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Balkan Report: August 27, 2004

27 August 2004, Volume 8, Number 31

MACEDONIAN REFERENDUM DRIVE SUCCEEDS, BUT WHAT NEXT? It became clear on 19 August that more than 150,000 Macedonians had signed a petition calling for a referendum against the government's controversial plan to cut the number of administrative districts. The organizers of that referendum drive -- the nationalist NGO World Macedonian Congress (SMK) and the major ethnic Macedonian opposition parties -- thus succeeded in collecting enough signatures to force the parliament to call a referendum.

The governing coalition of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM), the Liberal Democrats (LDP), and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), which sponsored the controversial redistricting plans, now faces a difficult time. The coalition partners disagree as to whether the parliament must vote on the referendum with a so-called double majority in order to protect the interests of the Albanian minority. The BDI argues that a double-majority vote is justified by the provisions of the Ohrid peace agreement and the subsequent constitutional changes.

Legal experts also disagree over that question. Known as the so-called Badinter mechanism (named after the French legal expert Robert Badinter), the double-majority vote aims at protecting the ethnic minority from being outvoted by the ethnic majority. Under that system, all decisions that affect the Albanian minority must not only be approved by the majority of all members of parliament, but also by the majority of all ethnic Albanian lawmakers.

Vlado Popovski, who is a professor at Skopje University's law school and one of the authors of the Ohrid peace deal, said initiatives to call a referendum do not -- at least in theory -- require a double majority. He added, however, that the BDI's demand may be justified in that the redistricting plans are part of the decentralization plans that were agreed upon in the Ohrid peace accord. "The state Committee on Interethnic Relations must resolve this dilemma," Popovski told "Dnevnik" of 21 August, arguing that it is this committee that has to decide in which cases the Badinter mechanism must be applied.

One of Popovski's colleagues at the university, Professor Renata Deskovska, disagrees. "Neither the constitution, nor the law [on referendums] provides the basis for such demands," Deskovska said, adding that the law on referendums does not even consider the possibility for a parliamentary debate.

For SDSM Deputy Chairwoman Radmila Sekerinska, too, the Badinter mechanism does not apply to parliamentary votes on referendums. However, both Sekerinska and SDSM Deputy Chairman and Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski agree that legal experts have to explain whether a double majority is necessary for the referendum. During a press conference on 22 August, Buckovski made clear that his party opposes the referendum. He said that his party will try to convince citizens that the referendum is a waste of energy and money (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2004).

Whatever the outcome of this legal dispute may be, the referendum must pass other barriers as well. Legislation specifies that more than half of the country's registered 1.7 million voters must participate in the referendum for it to be valid. And then, a majority of them (or more than 425,000) must agree to the only question -- that the country's administrative borders remain unchanged. The Social Democrats hope that it will prove difficult to convince so many voters to go to the polls.

Apart from the legal aspects of the parliamentary vote, the governing coalition must also cope with the danger of growing interethnic tensions, because only ethnic Macedonians supported the referendum drive. For BDI Chairman Ali Ahmeti, the ethnic Macedonian opposition parties supported the referendum drive not because they oppose the redistricting plans but because they oppose the 2001 Ohrid peace deal. The peace deal ended hostilities between ethnic Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (UCK), who were then led by Ahmeti, and government forces. Ahmeti said that a successful referendum would mean that the peace deal is dead and that Macedonia has lost any possibility of NATO and EU membership. He added that the only way to avert a civil war is for the governing parties to succeed in declaring the referendum unsuccessful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 August 2004).

At present, it is unclear what the legal experts will recommend, and when the overdue local elections will be held. According to various media reports, it is likely that they will be postponed once again, possibly until January. Earlier this month parliament decided to hold those elections, originally slated for 17 October, on 21 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). Whatever the date of the elections will be, Macedonia will face months of political campaigning for and against the referendum and in connection with the local elections. Other pressing problems such as the economic situation and the unemployment will have to wait. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

MONTENEGRO WANTS TALKS ON DISSOLVING JOINT STATE WITH SERBIA. Montenegro's government is about to take a big step toward dissolving the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro and moving toward independence. Where matters will end is nonetheless anybody's guess.

The union of Serbia and Montenegro has never been truly popular in either of those republics. EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana is the man chiefly responsible for its creation in 2002, so much so that some Balkan wags dubbed the new state "Solania." Following years of ineffective policy initiatives in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Brussels was determined not to allow any more small states to emerge from the wreck of Josip Broz Tito's one-time federation.

But many Serbian leaders were reluctant to grant political equality to Montenegro, which has roughly one-tenth of the larger republic's population. The Montenegrin leadership, for its part, grudgingly yielded to EU pressure for a joint state but refused to give up its ultimate goal of independence. Consequently, the agreement setting up the union permits a referendum on independence, but not until 2005 at the earliest.

