Macedonia's three-year peace process faced one of its biggest hurdles yesterday as voters went to the polls in a referendum called by opponents of EU-backed laws designed to empower the ethnic Albanian minority.
The VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and more than 30 other groups want to throw out the legislation, which will change municipal boundaries in the former Yugoslav republic to give ethnic Albanians more say over their affairs.
The laws are the last step in the implementation of the internationally brokered Ohrid peace agreement which ended seven months of fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2001.
But the legislation sparked riots by the Macedonian majority when it was introduced in early August, amid fears it will lead to ethnic-based federalization or even renewed conflict.
The government, including the main ethnic Albanian party in the ruling coalition, has called for a boycott. Turnout of more than 50 percent is required for the vote to be declared valid.
Prime Minister Hari Kostov has also threatened to resign if it succeeds, saying the reforms are vital to Macedonia's bid to join the EU and NATO.
The EU formally opened accession talks with Macedonia last month. European officials have backed the boycott, telling Macedonia's 1.7 million voters to "stay at home."
The question being asked in the referendum is whether voters accept the previous municipal boundaries. If the "Yes" vote gains a majority the government will have to amend the legislation and re-submit it to parliament.
Critics argue that the new boundaries are an arbitrary exercise in gerrymandering which were bulldozed through parliament without proper public consultation.
Under the legislation, ethnic Albanians will gain majorities in the towns of Struga and Kicevo, in the mainly ethnic Albanian west of the country, while Albanian will become the second official language in the capital Skopje.
The government was given a major boost Thursday when the US announced it would recognize the country of 2 million people by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.
The US move enraged Greece, which insists its northern province of Macedonia has a monopoly on the name, but it has been cause for national celebration on the streets of Skopje.
And the partying continued overnight Saturday after the government took the exceptional step of relaxing bar closing times, normally set at midnight, to allow the celebrations to carry on into the morning of the referendum.
Opposition groups criticized President Branko Crvenkovski for addressing a rally overnight in the capital, during the 48-hour electoral silence period before the referendum.