Prospective poll turns up Macedonia heat
Nicholas Whyte, European Voice |
1 Sep 2004
MACEDONIA’S peace process, which has brought stability to the small Balkan state since the end of the 2001 conflict, hit an unexpected snag last week when opposition parties succeeded in gathering enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the most sensitive of the outstanding issues: the revision of local government boundaries.
The Ohrid Agreement, signed just over three years ago, brought an end to the revolt of the country’s Albanian minority. Most of the provisions of the agreement – a new census, constitutional reform, integration of minorities into the security services, improved provision for higher education – have now been implemented.
In addition, the political representatives of the 2001 rebels are now included in the Macedonian government in the form of the Democratic Union for Integration, a political party led by former insurgent leader Ali Ahmeti.
The Macedonian political system passed two important tests earlier this year. The death of President Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash meant an unexpected presidential election, won reasonably fairly by outgoing Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski. And the explosion of violence in neighbouring Kosovo in mid-March had almost no spillover into Macedonia.
Crvenkovski and his successor as prime minister, Hari Kostov, felt that the time was right to submit a formal application for membership of the European Union. Macedonia is the third of the six former Yugoslav republics to do so, after Slovenia, which has now joined the Union, and Croatia, which got the green light earlier this year for negotiations to begin. Macedonia was also the first of the Western Balkan countries to sign a stabilization and association agreement with the European Union, and so far the only one to have had the agreement fully ratified.
But the redrawing of local government boundaries, never a popular political topic, threatens to reopen the wounds of older conflict. The deal, painstakingly negotiated between the government parties led by Ahmeti and Crvenkovski, provoked howls of protest from Macedonian nationalists who believe that the entire Ohrid process is a betrayal of the country. Local leaders in the small south-western town of Struga, where the proposed new boundaries would add enough ethnic Albanian villages to the municipality to outweigh its current Macedonian majority, have declared that they would prefer to secede and become a micro-state like Monaco or Andorra.
Opposition leader Nikola Gruevski, whose own instincts are moderate, nonetheless spotted an opportunity to embarrass the government and supported a petition drive against the reforms. Enough signatures – over 150,000 – were gathered to trigger a referendum on the proposed law, likely to be held in early November. Whether or not the referendum passes, the local government elections which were due to have been held that month will certainly be postponed, meaning further delay in the process.
Ali Ahmeti is likely to call on ethnic Albanians, who form roughly a quarter of the population, to boycott the referendum, which requires a 50% turnout to be binding.
Some observers point to the relatively low turnout in April’s presidential election as evidence that this threshold is unlikely to be overcome.
However, this poll is not a choice between a sure winner and a relatively unknown opposition candidate – it is a highly politicized issue and voters from the majority community are likely to be much more motivated than they were in April.
Macedonia faces a difficult few months. Already tension is apparent, with Ahmeti, in a misquoted interview with a Kosovo newspaper, being widely reported as threatening civil war should the referendum succeed.
International officials, particularly from the European Union, which has invested a great deal in creating and maintaining the peace process, need to ensure that channels of communication with and between Macedonian politicians remain clear and frequently used.
They may also have to give some thought to the next steps to take if the referendum is passed. The citizens of Macedonia have of course the right to work out their country’s destiny for themselves, but the EU has a vital interest in promoting its future stability.
Nicholas Whyte is director of the Europe programme for the International Crisis Group