Boundary changes Put Ethnic Peace to the Test in Macedoni

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 30 16:49:10 UTC 2004

>>From the NYTimes,  August 30, 2004
Boundary Changes Put Ethnic Peace to the Test in Macedonia

STRUGA, Macedonia, Aug. 23 - Angered by the national government's plans to
change local boundaries, this rundown resort of 36,000 people on the
shores of Lake Ohrid is preparing to declare independence.  The town's
crusade, however quixotic, to become a city-state has struck a chord
across Macedonia. That is because the boundary changes are part of a
delicate peace arrangement that ended fighting between Albanian guerrillas
and government security forces three years ago, when the country was on
the brink of a civil war.

Most of Struga's residents are part of the country's ethnic majority, who
are Slavic and prefer to be called ethnic Macedonians. They have objected
to the changes, sometimes violently, because the city's new boundaries
would take in nearby villages and make ethnic Albanians the new majority
in the district. The residents' outrage has resonated with ethnic
Macedonians across the country, fueling a petition drive to start a
national referendum to repeal the changes - a process that could shake the
entire peace agreement, Western diplomats warn.

Since the peace deal, Macedonia has become an example of conflict
resolution for the former Yugoslavia. The agreement, known as the Ohrid
Accords and enacted in August 2001, ended seven months of fighting, and it
has been put into effect with few hindrances so far. The deal promised
ethnic Albanians and other minorities living in Macedonia greater civil
rights and secured the demobilization of the rebels, some of whom later
became part of a new coalition government. The transfer of greater powers
to local authorities, and the reorganization into larger local districts,
was regarded by diplomats here as one of the last elements of the deal.

The new local government laws, passed by the Parliament in mid-August,
fulfill the promise of the peace agreement, giving municipalities an
increased say over public services, planning, economic development,
education and health care. Under the change, ethnic groups that make up
more than 20 percent of the local population also have the right to
address their local council in their own languages, a policy that will
benefit Albanians, as well as other minorities such as Turks.

But opponents of the changes, mostly ethnic Macedonians, say the laws
amount to ethnic gerrymandering, and they say they have gathered enough
signatures - more than 150,000 - for a national referendum to repeal them.
The petitions are scheduled to be counted on Aug. 30, and officials will
rule on whether the referendum can proceed.

In particular, the supporters of a referendum are unhappy with the
attachment of outlying Albanian villages to the capital, Skopje, and to
Struga, increasing the number of ethnic Albanians in both cities, and in
Struga's case making them a majority.

Albanians, who make up about 25 percent of Macedonia's population of 2.2
million, will become the majority in 16 of the 80 new municipalities. They
now dominate 28 of 124 local authorities.

Opposition to the changes has grown in the wake of violent antigovernment
protests last month in Struga. Protesters attacked a government delegation
visiting the city, and the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to
disperse the crowds. (Initial reports that Albanians had also been
attacked by the crowd, as reported by international police monitors and
carried in The New York Times, subsequently proved to be incorrect.)

Struga city officials, most of them ethnic Macedonians, say the national
government went ahead with its plans without consulting them, and as a
result the city would have to merge outlying rural areas they say it
cannot afford to support. "We will have a municipality that cannot
function properly," said Saso Markovski, the chief of the cabinet in
Struga's City Council.. We are talking about people with different
cultures and mentalities."

The city's mayor suggested that the changes were a threat to its peaceful
existence. "This is the last move that the citizens of Struga have been
forced to take in order to defend their right of a peaceful and safe
life," Romeo Dereban said at a news conference this month. Since then, the
city's leaders have pinned their hopes to the referendum campaign that
could reverse the boundary laws, obviating the need for the declaration of
independence they have threatened.

The World Macedonian Congress, a nationalist group behind the referendum
campaign, has adopted an alarmist stance. Its president, Todor Petrov,
said the changes will force members of the ethnic majority out of
Albanian-controlled municipalities. "Some radicals will use this as a
means of ethnic cleansing. First they will damage windows and fields, burn
churches and destabilize the community," Mr. Petrov said in an interview.

His campaign has increased fears of renewed ethnic violence. Opponents of
his group say that ethnic Albanians have been a part of every Macedonian
government since the country gained its independence in 1991.

Fear that the new laws will lead to larger numbers of Macedonians being
dominated by Albanian councils are unfounded, according to Nicholas Whyte,
Europe program director of the International Crisis Group, a policy
analysis organization with offices throughout the Balkans.

Writing for the online news service, the Institute for War and Peace
Reporting, he estimated that under the changes 91 percent of the country's
ethnic majority would be living in a municipality where they are a
majority, down from 92 percent under the previous system. "To describe the
proposed changes as ethnic cleansing is a colossal exaggeration, and a
huge insult to those who have been displaced from their homes in the
Balkan conflicts since 1991," he wrote.

Albanian leaders said if the referendum succeeded it would undermine the
guiding principle of the Ohrid Accords, namely that Macedonia's ethnic
majority should not be allowed to impose laws on minorities without their

"Everything would be in jeopardy, including the government and the Ohrid
Accords," if the referendum succeeds, said Aziz Pollozhani, Macedonia's
education minister and an ethnic Albanian from Struga. "It automatically
undermines the idea of a unitary state."

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