Macedonia’s current local government legislation dates back to 1996 when the current president Branko Crvenkovski was prime minister of an SDSM-led government. Then the current main opposition party, VMRO-DPME, opposed the changes. Each big Macedonian party has reversed its position on local government and this, no doubt, contributes to cynicism among ordinary Macedonian citizens of all ethnicities.
The Ohrid Agreement and Euro-Atlantic integration are invariably cited as the main reason for changing the 1996 arrangements with subsidiary emphasis on the changes alleged benefits to local people and local government finances and services.
Although re-districting had been an issue hovering in the background of post-Ohrid Macedonian politics it only really took off as an issue from early 2004. By mid-summer widespread protests and referendums in 41 localities (not all ethnically mixed) had expressed opposition to proposed changes. These were poorly understood. Backroom deals between Crvenkovski and Ahmeti of DUI were widely feared.
As early as 2nd July, RFE’s Ulrich Buechsenschuetz noted that the talks between government and opposition had become “deadlocked.” Partly this reflected a clash between the two main Macedonian parties, the ruling SDSM and the main opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) but even “some legal experts complain that the talks on the redistricting plans lack transparency, warning that the decentralization efforts might fail altogether.”
The basic scheme of reducing the 123 districts (Opstini) to around 60 – the government never clarified exactly how many places would be affected or when – was supposed to enhance local control over finance for health care and education, but little explanation was offered how this would happen, not least in a country under ever stricter budgetary regulation if it was to meet EU entry criteria.
Although local government minister, Alexander Gestakovski, said in February, 2004, that the government would take account of local referendums , after 40 of them had supported the proposals, the government under pressure from DUI and its Euro-Atlantic backers decided to ignore local expressions of opinion. 
RFE/RL’s Buechsenschuetz noted that “Initially, the protests against the redistricting plans focused on legal, administrative, and financial issues rather than on
the districts' ethnic composition.” There were many reasons for revising or keeping the post-1996 boundaries which did not involve Macedonia’s sensitive ethnic balance. A number of purely Macedonian districts objected to the plan even though it would not involve “diluting” their ethnic composition. Several non-Macedonian but also non-Albanian minority townships had also expressed doubts about the plans. But ethnicity increasingly reared its head as the central issue.
Buechsenschuetz’s analysis was that the proposed reform was inciting the very inter-ethnic antagonisms that the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement was supposed to lay to rest:
“The shift from administrative, legal, or financial issues to ethnic and national issues in the talks about decentralization makes it more difficult to find a lasting solution, Gordana Siljanovska -- a law professor at Skopje University -- told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 20 June. ‘When you talk about things like language, names, [or] symbols, then you are talking about things charged with passion,’ Siljanovska said, adding, ‘It is difficult to reach any agreement about things that involve emotions.’ But Siljanovska also complained that the talks among politicians on decentralization are taking place behind closed doors, thereby excluding the people who will be directly affected. For Siljanovska, such closed talks de-legitimize the government and the administrative reform as a whole.”
Pushing through the changes without positive public support across the spectrum risked causing further trouble down the line, according to Buechsenschuetz: “Given the complexity of the reform and its importance for the future of Macedonia, any quick solution without public support and against the will of the citizens could become a Pyrrhic victory for the government.”
From 7th July, a number of small scale clashes between police and protestors took place across Macedonia from the capital, Skopje, to southern towns like Ohrid.
On 20th July, the ruling SDSM agreed with its partners the Albanian DUI and the LDP to implement the re-districting proposals. This decision was immediately endorsed by the ambassadors of the USA and EU countries who declared that Macedonia “has made another important step towards its European future.” Two days later a key member of the SDSM government, defence minister, Vlado Buchkovski, witnessed for himself how high emotions could run on the issue.
On 22nd July, 2004, the lakeside town of Struga was the scene of unprecedented clashes between police and local people after a crowd of at least 600 gathered outside the local headquarters of the ruling SDSM party where defence minister Buchkovski, and the party’s general-secretary, Nichola Kurciev, were present. The protestors were demanding that the government in Skopje abandon its re-districting plans. At about 9pm Mr Buchkovski gave a telephone interview to a local radio station in which he disparaged the demonstrators besieging the SDSM headquarters. The mood turned even uglier and a petrol bomb was thrown at the building igniting a small fire. Using rubber bullets and CS tear gas special police and para-military units attacked the crowd while the politicians were rescued by helicopter. The EU’s Proxima police mission approved the Macedonian authorities’ handling of the situation.
On 24th October, three BHHRG observers had a long meeting with members of the Struga “crisis staff” in the town hall. A number of these mainly middle-aged and elderly people had evidence of injuries received at the hands of the security forces. Either they still bore the scars or they had photographs of themselves taken at the time. They also displayed the used casings of CS gas canisters and rubber bullets. The general view of this group was that the police had deliberately used excessive force, especially once Buchkovski and his team had been rescued and that this use of force against so many older people was intended to intimidate the local population. Their argument was that even if protecting the defence minister and his associates was the police’s duty, the intensification of their attack on the protestors after the rescue mission was completed had a political not a policing purpose.
Why Re-districting is a big issue
Control over territory and particularly over valuable real-estate lies at the heart of the controversy. Voting rights are not the issue. Nor are language rights. Anyone familiar with the situation in Struga or observing the polls could see multi-lingual ballots and signs already in use. Although some local Macedonians expressed fears that the new districts would effectively re-create the boundaries of the “Greater Albania” established by Mussolini in 1941 when these parts of western Macedonia were incorporated into the Italian-ruled Kingdom of Albania, in practice more current concerns about the realities of a domination of Struga by neighbouring Albanian-mafia dominated communities in the hinterland were the main arguments against re-districting.
The shores of Lake Ohrid are relatively underdeveloped. By Soviet standards, Tito’s Yugoslavia had a good record for protecting areas of outstanding natural interest and ecological value. Lake Ohrid with its natural beauty, unique trout population and fine reed beds combined with the wealth of ancient and especially medieval Orthodox Christian remains is a particularly vulnerable environment.
Anyone seeing the great swathes of Macedonia already consumed by the house-building frenzy among local Albanians fuelled by the endless supplies of cheap brick and mass-produced tiles from the EU must fear that any shift in the control of a town like Struga will see the collapse of building regulations and environmental controls already so evident in Albanian-controlled municipalities.
Kicevo will now include Ali Ahmeti’s birthplace, Zajas. Anyone visiting Zajas and other ethnically purified villages will notice its high-walled compounds. These are not traditional. Newly-built and lavishly appointed houses can be seen behind the high walls and blank gates which block ground level access and viewing. Macedonian houses and older Albanian houses and cottages are not as intimidating as these new constructions. The embattled minority certainly knows how to protect itself and to preserve its privacy. Politically correct apologies for these mini-fortresses will no doubt say that they reflect a Muslim concern for women’s sanctity. Sadly, well-founded reports suggest that in some parts of Albanian-controlled Macedonia these strictly private buildings house brothels where sex slaves from impoverished East European states are held captive for the pleasure of well-paid “internationals” who are securing the “peace process” in the Balkans.
 See Buechsenschuetz, “ END NOTE: MACEDONIAN DECENTRALIZATION TALKS DEADLOCKED” in RFE/RL Research Report (2nd July, 2004),
 See ibid.,
 See http://see.oneworld.net/article/view/90284/1/,
 See http://www.realitymacedonia.org.mk/web/news_page.asp?nid=3473.