Macedonians shun attempt to block Albanian autonomy

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The Independent Online

Nationalists in Macedonia seeking to curb the rights of Albanians suffered a major blow yesterday as their controversial referendum was boycotted by a majority of voters.

Nationalists in Macedonia seeking to curb the rights of Albanians suffered a major blow yesterday as their controversial referendum was boycotted by a majority of voters.

The referendum aimed at curtailing ethnic Albanians' autonomy was called by Macedonia's Slavic nationalists. They oppose Western-inspired laws redrawing the map of the country and giving more power to ethnic Albanians, who make up 22 per cent of the two million population.

Turnout had to top 50 per cent for the result to stand. The Macedonian government called for voters to stay at home, which would mean that the referendum would fail.

The EU, Nato and the US also wanted the referendum to fail, fearing renewed ethnic violence in the tiny landlocked Balkan state if the nationalist parties succeeded.

The laws were a key element of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, the EU-sponsored peace deal that ended six months of bloody clashes between government troops and ethnic Albanian rebels. The agreement also gave ethnic Albanians access to higher education, police and civil service.

The laws divide Macedonia into 80 municipalities instead of 123, with Albanian becoming the second official language in the western towns of Struga and Kicevo, as well as in the capital, Skopje.

With a turnout of 16 per cent of the 1.6 million electorate at 4pm yesterday, the referendum had gained only one third of the required voters.

The Macedonian government, a coalition of Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian allies from the Democratic Union for Integration, received support for the boycott from both government supporters and ethnic Albanians.

European officials backed the boycott, telling voters to "stay at home". They warned that the success of the referendum would derail the country's entry to the EU and Nato.

The EU formally opened accession talks with Macedonia last month, and the referendum boycott will help to prove that the country wants to abide by the EU's standards and laws.

However, the country faces obstacles for EU and Nato membership from a different angle. Greece strongly objected to US recognition of the "Republic of Macedonia" last Thursday. The nation became independent from former Yugoslavia 13 years ago. But Greece considers the name "Macedonia" to be its historic heritage.

Problems were avoided as the country was provisionally named "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia". But Greece clearly said it would veto Macedonia's possible entry into the EU and Nato.

"It is known that the accession of a European country in the EU and Nato requires unanimity by existing members," said the Greek government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros on Friday. "The Greek government will not co-operate in such a decision as long as it is not preceded by an agreed, mutually accepted solution [on the name issue]."

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