On 7 November Macedonians will go out to the polls to support or reject the new law on territorial boundaries.Voices coming from the joint opposition say that these new territorial arrangements create the possibility for the claim of the Greater Albania, the government answers that the success of the referendum would mean "NO" to Europe

03/11/2004 -  Risto Karajkov Skopje

"Every country has a very simple choice, to turn the clock forward or to start turning it backwards...What Macedonia expects is a full-fledged membership in the EU. Therefore, we very honestly hope that Macedonian voters at the referendum, which is their political right, will understand that every vote against the Ohrid Agreement is a vote against Europe", the UK Minister of State in charge of EU Affairs, Denis MacShane said in Skopje the day before yesterday, after meeting Macedonian President, Branko Crvenkovski. In front of the Parliament, just after the meeting, MacShane took off his wrist watch and started moving its pointers in front of the people of the press to further dramatize its statement, "It is a simple message: don't turn the clock back. I understand the fears and the concern, but on Sunday, 7 November - stay home", said MacShane.

Todor Petrov, the coordinator of the joint opposition committee in charge of the referendum, and president of the Pan Macedonian Congress, the association that was the very initiator of the process, commented McShane's statement as a "diplomatic gaff" and "blatant interference in home affairs". "Still, Macedonia is not in Africa, to threaten its citizens by turning the clock", said Petrov.

Yet, this is only the last and perhaps loudest in the series of warnings that representatives of the "international community" have been sending Macedonia. Their message is clear. They want the referendum to fail. If it succeeds, it will mean slowing down of the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) and the process of decentralization planned by it - the major tool for giving greater autonomy to the second largest community in Macedonia, the Albanians. This in turn will inevitably reflect on the process of gradual rapprochement with the EU and NATO, they say.

Another analyst, Mr. Sasho Ordanovski said a couple of weeks back that such direct foreign pressure is "putting Macedonian nationalists out of work". That is to say, it is counterproductive. The more foreign politicians exert pressure on Macedonians to accept the deal, the more revolt and frustration they cause even on the part of the perhaps more moderate voters.

On 7 November Macedonians will go out to the polls to either support or reject the new law on territorial boundaries the Parliament enacted recently. The law reduces the number of the previously 123 municipalities to fewer but bigger units. These new units change the ethnic distribution of population and local balances of power between Macedonians, Albanians, and other communities such as Turks, Vlah, and Serbs etc. This means that some of the new municipalities will have more then 20% of Albanians, which will entitle them to official use of Albanian language in administrative affairs. It also means that the Albanians will be a majority in some communes in which until recently they were a minority, which will of course reflect in the composition of the local government. Notable is the example of the city of Struga, till now with a Macedonian majority but after the new territorial division, with an Albanian one. The Macedonians in Struga renounced the gerrymandering, the town went through episodes of violence, and its mayor said that should the new territorial map come into effect, they would declare independence and claim a San Marino type of status by international law.

The most conservative voices coming from the joint opposition say that these new territorial arrangements open the way for future territorial re-compositions and create the possibility for the claim of the Greater Albania dream and secession of the western part of the country where the Albanians are a majority. The opposition also says that this territorial organization has been made according to ethnic criteria that lead to federalism and bi-national state, and in collision with the spirit of the OFA which states that "there can be no territorial solutions to ethnic issues." In addition they say that the referendum is neither against the OFA nor against the Albanians and that it is not mono-national as it also affiliates the communities of the Turks, Serb, Vlah, Bosniak. They say the referendum is against the exclusion of the popular will and against a nontransparent deal stitched up by several politicians from the Macedonian and Albanian side, to benefits of the Albanians and detriment of everybody else.

The government says the opposition is intimidating the people with talks of secessions and divisions, and that the success of the referendum would mean "NO" to Europe. "I don't know who will ever invest in Macedonia if a group of its own politicians walks around and says the country will disintegrate", says Radmila Sekerinska, Minister for European Integration. Government people say the referendum is an unnecessary adventure and a waste of time. According to Minister Gestakovski, the law is not perfect but provides the prospect of implementing the decentralization. He adds that the changes in the numbers of inhabitants and ethnic parities by communes should not worry people as major decisions would still be taken by the so called "Badenter majority", a mechanism of cross-community vote that secures the participation of the minority and prevents simple outvoting, named after the famous French jurist who was involved in the crises of the Balkans in many occasions an capacities ever since their beginning in the early 90s. "A success at the referendum would mean return in the past, therefore on the 7th sit at home and watch TV." pled Finance Minister Nikola Popovski at a local community campaign debate near Skopje.

In sum, the opposition calls for a massive turnout, the government and the international community for abstinence. The leaders of the Albanian parties said Albanians would express their dissent by not voting. OSCE will be deploying monitors throughout the country and the opposition coordinator Petrov threatened government officials with criminal charges for acts against free elections and voting by inviting to boycott, and scaring people with war or layoffs. Most polls 10 days before the referendum predict massive turnout and voting against the new territorial chart.

What will this mean for Macedonia? Could a successful referendum mean another war? This is really difficult to conceive at this moment though it has been the omen of the bleakest premonitions. Probably and hopefully not, but for sure a new and prolonged insecurity. And this has been the base for the loudly voiced concerns by the West.

The IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting), an international NGO, ran an expert debate last week that had most of the participants agree that whether the referendum successful or not, Macedonia enters a new phase the outcome of which nobody can predict for the time being. The discussants, prominent local academics, analysts and journalists, had a consensus that although the initial impetus for the process was the territorial solution, in the meantime the referendum has gained momentum as a wave of popular discontent with the general conditions in the country.