The state is curious hybrid, which lacks not only a unified economic policy but even a common currency: Serbia uses the dinar, while Montenegro has the euro. Foreign and defense policies are among those conducted by joint ministries, but Montenegro also has its own foreign minister and tries to conduct external relations of its own. There is a common army, but Montenegrin soldiers are expected to serve only in that republic. And although the basic principles for the union were agreed in early 2002, it took roughly one year of haggling before the legal basis was set for the joint state to come into being in 2003.

Polls in Montenegro have often shown a roughly even split on the issue of independence, perhaps with a slight majority now favoring independence. The root of the problem is that Montenegrins have never achieved a consensus as to whether they are a distinct people or a special branch of the Serbian nation. Many Montenegrins live and work in Serbia, and they and their families would suffer were the joint state to split up.

On the other hand, Serbian public opinion has tended to favor ending the union, but few politicians have been willing to embrace independence in defiance of the EU. Exceptions are the G-17 Plus party, which is a smaller member of the governing coalition, and Vladan Batic's Christian Democrats (DHSS), which fared badly in the December parliamentary elections. Batic once sponsored a petition drive on a referendum on independence, much to the embarrassment of some of his coalition partners in the previous government. In recent months, the G-17 Plus has stressed that the two republics' economies are incompatible under one roof and that European integration can best be achieved by each republic going its own way.

The EU does not see things that way. Brussels has made it clear that it would be very unhappy were its creation to be dissolved, and that any new republics would have to relaunch their stabilization and association talks with the EU from the start again.

Against this background, Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has sought to end the summer political doldrums by making a concrete proposal aimed at dissolving the joint state. Miodrag Vukovic, who is a DPS leader, said in Podgorica on 18 August that the Montenegrin authorities will formally propose to Serbia in September that the two sides start talks on ending the union.

Vukovic suggested that Belgrade and Podgorica might review three options, starting with total independence for each republic. A second possibility might be to link two internationally recognized, independent states in an association on the model of the Commonwealth of Independent States that exists among some successor states to the former Soviet Union. A third option might be to remain in the joint state until 2005, when a referendum on independence will automatically take place.

Initial reactions to his proposal were guarded, to say the least. The Montenegrin Social Democrats (SDP), who are coalition partners of the DPS and outspoken advocates of independence, declined to comment. The opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP) said that the DPS is unlikely to find many people in Belgrade who are willing to talk with them about their proposal.

In the Serbian capital, only G-17 Plus leader and Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said that talks could start in the fall. He stressed that the current situation is untenable because economic differences between the two republics are so great that no further progress in stabilization and association talks with the EU is possible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May and 23 June 2004).

In response to a statement by a Serbian government official that the cabinet is not legally competent to discuss separation, Vukovic told the pro-opposition daily "Dan" of 20 August that such an attitude reflects "political stupidity." He stressed that dissolution is the best way to avoid what he called an impending "debacle" if matters continue as they are. Dragan Kujovic, who is deputy speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, said on 20 August that the government will launch a campaign for a referendum on independence if the Belgrade authorities refuse to talk.

Brussels did not comment on Vukovic's initial statement immediately, but in Strasbourg, Roman Jakic, who is chair of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly's Political Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL on 19 August that "the international community" would prefer that Serbia and Montenegro continues as a joint state. Jakic, who is from Slovenia, added, however, that one must respect any democratically expressed wish of the citizens of the two republics.

In Podgorica, the pro-government daily "Pobjeda" reported on Jakic's interview with RFE/RL, saying in the headline that he believes that "separation is a matter for Serbia and Montenegro" alone. (Patrick Moore)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK "The most democratic solution to the stabilization of the situation in the Balkans would be parallel referendums in Montenegro and Kosova." -- Ferhat Dinosha, the head of the Democratic Union of Albanians, a political party in Montenegro, to RFE/RL in Podgorica on 23 August.

"Why would the EU see benefit in the symbolic change of policy [in lifting its arms embargo on China]...when it would cause such anxiety at the heart of arguably their most significant true partner in the national security arena?" -- Unnamed "senior State Department official" discussing U.S. opposition to plans by France and some others in the EU to lift Brussels' arms embargo on China, while replacing it with a "code of conduct" to govern European arms sales to Beijing. Quoted in the "Far Eastern Economc Review" on 12 August.

"We need a miracle and we haven't been able to find one. All we have is the construction of Europe after the war, and Rome [the Vatican] does not accept that as a real miracle." -- Jean Moes, a former professor of German history and the leader of the Roman Catholic inquiry to beatify former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, the founding father of what is now the EU. Quoted in the "International Herald Tribune" on 19 August. The article mentions, among other things, that Schuman lived on a diet of eggs and lettuce.