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From Accommodation towards De-ethnicisation
The above case shows how in a period of few years decentralisation policy underwent major transformation. From a highly contested ethnicised topic, decentralisation became an issue about allocation of tax revenues between the central and local government. The outcomes from the implementation of early decentralisation reforms had positive impact on ethnic relations and the quality of services provided to citizens. This relaxed ethnic tensions and fears of creeping federalisation and the issue soon lost its ethnic appeal.
The most important factor that explains successful accommodation is the empowerment of local political elites and emergence of an independent advocacy body, ZELS, which allowed neutral space for mediation of the mayors' common interests. Without ZELS it would have been difficult for all mayors to articulate their common interest and demands from the central government, as there was no other body to provide a neutral and informal forum where local politicians would be able to shed their ethnic and political party 'hats' to discuss only local government problems. The neutral institutional structure had facilitated elite socialisation, through regulated rules of procedure and unanimous decision-making, which in turn accelerated the development of distinct 'local' political elite interests.
ZELS's work allowed the creation of a cross-cutting cleavage in the area of decentralisation, local vs. central government, which runs across political party and ethnic group divide. This shifted the dominant line of contestation, so other cleavages, ethnic and political party, became less salient. The existence of local vs. central cleavage narrowed down the space for ethnic competition, as both
43 See European Commission, Annual Progress Reports for Macedonia between 2009–2010, sections on decentralisation. Also, Anonymous, Member of EC Delegation: personal interview with the author, Skopje, 14 July 2010.
44 See editorial: 'Opasni (partiski) vrski' [Dangerous (party) liaisons], in Utrinski Vesnik, 8 November 2012. Available at: utrinski.com.mk/default.asp?ItemID=7 1628C1D1B053C45A499C879B903BD08 (accessed 20 November 2010). Macedonian and Albanian opposition parties were represented among the mayors in ZELS and supported the common position of ZELS. Cross-cutting cleavages offset ethnic bidding tendencies of the power-sharing system, confirming previous research findings on this issue.45
The influence of external actors, although indirect, greatly facilitated accommodation in this case. By providing financial assistance to ZELS and ensuring its independence from government and political parties, external actors enabled the creation of an informal and neutral space where local political elites would negotiate and arrive at mutually acceptable solutions without additional external incentives. This facilitated accommodation, strengthened the values of power-sharing and allowed for less direct involvement of international representatives in domestic politics.
In summary, decentralisation policy in post-conflict Macedonia can reasonably be considered a success. In the last decade from a completely centralised state, Macedonia has evolved into gradually decentralising one, where issues of local self-governance are increasingly not phrased in terms of ethnic relations and grievances. Power-sharing, informal practices and external actors again appear as the main factors behind this outcome.
The formal power-sharing mechanisms introduced by the OFA were the necessary condition for successful decentralisation reform. They increased the agenda-setting and bargaining powers of Albanian politicians in government coalition, forcing Macedonian politicians to take their interests into account. The two-party coalition formations worked better than a grand coalition, which although representative and inclusive had no common programme or policy priorities and discouraged intra-group competition. Smaller coalitions also allowed for stronger opposition and encouraged intra-group party competition, which led to cross-cutting ethnic and government vs. opposition lines of contestation and de-ethnicisation of decentralisation.
Informal practices and procedures further contributed to successful accommodation over decentralisation. Informal coalition deals are a necessary by-product of coalition governments, moreover, they are at the core of executive power-sharing, as they unite the priorities and interests of different groups under a single government platform.46 Without them accommodation is problematic, as demonstrated by the case of Law on local self-government, where the grand coalition had no previous agreement. Informal bodies that aggregate and advocate group interests are another form of informal practice that helped political elites reach consensus. Such consensus allowed them to successfully advocate their interest before the central government and avoid resistance on ethnic or ideological grounds. Cross-cutting interests reduce framing policies in 'zero-sum' terms, as it
45 In particular Kanchan Chandra's argument about ethnic bidding in India, in 'Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability', Perspectives on Politics, 3(2) (June 2005): 235–252.
46 Arend Lijphart, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968). is difficult to show that only one ethnic group benefits from the policy.47 Once a policy is perceived in 'win-win' terms, accommodation becomes much easier and leads to agreement over proposed reforms.
On two instances external actors used conditionality to induce political elites to accommodate. In 2002, conditionality with the international donor conference was sufficient for Macedonian parties to abandon their resistance. However, in the second instance, when the EU and NATO stood against the referendum over territorial organisation of municipalities, VMRO-DPMNE did not give up and persisted with the nationalist rhetoric demonstrating the limits of external actors' influence over domestic elites. Although often effective and advocated by scholars of power-sharing,48 external actors' relation to power-sharing is ambiguous. External actors only intervene when they need to remedy the failure of formal institutions to successfully solve political problems, thus lending stability to a divided political system. As political elites become more accustomed to powersharing constraints they are expected to need less external interference, but they can also come to rely on external input for solving thorny issues, thus leading to continued dependence on external actors. Support for independent bodies that create cross-cutting cleavages and identities is another means of external influence, one with less immediate results but with greater long-term potential to decrease ethnic divisions and reduce external involvement.
47 Similar argument as Kanchan Chandra, 'Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability'.
48 Michal Kerr, Imposing Power-Sharing (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006).