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Macedonians to Decide on Conditions of Peace Agreement - 2004-10-14

In just over three weeks, citizens in the southern Balkan nation of Macedonia vote in a referendum that is likely to significantly effect the balance of power among ethnic groups. The ballot is really about Macedonia's commitment to building a multi-cultural society.

Citizens are voting on changes to municipal boundaries that give greater power to minorities, particularly the 25 percent of the population that is ethnic Albanian.

A measure adopted by parliament in August reduces the number of municipal districts from 123 to 84. That decision to decentralize government is a key component of the 2001 agreement that ended an armed conflict between the government and Albanian rebels. Since 2002, the former rebels have been part of the ruling coalition that is implementing the agreement.

While all of Macedonia's main political parties signed the framework agreement, it remains unpopular with some Macedonian nationalists. They are the force behind the referendum, which is opposed by not only the government, but by the European Union and the United States.

With the referendum campaign now under way, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this week that overturning decentralization would diminish Macedonia's prospects of getting into the Western defense alliance (NATO). The European Union (EU) also says a yes vote in the referendum will make it much harder for Macedonia to enter the European Union.

In order to be approved the anti-decentralization measure must win not only a majority of the votes cast, but more than half of eligible voters must take part. The ruling parties are calling for people to stay at home.

Gjordji Ivanov is a political science professor at Skopje University and head of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. He views the referendum as a protest against an increasingly unpopular government.

"People don't understand the referendum question," he said. "But a majority of the people are unsatisfied with the government. And they would like to send a message."

A new survey conducted by Professor Ivanov's institute found that 62 percent of respondents said they would vote in the referendum. Of those polled, 51 percent said they think a successful referendum would not affect Macedonia's chances of joining the EU and NATO.

There is some resentment of the strong positions expressed by the United States and the European Union, who cast the referendum as a choice between the past and the future. Most experts predict the referendum will fail but they say much could change in the next three weeks.