Step by Step in The Balkans

Ever so slowly, countries that once made up the former Yugoslavia are reorienting themselves toward the West and its democratic institutions.

In a region devastated by war in the 1990s and continuing ethnic tension, every step in this direction - no matter how small - deserves a nudge of the elbow and a pat on the back.

So it is that the people of Macedonia should be applauded for sleeping in on Nov. 7 instead of voting for a referendum that represented a backward step toward ethnic intolerance.

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The referendum, organized by hard-line parties opposed to the Western-oriented prime minister, would have rescinded a law granting local autonomy to Macedonia's Albanian minority. The law grew out of a Western-brokered peace deal that settled an Albanian insurgency in 2001.

Prime Minister Hari Kostov urged voters to stay home, and the referendum failed for lack of minimum turnout. Had the measure passed, Macedonia's prospects for joining the European Union and NATO would have been set back.

This case illustrates the influence that both the EU and the US can exert in the Balkans by opening the door for membership in the "Western clubs," but setting standards for entry. Certainly Macedonia was encouraged by Washington's diplomatic recognition of its post-Yugoslavia name (a sore point with neighboring Greece, which has a province with the same name) days before the referendum boycott.

Ideally, the Balkans should be someday fully integrated with the rest of Europe. This year, Slovenia joined the EU. Next year, Croatia will begin membership negotiations. Stubborn, difficult problems remain in countries like Serbia, including its troubled Kosovo province. But each time one of the Balkan republics takes a stand for human rights, the outlook for the region brightens a bit more.

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