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09 Jun 2008

Troubled elections in Macedonia

Demonstrators marching with flags in Skopje

Neighborhood rally on Friday in an Albanian section of Skopje

Early parliamentary elections in Macedonia give the ruling coalition a landslide victory but leave one dead and others wounded.

By Karl Rahder in Skopje for ISN

Following a tense pre-election period that saw dozens of violent incidents, including an alleged assassination attempt on an Albanian party leader, Macedonia is still emerging from a dramatic 1 June parliamentary poll that gave the ruling coalition a landslide victory. But the elections also left one dead and at least eight wounded in gunfire and may well have derailed the country's NATO and EU aspirations.

Fraud and violence in Albanian districts

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded an election observation mission through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) cited "violence and use of firearms" in the principally Albanian areas in the north and west, although the predominantly Macedonian districts were largely peaceful.

At a Tuesday press conference in the capital Skopje, the ODIHR's head of mission, US Ambassador Robert Barry, said that "commitments to the Council of Europe standards and the OSCE standards in this particular election were not met."

Barry laid particular stress on the ultimate responsibility of the Macedonian government to fully investigate incidents of violence, implying that not enough had been done and charging that "some of the attacks that took place on campaign headquarters during the pre-election period were not adequately investigated or dealt with."

Official data from the State Election Commission (SEC) of Macedonia (or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it is known as in the UN and some other international bodies) indicated that the ruling VMRO-DPMNE coalition had won over 48 percent of the vote - a stunning victory for Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski who needed a convincing mandate to pass reforms in parliament. The figure would give his coalition 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament - an outright majority that would be the envy of most governments.

But Macedonia's ethnic mix (at least 25 percent Albanians and roughly 64 percent Macedonian/Slavic) and volatile political landscape will make it necessary for Gruevski to invite one of the two major Albanian parties to form yet another coalition government. It is a formula that has rarely succeeded in Macedonia's recent history.

On election day, numerous reports of violence, intimidation, ballot stuffing and gunfire streamed into government offices and the OSCE election mission.

One man in the Albanian village of Aracinovo was shot to death, and at least eight others were reported wounded.

Voters, election officials and domestic and international observers were turned away or ejected from polling stations or exposed to gunfire or other violent incidents. Eleven observers from the local NGO MOST were forcibly ejected from polling stations, and another 86 were withdrawn due to security concerns.

The OSCE reported that the ballot counting process was "bad" or "very bad" in 15 percent of polling stations visited by its observers, but the breakdown of figures revealed the deep cleavage in Macedonia's ethnic communities, with "bad" or "very bad" assessments in 32 percent of predominantly Albanian areas visited by OSCE observers, while the figure was only 9 percent in mainly Macedonian areas.

Press reports out of Macedonia in the last few days indicate that roughly 50 people have been detained for election violations. The Associated Press reported that as of 4 June, authorities had charged, among others, three police officers with complicity in election violations, including Besir Dehari who is also a "senior member" of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), one of the country's two major Albanian parties. Dehari also was once Macedonia's deputy director of public order.

Election issues

The election had not been anticipated until 2010, but a snap ballot was called in April due to the ongoing political stalemate in parliament as well as the reform package sought by Gruevski's government and the "name issue," which continues to thwart Macedonia's path to NATO membership despite a vigorous endorsement by US President George W Bush at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.

When Yugoslavia began to break apart in 1991, the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia became a sovereign state and christened itself the "Republic of Macedonia," sharing a name with Greece's northernmost province and buying the new country 17 years of difficulties with its more powerful southern neighbor.

Greece has successfully blocked NATO membership over the name issue, charging that its northern neighbor is attempting to appropriate Greek history and covets the Greek province of Macedonia. (See, Greece, Macedonia: Sticks and stones by Anes Alic for ISN Security Watch.)

Compromises such as "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" and "Upper Macedonia" have been proposed, but the issue remains unresolved. Gruevski has proposed a national referendum on the name issue, but polls suggest that the vast majority of the country would reject a change.

The US Embassy in Skopje issued a statement after the election warning that the "seriously flawed voting on 1 June greatly discredits this country and negatively affects its EU and NATO integration prospects."

Professor Biljana Vankovska, a political scientist at the University of Skopje, is something of a NATO agnostic - a rarity in Macedonia. "I belong to the 5 percent of the population that does not believe in NATO as 'the only alternative.' My analysis shows that Macedonia suffers from 'illnesses' for which NATO does not have any cure," she told ISN Security Watch.

Macedonia's major problems are primarily economic, she said, and NATO membership is a palliative that "may have some psychological meaning," but little else.

Muhamed Zequiri, chief editor at the Albanian-oriented Alsat-M television station, views the NATO issue very differently. For him, membership could actually help to heal the ethnic and political rifts in Macedonia. "NATO will aid in our internal stability. People will feel secure and this will bring new foreign investment into the country," he told ISN Security Watch.

Once Macedonia is approved for membership, "the Prime Minister will have to create conditions for internal stability - it is his responsibility!" Zequiri said.

Many Macedonians felt that the snap election was an unnecessary distraction and would solve neither the name issue nor the logjam in parliament.

