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Macedonian President Refuses Again To Sign Bill Boosting Albanian Language

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov (file photo)
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov (file photo)

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has refused for a second time to sign legislation passed by the parliament to expand the official use of the Albanian language, in a move that could set off a renewed political crisis in the small Balkan nation.

The parliament was forced to approve the legislation for a second time on March 14, in the face of protests both inside and outside the building, because Ivanov refused to sign the bill in January.

"The constitution and my conscience do not permit me to sign a decree approving such a law," Ivanov, a close ally of the conservative opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, said in a video distributed after the parliamentary vote late on March 14.

"The law on languages is unjust and repressive, and it favors only one language," he said. "A law that had no debate on amendments...cannot be considered an expression of democracy."

The bill was approved with 64 out of 120 parliament members voting for it, after the parliamentary speaker rejected a motion for debate on amendments by the opposition.

Lawmakers from the opposition party offered 35,000 amendments to block the bill and staged protests, warning that the measure would put the Balkan country's national unity in jeopardy.

Parliamentary speaker Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian, dismissed the amendments and ordered the vote to proceed.

At one point, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the VMRO, and other opposition lawmakers tried to prevent Xhaferi from speaking by pulling away his microphone. Eventually, with the help of security guards, the voting procedure went ahead.

Outside the parliament building, several hundred protesters demonstrated against the measure without incident.

The tumult inside parliament during the vote came nearly a year after opposition nationalists stormed the building and assaulted Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in a protest against the election of Xhaferi as speaker.

Ivanov had been expected to sign the measure after the second vote of approval in parliament. It was unclear whether the bill would take effect without Ivanov's signature.

His refusal to sign could plunge Macedonia back into political turmoil. The small Balkan nation has experienced several political crises in the past three years.

The language measure carries out a critical pledge made by the ruling Social Democrats to win the support of ethnic Albanian parties for a new coalition government last year.

Ethnic Albanians make up around a quarter of Macedonia's two million people. Under the legislation, Macedonian would continue to be the primary official language.

But Albanian, which has until now been an official language only in areas where the minority makes up at least 20 percent of the population, would be used more widely under the legislation.

The measure would boost the use of Albanian at a national level, including in administrative, health, judicial, police, and other official matters. It could also be used in parliament by the ethnic Albanians' elected representatives.

Ethnic Albanian rebels waged an insurgency against Macedonian authorities in 2001. More than 100 people were killed in the insurgency, which ended with an agreement providing greater rights for the minority.

With reporting by By RFE/RL's Balkan Service, AP, Reuters, and AFP
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correct the number of amendments to the language bill proposed by opposition lawmakers.
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