Macedonian town threatens to bid for independence

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A MACEDONIAN town is threatening to declare its independence in protest at government plans to devolve increasing power to ethnic Albanians.

Struga is a lakeside town in the south of the former Yugoslav republic, with a population of 37,000, a majority of whom are Macedonian Slavs. Along with a caucus of citizens its mayor is threatening to secede from the state.

"We are investigating whether we can acquire some kind of independent status within Macedonia," says Struga’s mayor, Romeo Dereban, sitting in an office with four telephones, three white and one red.

Like many other Macedonian Slavs, the mayor fears that if government plans to decentralise state administration continue, and local municipal boundaries are re-drawn, the population of Struga will become predominantly ethnic Albanian. "Albanian will then become the primary official language, and we would lose Macedonian culture," he said.

The Crisis Staff for Struga’s Survival, a self-appointed group of Macedonian Slavs, threatens to introduce a "Struga Independence Charter" if increasing political devolution introduced by central government in the capital, Skopje, means that the town becomes predominantly ethnic Albanian.

"Civil disobedience and radicalisation of resistance adopted earlier this month, along with road-blocking and peaceful protests" would be among the results of self-declared independence, said the Crisis Staff on a website.

Struga is on the political front line of an increasingly volatile situation in Macedonia, the flashpoint Balkan state that in 2001 underwent seven months of violent conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces.

The internationally sponsored pact that bought an end to the 2001 conflict, known as the Ohrid Agreement after the lake on which it was negotiated, contains key clauses on political decentralisation of power.

In 16 out of 80 municipalities, boundaries will be redrawn so that ethnic Albanians, who make up 600,000 of Macedonia’s two million population, are in a majority.

Struga will be one such municipality. In July rioting broke out, leaving 30 people injured including 17 police, when Macedonian government officials from the ruling coalition came to Struga to discuss the proposals. The defence minister from the majority Social Democrat Party had to be evacuated by paramilitary police.

Macedonia’s EU membership bid was submitted this May, and implementation of the terms of the Ohrid Agreement is mandatory for it to proceed.

A hardline Macedonian Slav caucus, the World Macedonian Congress, has been trying to gather the necessary 150,000 signatures opposing increased devolution that would oblige the Skopje government to introduce a referendum on the issue. The signatures were expected to be delivered to parliament in Skopje yesterday.

International officials fear further violence if the country’s Albanian minority is further politically enfranchised, but all concerned know that the road to EU accession is blocked without decentralisation.