According to the Western media and politicians,
Sunday's failed referendum in Macedonia signifies the victory
of multi-ethnic harmony, sagacious strategic vision, and popular faith in
the "pro-Western" future their government is leading them toward.
This characterization is simply false, as Nebojsa
Malic showed so well earlier this week. The referendum's failure was a victory
indeed, but a victory for fraud, deceit, slick manipulation, and organized government
intimidation. Above all, it was a victory for a small group of violent and ignorant
people, that is, the erstwhile "freedom fighters" of Ali Ahmeti's
In the following article, I intend to present this neglected side of the story – simply because no one else in the entire foreign press was interested in doing so – while also detailing the situation as it unfolded in one very special place this past Sunday.
What Was the Referendum About, and Who Supported It? The Actual
The Nov. 7 national referendum in Macedonia was
initiated by the World Macedonian Congress, a diaspora group that considers
itself merely "patriotic," and whose dapper, soft-spoken president
Todor Petrov could hardly be described as a "hardline nationalist,"
though reality has of course never stood in the way of jaundiced foreign journalists
and their tired, meaningless clichés.
"hardline nationalist" Todor Petrov of the World Macedonian Congress initiated
the referendum proceedings.
This devious description of the pro-referendum supporters also neglected
the fact that their ranks were swelled by political parties representing
the citizens of Macedonia's non-Albanian ethnic minorities, in addition to the
main Macedonian opposition parties. The major difference between the Albanians
and these people – who, like the Turks and Roma, are truly downtrodden
– is that the latter never use violence to get their way, whereas the
former have always resorted to gunboat diplomacy to win their so-called
"rights." This pattern persisted right up until the referendum, when
it was discovered that Albanian
paramilitaries were ready to blow up Skopje's water pipeline and open fire
on residential neighborhoods if the referendum passed. This tacit threat, of
course, only added to the Western frenzy to stop the referendum at all costs.
The referendum posed the following question to Macedonian citizens: do you
wish to endorse your government's proposal for territorial redistricting, or
do you wish for them to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new
(and hopefully better) plan?
Was the Referendum Justifiable? More Facts
Supporters of the referendum pointed out in an
August manifesto that the government's proposed redistricting plan contradicts
Articles 2, 8, 21, and 114 of the Macedonian constitution, "which guarantee
the civic concept of the state" by arbitrating along ethnic lines rather
than "historical, cultural, and functional criteria." Further, in
denying the very right to any future referendum, the law would also violate
not only the Macedonian constitution but also Article
5 of the European Charter for Local Self-Government, which actually states
(in slightly different wording than the Macedonian manifesto puts it) that "changes
in local authority boundaries shall not be made without prior consultation of
the local communities concerned, possibly by means of a referendum where this
is permitted by statute."
Referendum backers also pointed out that, far from being faithful to the Ohrid
Agreement that ended the 2001 war, the government's law "is in direct collision
1.2, 1.4, 1.5 and 3.2 of the Ohrid Framework Agreement,
as the Framework Agreement states that 'the sovereignty of the Republic of
Macedonia and the unitary character of the state are inviolable and the they must
be preserved,' and that 'there are no territorial solutions for ethnic questions.'"
However, the government's law, which aims to decrease the number of municipalities
by making them fewer and larger, was in fact created not through democratic
debate but through closed-door negotiations between the ruling parties: the
Macedonian SDSM and Albanian DUI. And it was pretty clear to everyone that this
process simply involved "trading" territory in order to artificially
create larger, more concentrated Albanian-majority areas, a disingenuous plot
having enormous ramifications for Macedonia's future civil legislation, municipal
leadership, public safety, and all-around national character. By signing on
the dotted line, under the approving gaze of the West, the SDSM handed over
a third of the country to the direct rule of gangsters and thugs, and practically
assured that within a few years western Macedonia will be ethnically cleansed
of all Macedonians. That this conclusion is not mere alarmism can be readily
discerned from the past 20 years' experience in Kosovo, where practically all
non-Albanians have been expelled, and in parts of western and northern Macedonia,
where the same process is continuing. The territorial law will only expedite
Considering these facts and their implications, it would seem that referendum
backers would have a pretty powerful case. But whenever I asked them how the
representatives of the Great Powers reacted to their presentation of facts,
the answer was always the same: either they would smile politely and say nothing,
or else angrily shout them down while frothing at the mouth about ethnic harmony
and Euro-Atlantic integration.
