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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 November, 2004, 01:23 GMT
Poll fears divide Macedonians
By Matt Prodger
BBC News in Struga, Macedonia

Lake Ohrid
The calm of Lake Ohrid contrasts with local ethnic tensions
Macedonia's controversial national referendum gives people a chance to vote on plans for more power to ethnic Albanians, who make up around a quarter of the population.

It is a key part of a peace deal which ended fighting between Macedonians and Albanians in the former Yugoslav republic three years ago.

The town of Struga sits on the banks of Lake Ohrid, the Macedonian landmark which lends its name to the 2001 peace accord that set the country on its current path.

Borce Gjoneski - a waiter at one of Struga's lakeside restaurants - has lived here for years, but if Sunday's referendum fails to overturn current legislation, he says he'll be leaving the town for good.

That's because the municipality which Struga lies within will be altered to include outlying Albanian villages, making Slavic Macedonians within it a minority.

Borce is a Macedonian: "If the referendum fails then for sure I'm moving away from Struga. Others are already.

"People are watching what's going on and they're moving.''

Ethnic divisions

Just across from Borce's restaurant is the burnt-out building where Macedonia's Defence Minister Vladimir Buckovski had to barricade himself in one night in July.

Struga waiter Borce Gjoneski
If the referendum fails then for sure I'm moving away from Struga
Borce Gjoneski
Macedonian waiter, Struga
He had come to present the government's arguments for municipal reorganisation to Macedonian nationalists.

Instead, a mob tried to attack him and he had to be rescued by police.

Such sentiments have got Macedonia where it is today, with a referendum on a subject - the Ohrid framework agreement - that many thought had been settled.

Macedonian opponents of the government's so-called decentralisation plan say that it will create Albanian "cantons".

Todor Petrov, from the nationalist World Macedonian Congress, says the state is being territorially divided along ethnic lines.

"Villages are being drawn into different municipalities, and the natural ethnic balance is being altered by the force of law," he said.

Turnout crucial

Many Macedonians accept that the Ohrid plan is the price they have to pay for peace: more autonomy for Albanians, and the recognition of the Albanian tongue as an official language in areas where they make up more than 20% of the population (including Skopje).

Others say they have conceded enough, and they are the Macedonians who will be making their displeasure clear by voting in the referendum.

The vast majority of ethnic Albanians are expected to boycott the referendum.

Shpetim Pollozhani from Struga speaks for many: "I don't feel good about this referendum because it's been organised by and for the Macedonians.

"Albanians are boycotting it because we think that it's trying to draw back rights that were promised to the Albanians under the Ohrid agreements.''

The referendum needs a 50% turnout if it is to be valid. The Macedonian government, the Albanians and the international backers of the Ohrid framework agreement - principally Nato and the European Union - are hoping for a low turnout.

On Thursday the United States gave the government a boost when it announced it would henceforth recognise the country as Macedonia, rather than the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) which it has been known as for more than a decade.

It was a move which delighted Macedonians.

Macedonia cabinet survives vote
19 Sep 04 |  Europe

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