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Macedonia Votes on Local Autonomy for Ethnic Albanian Minority

Macedonians are voting in a referendum on whether to scale back autonomy for the Albanian minority granted under an internationally mediated peace accord. Macedonia's government, the European Union, and the United States are urging a boycott of the vote, fearing the measure to restrict Albanian rights could undermine stability.

Voters are being asked if they support a proposal to retain municipal boundaries that existed before a 2001 peace accord, which ended seven months of inter-ethnic fighting. A law adopted in accordance with the peace agreement redraws local boundaries and gives ethnic Albanians effective control in districts where they comprise at least 20 percent of the population.

Under the government-backed law redrawing the districts, ethnic Albanians, who make up roughly 25 percent of Macedonia's population, gain more control over education, health, and development issues in municipalities where they form a majority.

The law also makes Albanian the second official language.

Nationalists who initiated the referendum say the law divides the country along ethnic lines, and will eventually lead to the break up of Macedonia.

Pro-Western Prime Minister Hari Kostov has threatened to quit his post if voters approve the referendum and reject the proposed municipality changes. Western diplomats have suggested failure to carry through the reforms will make it more difficult for Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO.

Prime Minister Kostov, the European Union and the United States have urged Macedonians to boycott the referendum. Voter turnout must reach at least 50 percent for the referendum to be declared valid.

Surveys by the Institute for Democracy, Solidarity and a Civil Society showed support for the referendum has fallen to 56 percent, down from 65 percent two weeks earlier.