That such a simple thing could create such uproar
and panic says more about the state of Macedonia's political leadership than
about the question presented in the constitutionally-guaranteed, perfectly legal
referendum itself. Despite winning a handy parliamentary majority in the September
2002 elections, the SDSM-DUI dynamic duo has fallen on hard times. Mostly, this
is due to the worsening economic situation across the country, but internal
splintering inside the currently leaderless SDSM has also played a role. Numerous
gaffes and scandals have plagued the government, and their approval ratings
are in the toilet bowl. Although they have two years remaining in their mandate,
some have called for early elections and the sentiment persists that they are
ruling on borrowed time.
For his part, scheming Branko Crvenkovski (SDSM godfather for life and frequently
prime minister) was clever enough to jump ship as soon as he could, taking over
the presidency from the deceased
President Boris Trajkovski – who, incidentally enough, had before his
mysterious death in February refused to sign the law on territorial division
that inspired Sunday's referendum. With this standpoint, Trajkovski (who has
been eulogized as the prime backer of Western values and inter-ethnic harmony)
finally bucked his minders and stood up to interventionist bullying. This belated
act of defiance would prove to be his last.
In his final annual speech to Parliament, in December 2003, Trajkovski
explicitly stated the principles that would thereafter guide those seeking
"[T]he objective of the last package of laws in the area of decentralization
is to strengthen local democracy and institutions' capacity to provide services
to citizens more efficiently. Namely, the creation of new municipalities should
be based on prospects for prosperity, not on ethnic prejudices or political
interests. The European Convention on Local Self-government explicitly states
that possible new municipal borders should not be drawn against the will of
local population, because this concept is aimed at establishing equality, not
dominance of one group over another; and, of course, at providing more democracy,
"That is why I am convinced that the three laws on decentralization should
result in a large political, interethnic and social consensus. Any other approach,
favoring mechanical collection of the necessary parliamentary votes over the
will of the majority of the electorate would be contrary to the principles that
guided us in Ohrid, contrary to the long-term interests of the country, and
contrary to the very essence of democracy."
It is no wonder that, when confronted with both the facts and the unfortunate reality that supposed acolyte Trajkovski dissented, the West could only flail like a chicken with its head cut off.
For the EU, the prime tactic was all about time: always in their frenzied bureaucratic
agitations, it's always "now or never" (as one Soros-sponsored billboard
in Skopje actually put it) for targeted Euro-aspirants like Macedonia. As if
the boat was unfurling its sails and set to leave without them! Meanwhile, the
EU Constitution – currently up for referendum approval in each country's capital
even reach the shores of Britain, for example, until 2006. While the British
are entitled to a referendum on their country's future, it was left to one of
their own (Dennis MacShane) to
imperiously order the Macedonians to stay home on Sunday "and think
about what they want."
Desperate, Desperate Tactics
And many did in fact do just that. But not out
of fear of such blowhards as MacShane – in fact, one opposition party said that
this threat actually worked
the other way – but because of government intimidation and an eleventh-hour
overture from the Americans.
The SDSM-DUI government's utter desperation was indicated by their call, echoed
by the West, for voters to boycott the vote. Since a 50 percent voter turnout
was required for the referendum to be legally binding, the government was sure
that its people could be cajoled into staying at home – and could thus scupper
the whole process. Yet this arrogant order showed that the government had learned
nothing about why the referendum had been called in the first place: because
the people felt they had been completely ignored and frozen out from the negotiations
over territorial division. Telling people not to vote, to ignore their democratic
duty to say either "yes" or "no," was in effect condemning
them to be ignored once again.