Despite early reports of massive turnout (at least some of which appear to have been based on ballot box stuffing), roughly 60 percent of the electorate voted, a little more than the 56 percent in the last election of 2006.

The SEC announced on 6 June that new elections would be held in 93 predominately Albanian election districts. This number could rise by the new election date, 15 June. Gruevski has told the press that he would not hold coalition talks until after the re-run elections.

The incidents in the Albanian districts underscore the deep divisions within Macedonia's Albanian minority. The fault line encompasses the two major Albanian political parties - the DUI and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).

Animosity and distrust between the two Albanian parties is in part an outcome of Macedonia's brief, not-quite civil war in 2001, referred to by Macedonians simply as "the conflict."

While the DUI has garnered slightly greater electoral support among Albanians, it is seen by many as a stronghold of former guerillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA), an Albanian group that fought government forces in the conflict. The NLA was labeled as "extremist" by the US at the time and mentioned in the US Department of State's Global Patterns of Terrorism reports in 2000 and 2001.

The DUI is led by Ali Ahmeti, who commanded the NLA during the conflict. Disbanded after the Ohrid Agreement, which created new structures for Albanian representation, the NLA had close ties to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA/UCK), many former members of which now run the Kosovo government.

Last month, Ahmeti's car was sprayed with gunfire during a campaign appearance in the city of Tetovo, west of Skopje. The DUI has accused the DPA of instigating the attack, a charge the DPA denies.

The DPA is generally perceived as being less confrontational than the DUI, but it trails the DUI slightly in the vote tabulation, with the DUI at a little over 11 percent of "valid ballots," according to official figures, and the DPA with 10.52 percent.

The DPA had participated in a coalition with VMRO-DPMNE after the last election in 2006, although the DUI had actually received more votes. DUI protests and a walkout by the DPA's leader Menduh Thaci in April helped trigger this year's unexpected snap elections.

Gruevski will have to consider carefully the political and social consequences of exactly who his Albanian coalition partner will be. While he has said recently that he would choose the party that won the most votes, his foreign minister reportedly told the BBC that a coalition would be forged with "the partner that understands democracy in a modern and contemporary way."

Vankovska warned of trouble ahead, regardless of whom the prime minister would choose as his partner.

"Grujevski has a substantial majority in the parliament, but due to political and pragmatic reasons he is going to invite an Albanian party - which one, it is still an enigma. However, given the fierce antagonism between the Albanian parties, there will be unprincipled and troublesome opposition that may use even non-political or even radical means to block the political process," Vankovska said.

The liberal-left Sun Coalition will be rendered powerless as an opposition force in parliament, having lost ground since the 2006 election. Sun Coalition leader Radmila Sekerinska, who also leads the Social Democratic Party, eulogized the 1 June elections by saying, publicly: "The price that we have paid today is too high."

On Tuesday, she announced that she was stepping down from her party leadership post.

Politics and conflict, past and present

The country's modern, post-Yugoslav history has been riddled with crises that devolve from the constant state of conflict - sometimes violent, often smolderingly bitter - that has come to define Macedonian politics. The Ohrid Agreement, brokered between the government and the major Albanian factions (but not the NLA), was supposed to bring stability by not only ending the 2001 war, but by providing a power-sharing structure between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, with new rights for Albanians.

Since then, the political situation has continued to be riven by factionalism, and the Albanian factions have been especially polarized. Existential threats also remain, reminding Macedonian citizens that their country is vulnerable and tucked into a volatile region.

Late last year, Macedonian government forces and an Albanian guerilla group clashed in the mountains surrounding Tetovo, which was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the 2001 conflict.

In what was dubbed "Operation Mountain Storm," Macedonian forces killed at least six of the guerillas, who were perhaps euphemistically described by the government as "criminals," but reportedly had a huge weapons cache stored in the mountains near the village of Brodec that included mortars, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft missiles.

Among the dead was one Ramadan Shiti, a long-time fugitive who reportedly blew himself up with a hand grenade. Another wanted Albanian extremist, Lirim Jakupi, also known as "Commander Nazi," escaped.

Ohrid is still a defining moment for Macedonia, but the occasional eruption of violence and simmering distrust reveals just how dysfunctional Macedonian politics is. A "third way" between the DUI and DPA has not emerged, and there is no sign that such an option will resonate with Macedonia's Albanians.

Alsat TV's Muhamed Zequiri told ISN Security Watch that the cleavage in the Albanian community preceded the 2001 conflict, and that it continues because it is in the prime minister's interest.

After Ohrid, "the third way was DUI, which emerged from the conflict as the most legitimate force in Albanian politics. The main problem occurred in 2006: The DUI was a very constructive force and had more votes than the DPA, but the prime minister preferred the DPA, which led to the political problems that we still have today."

But Vankovska disagrees strongly. The differences between the DUI and the DPA go back to their roles during the conflict and the post-2001 period, she says: "The […] intolerance has its roots in the fact that DUI achieved by violence what DPA (and other Albanian parties) were trying to achieve through a long and hard political process. The lesson learned for each side was/is: violence pays […]"

In the coming weeks, Macedonians will know which of the two Albanian parties will participate in the new government, but real change and stability - despite the prime minister's victory - is unlikely.

Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.


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