While the Macedonian parliament is still debating the government's controversial plans to decentralize the state administration and to cut the number of administrative districts, public opposition to these plans of the Social-Democrat-led government is rising (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 26 July, and 6 August 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2, 23, and 30 July 2004).
One of the big questions currently is whether the organizers of a petition drive to call a referendum on the government's redistricting plans succeed in gathering the 150,000 signatures necessary for such a popular vote by the 23 August deadline.
It was the World Macedonian Congress (SMK) that launched the referendum initiative in February. This organization is headed by Todor Petrov, a former member of parliament. According to its official website (http://www.smk-wmc.org), the SMK was registered in Macedonia in 1990 with the aim of uniting Macedonians at home and abroad on a "spiritual, cultural, and economic" level.
But in recent years, the SMK has engaged in a mixture of populist and nationalist politics, participating in all major protest movements in Macedonia, often side by side with the country's main opposition party, the conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE). When initiating the anti-redistricting referendum, the SMK hoped that a number of referendums against the redistricting plans on the local level could be translated into a nationwide movement.
The main aim of the SMK is to thwart the government's plans to reduce the number of administrative districts from 123 to 80 in 2005. The SMK demands that the administrative borders remain unchanged. However, in its official statements the SMK rarely provided any arguments for its opposition to the redistricting plans. Instead, it called the referendum a "historical opportunity for the citizens to defend the country's integrity."
Some pundits interpret such statements as an allusion to alleged ethnic Albanian plans to carve up Macedonia along ethnic lines, a charge that Albanian leaders deny (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 and 30 July 2004). The Albanians stress that all they want are the language rights and a degree of local self-rule promised them in the August 2001 Ohrid agreement, which ended the armed conflict.
After a slow start, the referendum drive gathered momentum only after the VMRO-DPMNE and other opposition parties openly endorsed the SMK's initiative (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 July 2004).
On 7 August, SMK Chairman Petrov announced at the organization's general assembly in Skopje that so far, 90,000 people have signed the petition for a referendum. If the SMK succeeds in gathering 150,000 signatures, the parliament must call a referendum.
However, since it initiated the petition drive, the SMK and its supporters claim that the state authorities are trying to obstruct the collection of signatures, which must be carried out under the supervision of government officials. This claim was repeated by the chairmen of two smaller opposition parties, Vasil Tupurkovski of the Democratic Alternative and Pavle Trajanov of the Democratic Union. "The government is obstructing the referendum in many ways," "Utrinski vesnik" on 9 August quoted Trajanov as saying. "Government monitors take longer breaks than necessary, the offices [where the petition can be signed] are being moved from one place to another, and officials in the public administration are being threatened that their jobs will be declared superfluous if they sign the petition."
Although it is not clear whether such claims are valid or not, it is clear that the governing coalition of Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Liberal Democrats (LDP), and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) faces a difficult situation.
Parliament speaker Ljupco Jordanovski told "Utrinski vesnik" on 7 August that a referendum is the only legitimate way for citizens to express their opposition to government policies between two general elections. For him, the scenario is clear: "If the signatures can be collected, if the referendum is successful, then I believe that this government, together with the parliament, must resign and new elections must be called," Jordanovski said.
But even if the SMK and the opposition parties fail to collect the necessary signatures for the referendum, the government will face more trouble from citizens who are prepared to protest the redistricting plans even if they run afoul of the law, as Vlado Popovski, a professor at Skopje University's law school, told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 9 August. And if the parliament finally adopts the new Law on the Territorial Organization, the government will face even more civic protests, Popovski predicted.
Citizens in Struga, a town spearheading the anti-redistricting movement, have already made it clear what these protests could mean -- they say they will seek some form of independence from the Macedonian state, similar to the Republic of San Marino in Italy.