And thus the Macedonian government won the battle but may have lost the war, eroding any credibility it might once have had. The credibility problem had become acute when SDSM officials admitted having handled the whole thing in an "amateurish" way, for example when it held backroom meetings with DUI in the mountain resort of Mavrovo this summer; afterwards, an ashen-faced Crvenkovski emerged to admit that his party – and thus, the Macedonians – had lost, had caved in to all of the Albanian demands. The West looked on with approval.
It was thus no surprise that Albanians would choose to boycott the vote, as most of them did. The government's forced territorial law was generally in their interest. However, it would prove to be a much harder thing for SDSM to keep its people home. In the end, they had to resort to sheer intimidation. Numerous documented cases indicate a clear and organized policy of threatening state workers and the employees of companies owned by SDSM-aligned businessmen that their jobs would be terminated if they even showed up at the polls on Sunday. "They had people standing there with a list, watching to see if we would vote," said one Kumanovo man who wanted to vote but was too afraid of the consequences. "If anyone from the company showed up, their name would be checked off."
In some cases, the carrot was used instead. "They [the government] handed out big cheese wheels to 8,000 workers from the electricity company, just to buy their silence," charged Tatjana Shisheva, a Macedonian activist from the southwestern town of Struga.
The last straw, however, was Saturday's announcement that for one magic night
the country's draconian regulations on the closing time for bars would be extended
– until 6 a.m. This feeble attempt to get the proletariat plowed and hopefully
keep them unconscious throughout Referendum Sunday just showed that the government
had sunk to a new low in terms of shamelessness.
Americans Bearing Gifts
Yet what was the occasion that necessitated such
celebration in the first place? On Thursday, Team Bush had kicked off term two
with gusto, dropping bombs on both Iraq and Macedonia – the latter being metaphorical,
and thus somewhat more dangerous.
Suddenly, with no prior warning, the U.S. announced that it was officially
recognizing Macedonia by its constitutional name, rather than the unwieldy,
jury-rigged acronym FYROM enforced internationally due to long-standing Greek
lobbying over the name issue. The move had not been completely unexpected and,
after the fact, Athens
newspaper Eleftherotypia claimed that the precise plan had been laid
out in a Sept. 6 State Department meeting.
Although the decision could
have some sobering
side effects, this hardly registered. When the big news struck in Skopje,
one would have thought the heavens themselves had parted and the divine light
itself burst through, illuminating the Macedonians as His chosen people. From
the jubilant reaction of the local media, one might have assumed George W. had
invited Macedonia to become the 51st state.
An example of the local
media's crass new love for America is displayed by Tatjana Shisheva.
Of course, this sudden love becomes somewhat farcical in light of the fact
that anti-Americanism had been steadily gaining ground right up until the fateful
proclamation. After all, the Macedonians had been petitioning
against American plans to build a
new embassy on top of a historical site/Muslim graveyard; then
there was Ambassador Butler's gay
billboards scandal back in February; and, most recently, the beating
of an American contractor in revenge for the beheading
of Macedonian workers laboring for empire in Iraq. Never mind all that.
Having won the approval of the U.S., an "all is forgiven" attitude
pervaded the capital.
Never to miss an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, of course, the government
hastily announced a victory celebration
in Skopje's main square for Saturday night. All the NGOs that matter signed
on, led by some behind-the-scenes machinations by Soros. Commemorative shirts,
traditional dancers, and little American flags somehow appeared, and a few thousand
government sympathizers were brought in to wave them, just so that state TV
could broadcast the news of the new American friendship far and wide. Although
the people were not explicitly told to stay home for Sunday's referendum, it
was so obvious that the U.S. (which explicitly stated its support for
the government) was banking on this cheap stunt to help defeat the referendum.
