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Analysis: Macedonia Faces Political Paralysis

World Macedonian Congress (SMK) Chairman Todor Petrov on 1 September presented a petition to the Macedonian parliament calling for a referendum on the government's plans to cut the number of administrative districts. With the support of the major ethnic Macedonian opposition parties, the SMK had managed to gather more than 180,000 signatures for the petition.

"Today is a holiday for democracy in Macedonia, because the will of the citizens' has won," Petrov said, adding that "the referendum is not a luxury for Macedonia but establishes its democratic credentials and legitimacy before the international community."

However, many pundits disagree with Petrov's assessment of the referendum drive as a success story. One problematic aspect of the referendum is that it was supported almost exclusively by ethnic Macedonians, and not by members of the large ethnic Albanian minority. If the organizers of the referendum succeed in convincing a majority of voters to support them, growing interethnic tensions could be the result.

Therefore, the governing coalition of Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Liberal Democrats (LDP), and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) hopes that the referendum will fail. This will happen if less than the required majority of all registered voters participates in the vote, or if a majority of voters backs the government's redistricting plans.

Iso Rusi, who is the editor in chief of the Albanian-language weekly "Lobi," doubts that the government's tactics will yield the expected result. In a comment for the 3 September edition of his paper, Rusi pointed out that the referendum drive succeeded not only because large parts of the population oppose the government's redistricting plans. "[The politicians] do not take into account the other possibilities, especially the escalation of the social dissatisfaction and the accumulation of dissatisfaction with everything the governing parties have done," Rusi noted.

He warned that the absence of a strong parliamentary opposition could contribute to a radicalization of the political situation, because demagogues could reduce the conflict over the referendum to slogans blaming either the Macedonians or the Albanians for the shortcomings in the country.
"The referendum is not a luxury for Macedonia but establishes its democratic credentials and legitimacy before the international community." -- SMK Chairman Petrov

Another problematic issue is the looming political paralysis -- with the referendum now officially slated for 7 November and the long-delayed local elections postponed until further notice. Rusi argued that the coming months will be lost time. "But the problem is not that we lost one year," Rusi wrote. "The problem is that we lost 13 years during the Macedonian transition" since independence in 1991. During those years, politicians reacted to every major challenge by saying that any given problem could be dealt with later because it was not of vital importance to the state, Rusi argued.

He added that Macedonian leaders developed neither any vision for the future nor ways to realize that vision. Thirteen years after the referendum for Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia on 8 September 1991, the country remains a youngster who must still wear diapers, because his parents have forgotten to teach him what every normal child learns in the first years of his life, Rusi noted.

Nikola Kljusev, who was the prime minister of Macedonia when it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, shares Rusi's skepticism. Asked how he sees the past 13 years of Macedonian independence, Kljusev said: "We must not be satisfied with that period," adding that Macedonia made a lot of mistakes in economic policy. Like Rusi, Kljusev warned that the social dissatisfaction and the huge unemployment rate could prove fatal for Macedonia.

The international community has also expressed its concern about the delay of important reforms. During a press conference in Skopje on 1 September, a spokeswoman for the EU said that voters should keep in mind the effect of the referendum on broader political developments, including the postponement of local elections as well as the diversion of attention from other important reforms. The spokeswoman also added that the delay in the political reforms could also have a negative impact on Macedonia's application for EU membership.

But there are also more optimistic views of the coming months. Professor Vanco Uzunov, who is an economist at Skopje University, told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 4 September that one should not underestimate the citizens' maturity. He admitted that some people might be glad that the referendum has replaced the country's dire economic situation at the top of the political agenda, but stressed that Macedonia will be stronger once the referendum is behind it.