Not all votes are equal

The West's different responses to elections in Ukraine, Macedonia and Kosovo suggests that it only supports the will of the people when the people do as they're told.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics World

During the recent political crisis in Ukraine, Western politicians and commentators celebrated opposition demonstrations in Kiev’s main square as symbols of the brave people of the Ukraine standing up for democracy. Around the same time, a largely unreported referendum was taking place in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in which the highest echelons of the international community intervened forcefully to discourage voting.

These contrasting approaches to political participation demonstrate that the West doesn’t support democratic participation in all circumstances.

The November 2004 referendum in Macedonia concerned a law that was to begin implementation of the Ohrid Agreement (1). The Ohrid Agreement was signed in August 2001 between the Macedonian government and Macedonian Albanian parties, and had been brokered by the European Union (EU) and the USA. This came after several months of fighting between the army and Albanian separatist groups, sparked in March 2001 when Macedonian Albanian guerrillas in alliance with Kosovo Albanian fighters began offensives in the Macedonian areas of Tetovo and Kumanovo. Under NATO and EU pressure, in August 2001 the Macedonian government withdrew its heavy weaponry from the areas of conflict (although the forces were blocked from doing so for several days by residents of Tetovo who did not want them to go).

The Ohrid Agreement entailed a redivision of the country’s internal administrative units, creating fewer units with far greater autonomy. The redivision also gave the Albanian minority more power in several areas – control over education and health, for example, and ethnic quotas for the police, judiciary and other institutions. NATO and the EU heralded the agreement as vital for the stabilisation and peaceful development of the country, and as a crucial step for the beginning of Macedonia’s EU accession talks. However, this agreement seems to have only increased tensions between Macedonia’s Slav and Albanian populations, with Macedonian Slav citizens seeing it as the first step towards secession of Albanian majority areas.

In August 2004 the Macedonian government passed a law that would implement some of the Ohrid Agreement and begin decentralisation. Demonstrations against the law were held in Skopje, and a campaign grew for a referendum aiming to repeal the law. It was this referendum, held on 7 November 2004, which precipitated a flurry of activity in the international community.

The Presidency of the EU warned Macedonia that should the referendum be successful in rejecting the law, Macedonia’s chances of joining the EU would be seriously threatened (2). Lawrence Butler, US ambassador to Macedonia (3), and Michael Sahlin, the EU’s special representative in Macedonia (4), also issued warnings, while US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld mentioned Macedonia’s application to join NATO:

‘The success in becoming a NATO member will largely depend on the success in implementing the Framework Agreement, which includes stronger and more effective local self-government units. The legislation passed this August will certainly help democracy strengthen in the grassroots. The Macedonian people are facing a choice of a future with NATO and the EU where stability and economic growth can thrive, or a return to the past.’ (5)

The Macedonian government also announced that it would resign if the referendum was successful, and urged the population not to vote (6). The Macedonian Constitution requires a voter turnout of at least 50 per cent for a referendum to be valid. But the case of this referendum, turnout was only 26 per cent, with the Albanian population almost entirely boycotting the vote (7).

It might have been thought that the international community would be concerned by this lack of participation, but far from it. In fact, it was quick to praise the failure of the referendum due to low voter turnout.

‘It shows that the citizens have chosen to maintain the course towards the European Union’, said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (8). The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) welcomed the result, as did US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (9). The British minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, praised Macedonians:

‘This is a clear signal that Macedonia wants to continue on its path towards full membership of the European family of nations as well as NATO membership. I congratulate the leaders of the Macedonian and Albanian parties and communities who made clear that the clock should not be turned back and that the Lake Ohrid agreement will be upheld and must now be fully implemented. We look forward to cooperating with Macedonia over the nation’s ambitions for Euro-Atlantic integration.’ (10)

Ironically, only two weeks before, at the end of October 2004, the international community had condemned the low level of voter participation in the Serbian region of Kosovo. The remaining Serbs of Kosovo, who were widely expected to boycott the elections, had been urged to vote by the NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and UN chief Kofi Annan (11). Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), criticised Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica’s call for Kosovo’s Serbs to boycott the election.

Only around one per cent of Kosovo’s Serbs voted. Jessen-Petersen complained that some Serbs had been intimidated into observing the boycott and had ‘had their democratic right to vote hijacked’ (12). However, he also said that the participation of just over 50 per cent of Kosovo’s voters did render the elections legitimate (13).

What conclusions can be drawn from these different treatments of Macedonia, Ukraine and Kosovo? It seems that for the international community all votes are not equal: political participation is understood in an instrumental way, which has little to do with the democratic will of the electorate.

In Kosovo it was important for the international community for the Serbs to participate in the elections, in order to present a less disastrous image of the province after five years of international administration. In Macedonia it was vital for the vote to fail as it would impede the internationally imposed Ohrid Agreement. In Ukraine, the international community encouraged citizens to protest against the marginal defeat of its favoured candidate, Viktor Yuschenko.

While Ukrainians are urged to fight for their right to have their votes counted, Macedonians are told in no uncertain terms that they can forget EU/NATO membership if they make their votes count. Neither call had anything to do with the democratic will of the citizens of the former Yugoslavia or the Ukraine.

(1) Full text of the Agreement available on the Council of Europe website

(2) Press releases (CFSP), 2 November 2004, General Affairs and External Relations, available from Democracy Monitor

(3) U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia: Referendum Diminishes Chances for Joining NATO and EU, Reality Macedonia, 27 September 2004

(4) ‘Divisive’ poll could spark civil war in Macedonia’, The Times 6 November 2004

(5) Rumsfeld: United States to Continue Support of Macedonia on Road to NATO, Southeast European Times, 13 October 2004

(6) ‘Macedonia’s government to quit if voters opt to block powers for Albanian minority’, The Irish Times, 6 November 2004

(7) ‘Macedonia vote falling short’, World News Digest, FT, 8 November 2004

(8) ‘EU welcomes scuttling of vote by Macedonians’, The Irish Times, 9 November 2004

(9) US, EU Praise Results of Macedonia Referendum, Southeast European Times, 9 November 2004

(10) Macshane welcomes Macedonian referendum decision, Diplomacy Monitor, 8 November 2004

(11) ‘Serb boycott likely to lessen validity of Kosovo poll’, The Irish Times, 23 October 2004

(12) ‘Kosovo poll reveals failure of UN rule’, Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2004

(13) ‘Serbs’ poll boycott leaves shadow over Kosovo peace talks’, FT, 25 October 2004

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Topics Politics World


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