After all, they
practically said so. And so it was. Rather than say, "about time!"
to the Americans (after all, Macedonia has only been independent for, like,
13 years), Macedonians readily heeded the words of the benevolent global hegemon.
True, the whole thing was a farce; "but like all farces, it loses its charm quite quickly," mused the BHHRG's Mark Almond, who was in Struga to cover the referendum on Sunday. "When a Great Power makes such a concession, it's not out of kindness – it's because they're in an awkward position." Sadly, that fact seemed to have been lost on the naïve Macedonians.
Back to Where It All Began: Struga
I encountered Almond and his Dutch colleague,
Maarten Doude van Troostwijk, a few hours after the referendum had finished
on Sunday. I had come to Struga because it was depicted by the Western press
as the epicenter of Macedonian intolerance and ethnic agitation in August, when
protesters armed with bottles forced
Defense Minister Vlade Buchkovski to flee by helicopter from the SDSM party
headquarters. This came about in reaction to the news that Struga would be one
of the municipalities sacrificed to the DUI under the new territorial division
law. The New York Times even claimed, erroneously, that the enraged mob
had also targeted Albanians. But by
the time the retraction was made (five weeks later), the damage had already
been done; Struga was merely another breeding ground for intolerant, angry Slavs.
(Of course, they never asked about who
blew up the Struga courthouse last year).
window in Struga's almost deserted SDSM party building attests to the vigor
of the August riots.
In light of this, I decided to visit the town. If anything "happened,"
it would likely be here, and even if nothing untoward occurred, the other foreign
journalists would look to Struga to score their "ethnic tensions"
material. Indeed, I found that the weekend representation included reporters
from Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Serbia, Belgium, etc. And there were also
the Chinese journalists interestedly roaming the streets on Sunday, who pointed
out that "Struga is a small, but beautiful city."
Indeed. Located on the northern shores of placid Lake
Ohrid, Struga is
a picturesque town
featuring classic wood-frame houses, winding cobblestone streets and sloping
bridges. It has a long history
and lies close to the hearts of Macedonians. As with other places in western
Macedonia, Struga is significant for the country's cultural
identity. A world-famous poetry festival
is held here every summer. Due to the protests over the territorial law, however,
this year's festival was sadly relocated to Skopje.
The crux of the problem was that the government law will drastically alter
the size and composition of the Struga municipality. At present, the city's
population of 17,000 is around 48 percent Macedonian and 42 percent Albanian.
By forcing isolated rural areas with huge Albanian populations to join it, however,
Struga's ethnic balance will tilt the other way. City officials, state company
directors, zoning laws and regulations, etc. will all be changed – and not for
the better, Macedonians worry.
Ethnic Tensions? Anti-Albanianism? Here?
The Western media has sought to depict this concern
as anti-Albanianism. Yet they don't have an answer for the fact that Struga
has been officially bilingual since 1996, and has strong participation at every
level of the public and private sectors from Albanians. "Every morning
our milk is brought to our door by Albanians," says Gorica Petkovska, sitting
around the table for a pre-referendum meal with 10 family members on Saturday
night. "Our neighbors are Albanian. We have been living peacefully with
The table is laden down with copious amounts of meat, fish, and red wine – a real last supper. Brother Andre, coach of a local soccer team, seconds her opinion.
"My best forward is Albanian," he says. "And today he scored
three goals for us – I love that kid!"
Andre heads the prestigious Karaorman club, the oldest and best squad in Struga.
Karaorman was prominent in Yugoslav times, and boasts among its alumni Artim
Sakiri, an Albanian and the Macedonian national team's best player. (Sakiri
scored against England in 2002, and now
plays for the English team West Bromwich.) Karaorman's young players come
from Macedonian, Turkish, and Albanian backgrounds, and are not sponsored by
political parties. However, Andre claims, Struga's other team (Vlaznimi) is
under the control of Ahmeti's DUI party, and only Albanians can play for it.
"Next week is the Muslim holiday of Bajram, when all the kids on my team
gather for baklava," says Andre, underscoring the difference in mentality.
"And on Easter, the Macedonian kids bring red eggs. We have no problems
on Karaorman … we look at the kids only for their skills as players – I don't
care about their ethnicity."
A Fear of Declining Standards
"We have no problems with Albanian people,"
says 40-year-old Sasha Serbinovski, another local sports legend, in the lakeside
Admiral Café later that night. "Many of my good friends are Albanian."
As if to illustrate this, he scrolls down through the many Albanian names in
the address book of his mobile phone.
What he is afraid of in regards to the territorial law is not Albanian influence,
per se, but the influence of a specific group of people – Ami Ahmeti's NLA/DUI
bunch – who have proven to be untrustworthy since starting a war against their
country, and even after assuming political power in said country.
"One of my best friends is Albanian, and he doesn't support it [the territorial
division]," states Sasha. "He is afraid of what will happen if the
DUI takes over … for the regular, peace-loving Albanian guy also, they are dangerous.
But what can he say? In their society, no one is allowed to disagree with the
This was adequately demonstrated during the 2001 conflict, in which the NLA
(armed precursors to the DUI) extorted thousands of dollars from ordinary citizens,
unless they donated a son for "the cause." Serbinovski offers an anecdote
about an Albanian friend in the nearby village of Veleshta. He had opened a
café there in March 2001, but closed it by June. Apparently, the NLA
had come and demanded $2,500 for their cause or to join them in the hills. "He
couldn't afford to pay. So he closed, and escaped from this country … even people
wanting to have weddings were told they must give a donation equal to their
wedding costs, or else."
A former handball player and coach, Serbinovski was general manager of the Struga swimming pool (one of only three indoor pools in Macedonia) until 16 months ago. After coming to power, the DUI won control over the entire country's public sports facilities. Now, after years of timely salary disbursement, Serbinovski claims, none of the workers have been paid for the past 15 months. However, in the interim the DUI appointee (an NLA veteran whose main sport seems to have been shooting) did find a way to open his own restaurant. The union of sports workers, Serbinovski adds, is about to file suit.
Meanwhile, the famous Struga swimming pool lies in shambles, with no water, no electricity, and windows broken by rocks, its NLA-trained managers thoroughly disinterested in sports, says Sasha. In such a situation, it is unlikely that Macedonia will have many future athletes like Aleksandar Malenko, the swimmer who won a qualifying race in Athens this summer and who during his youth counted on the pool for training. Nor will local people who might like to go swimming for fun have that opportunity. But such is urban life in the new Macedonia.
For many Macedonians, such examples attest to a gradual but persistent erosion of living standards that DUI influence brings with it. For them, opposing the territorial division law is a means of countering that influence.
A Pernicious Trend
Struga, which already has a heavy Albanian presence,
faces the prospect of irrevocable change with the referendum's failure. Take
for example the local Albanian café owner who, when asked what he would
do if a DUI mayor came to power, responded that he would extend his bar over
the water. Currently, such things are prevented by wise zoning laws meant to
preserve the aesthetics and ecology of the lake, claims Tatjana Shisheva.
Further along in the plan, mentioned the café owner, was to buy out
all the Macedonian homes in Struga's old town. This is a common pattern of behavior
that has occurred widely throughout other parts of Macedonia and Kosovo, by
which much wealthier Albanians have given Macedonian and Serb homeowners an
"offer they can't refuse," either through offering huge amounts of
cash or by resorting to threats and violence. Coupled with the large-scale illegal
occupation of land and construction of houses by Albanian immigrants from Kosovo,
this tactic has Albanized whole swathes of northern and western Macedonia. Macedonians
in Struga fear they're next.
By lumping together rural and urban areas into single municipalities, supporters of the referendum contend, civil burdens increase while their capability to support themselves actually decreases. Struga is a case in point. The government plan calls for it take in another 30,000 citizens (in addition to the 50,000 it currently has), from places like the fast-growing village of Veleshta. With a largely Albanian population of 12,000 residents, Veleshta is lined with opulent homes built in a vaguely Russian gangster/nouveau riche fashion; their wealthy owners are either Albanians living in Western Europe, or else the local prostitution bosses who have attracted worldwide attention.
Now all might be well and good, save for the tendency of such villagers to not pay their taxes, while simultaneously demanding access to public services – villagers who live distant from the lake yet are also eager to rewrite the laws governing those who live right next to it.
In other words, you have a situation whereby an enormous rural population that
has nothing to do with the life of the city, which possesses huge wealth and
nevertheless refuses to contribute to the common good, seeks to control a city
it doesn't belong to, its laws and municipal budget, for purposes that will
bring increased crime, aesthetic degradation, and wildly different social values.
One can imagine why the Macedonians are wary.
Tasevska, Rade Lozankoski, and Violeta Juteska help process voters…
"We Have Been Cut Loose"
With the arrival of Sunday morning, Struga's referendum
backers seem to be almost optimistic. The day is overcast, but the mood is festive.
People are in an almost celebratory mood, calling down the street to friends
coming back from or on the way to the polls. In one polling place on Marshall
Tito Street, poll worker Jakelina Tasevska said that "there are no problems,
people are happy." By 11:00 a.m., 200 people have shown up. The whole setup
– a little room where Tasevska and colleagues Rade Lozankoski and Violeta Juteska
check off voter names and supervise a plastic box of ballots – seems like something
out of small-town America. Even though observers from DUI, VMRO, and the World
Macedonian Congress are all in the same room to keep an eye on the voting, the
situation hardly seems to be tense. Reporters coming in search of ethnic tensions
are likely to be disappointed today.
…while DUI observer Dritan
Tateshi keeps a watchful eye out for mischief.
Perhaps because of their long legacy of multi-ethnic cohabitation, Struga and
its people have always tilted toward the SDSM, an outgrowth of Tito's Socialist
Party and perceived as being less nationalistic than the main Macedonian opposition
party, VMRO. After visiting polling stations, I meet Dejan Belevski, one of
the main local figures of the former, in the same café as the night before.
The place is full of life and guarded optimism for the referendum.
An SDSM Central Committee member, the 36-year-old Belevski informs me that
Struga's branch of the SDSM has nevertheless gone independent. The main party
put a moratorium on its local activities in Struga after the August incidents.
"So basically, we have been cut loose," he says. "I will vote
in the referendum, first of all because I am a citizen of Macedonia – and second
of all because I am from SDSM."
The local boss of the party, Goran Popovski, sips coffee with Dejan and friends.
All seem quite happy with the situation of alienation from Skopje, and all will
Nobody has a particularly bad word to say about the party leaders; while they
agree with the party on most issues, the territorial division alone is a big
enough threat to their daily life to warrant much protest. There is no anti-Crvenkovski
talk, as I had heard from many others the night before. Instead, the pair are
philosophical about their party's officials. "And hey," quips Dejan,
"at least [Vice-Prime Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Radmila] Shekerinska
looks good in a bathing suit." The point is argued back and forth amidst
Meanwhile, the Mayor Waits
A couple of hours later, on the other side of
town, Struga Mayor Romeo Dereban is moodily sipping cognac in his spacious,
slightly Yugoslav office, in between interviews with a range of foreign journalists,
Serbian, Swiss, Greek, and local. The first results are beginning to come in
from around the country, and the situation is not looking good.
"I must be an optimist," he says, "but I am sure the government will try to falsify the results. And the [Saturday night pro-American] rally – this was a violation on their part of the pre-referendum silence we must observe."
What will he do if there is fraud, or if the referendum fails? "If there
is falsification," states Dereban, "we would appeal to the State Election
Commission. And we have steps for if the referendum fails: boycotting local
elections, holding parallel elections, and finally, taking steps for the independence
A crew from the Greek
TV Mega interviews Struga Mayor Dereban.
This novel idea, to make the lakeside town into something like Monaco, has been floated for months. Yet actually, it's not so novel: the patriotic Macedonian population of nearby Vevchani declared it would become independent over a decade ago, and garnered bemused worldwide attention in the process.
At the time, Vevchani – which is surrounded by Albanian villages – was driven
by some of the same fears now being felt in Struga. (This year, the government
was wiser than to try and take away the former's municipal status). And so the
mayor is asked to answer the usual charge – the existence of anti-Albanianism
among Struga's Macedonian population. "I refer [journalists] to speak to
the Albanians themselves on this issue," he retorts. "You can ask
them if they think their local government behaves from a nationalistic perspective.
Ask them if we had war here in 2001. Ask them if we don't have a strong sense
of living together in Struga."
"Our Territory Is a Battleground"
Nevertheless, there is little chance that Struga
would be allowed to become independent. It is too valuable a prize to too many
people. And it's doubtful that the present Albanian minority in the town, peaceful
as they are, would vote to have such an entity.
Still, says the major, "I am skeptical about the real intentions of the EU. They have never taken Macedonia seriously as a real partner. Our territory is a battleground for the EU to solve its interests with the Albanians and Greece." Dereban even speculates that the Great Powers seek to create an international conference "to discuss the future of this 'unresolved' area."
I ask him about the nearby villages of Labunishta and Oktisi, which are populated by Macedonian Muslims. Is it not true, as others have claimed, that these villagers have been gradually turning toward Albanian benefactors because the government has historically ignored them?
"They get what they deserve," mutters Dereban. "You must understand,
this is a very special group of people. They have no long-term interests. They
tell me, 'if you build us an asphalt road here, we will vote for you.' After
all, they changed their religion for economic reasons." (The BHHRG's Maarten
Doude van Troostwijk will later second this verdict; according to him, the people
in Labunishta quite tellingly said, "Look, we live in the Balkans. We change
with the weather.")
Labunishta had given referendum supporters some reason for hope; after all,
in a local referendum held this January, 98 percent had turned out to vote against
the government's plan. Today, however, less than 1 percent will turn out to
"The influence there is from the mosques, and from the DUI," claims the mayor. "Of the 10,000 citizens there, half are for DUI. The Albanians have gotten them to start declaring themselves as Albanian because of their common religion."
As he says this, as if on cue, the afternoon call to prayers from a nearby
mosque in Struga goes off. A1 Television, fairly pro-government, is unveiling
dismal statistics citing voting turnout as of 10 a.m. Everywhere in the country,
the situation is the same: less than 5 percent. Is this presentation meant to
inspire fatalism and keep voters at home? Shortly thereafter, the pro-referendum
Sitel TV comes out with different, more optimistic figures. State television
ignores the referendum completely. Yet it is clear that the referendum drive
is not off to a good start. It begins to rain.
The journalists depart, and the mayor is joined by several other older gentlemen who sit around the long table clutching rock glasses filled with brandy, making toasts to the memory of Struga's WWII anti-fascist resistance. The huddled men and their useless political fondnesses, their sentimental melancholy and drinks, their arrival from a cold, lush and rainy outdoors – taken together, the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Ivy Day in the Committee Room or some other story by Joyce.
Meanwhile, the municipal polling station (which represents a large Albanian
population) has seen little action. As everywhere else in the country, the Albanian
turnout has been nil. Even the poll workers don't want to talk about the referendum.
This is not surprising; as Messrs. Petrevski and Srbinkovski had told me, it
was a subject that they just didn't talk about with their Albanian friends.
An Underwhelming Finish
As Sunday afternoon wears on, the rain intensifies
and darkness starts to creep over the lake. Now it seems fairly certain that
the referendum will fail. The government has fixed things even with the weather.
I had asked Tatjana Shisheva the day before what would happen if the referendum
succeeded. She just smiled and said, "We'll have a party." And if
it failed? "We'll have a party."
night, when it was clear the referendum would fail, few remained to see
Todor Petrov lodge his complaints over voting irregularities.
However, the majority of Struga apparently didn't feel the same way. By night,
the Admiral Café, so lively and full of cheer just a few hours earlier,
is empty save for a handful of men watching Todor Petrov on television, denouncing
the irregularities that had plagued the vote: telephone lines cut in the morning,
mysterious electricity outages in key towns, polling places not opening or closing
early, intimidation, fraud, etc. But it is hopeless. Everyone already knows
that the OSCE will find the voting to have been "generally
consistent" with Western standards.
So the referendum has failed. Now the only question to be resolved is by how much. While Petrov claimed 41 percent of voters had turned out, the SDSM is claiming only 26 percent, the State Election Committee even less.
However, there is something to be said for the fact that hundreds of thousands
of people have turned out to exercise their democratic vote. It is a sharp rebuke
of the government and its plans. It's clear that this minority of the majority
will have to be taken account of in the future. Such a silver lining is what
will lead VMRO chief Nikola Gruevski
to cheer the turnout. And, as one Skopje resident cracked, "At least
it means all those state workers who obeyed and stayed home will get to keep
their jobs." Quite.
leader of Macedonia's biggest opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski,
pictured here at a July rally, faced insurmountable odds in achieving a
sufficient voter turnout.
I end the evening at the café in the company of Messrs. van Troostwijk
and Almond, who are recounting their day's adventures monitoring the polls in
several Struga-area villages. While they saw one case of ballot-stuffing, they
agree with most observers that the voting was generally uneventful.
The former marvels at how "the greatest Western democracies told [Macedonians]
not to participate in democracy. If they had said, 'now, exercise your right,
though in our opinion you should vote no,' that would have been one thing. But
for the people who are supposed to provide the benchmark of democracy to call
for a boycott – it's astonishing."
For Almond, the most peculiar thing is how the Macedonians were tricked by
America's name recognition overture. He points out how Macedonia should avoid
ruining its good relations with top investor and neighbor Greece, while also
pondering why for Macedonia, external validation should be so necessary. "In
all my travels," he says, "I've never heard anyone call the country
anything but Macedonia. So why should it bother them that the inner workings
of the EU or UN call them FYROM? If you have to count on foreigners to give
you a name, or a history, I mean…."
Not Again, Yet Again
Indeed, this is part of the general problem with
Macedonia, the referendum and its explanation in the media. When you know what
the articles are going to say before they're written, when you know in advance
the terms that will be deployed, or the political scenarios that will unfold,
in short the context within which everything will be neatly packaged for consumption
– this past weekend in Macedonia, there was a depressing sense of history being
made, or at least of it being made for you.
Monday morning brings with it the clarity of countenancing
failure. There is no apparent sign of an independence announcement from town
hall. Lake Ohrid laps gently up onto Struga's shores, just as it has done every
day for 3 million years. By a brake of reeds, a couple of fishermen try their
luck. A drizzle falls. Nothing has changed, but at the same time everything
"There was no result. I will stop to protest." Dejan Belevski, the SDSM man cut loose, is discussing his future and Struga's. "I think that we are the losers, and this is the end."
"You know, your ambassador, Lawrence Butler, he was sitting here with
me on Friday morning. I explained everything from our perspective. He just listened
without saying anything."
So, I ask Dejan, what will he do now? Is there a chance for a better future in Macedonia, even despite the referendum's failure?
"I will stay here, and live," says Belevski. "But my daughter,
who is now seven … someday she will go and live in a better place. Yes. A better
country than Macedonia."
Unintentional art: a battered
billboard in Struga displays jagged pieces of overlaid anti-referendum ads,
torn, burnt, and dangling precariously. Kind of like Macedonia.