedonia's young and fragile multi-ethnic democracy might be at serious risk.
A strategically-timed U.S. decision to recognise the country's official name as "Macedonia" helped to ensure the referendum's resounding defeat on 7 November. With that vote behind it, the government could again focus its political energies on the practical aspects of implementing decentralisation. However, with fallout from the referendum still reverberating -- local elections were postponed, Prime Minister Hari Kostov resigned and a successor was appointed -- the legislative details are still receiving dangerously inadequate attention. Tensions stirred up by the campaign have yet to evaporate, and the country's various nationalist elements remain poised to exploit any opportunities.
The referendum demonstrated for Macedonia the high cost of serious divisions within the ruling coalition. If the coalition continues on its present path, the cycle of frequent short-term crises will likely continue, the governing parties will suffer in the local elections, and the entire process of decentralisation will remain at risk. It is incumbent upon President Crvenkovski, Prime Minister Buckovski, and DUI Leader Ali Ahmeti to coalesce around a common vision for the future and exercise the political will to implement it. The DUI also has a special responsibility to take concrete steps to reassure ethnic Macedonians that in areas where ethnic Albanians are a new majority, they will extend the same rights and privileges they demand.
 The full title of VMRO-DPMNE is the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity.