Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Misreading Macedonia's Elections

The jaundiced view of the Western media
by Christopher Deliso

On July 5, Macedonian citizens went to the polls to elect a new government for the first time since September 2002. Since all previous elections in the country's 15-year history have been marred by violence and fraud, it was no surprise that the "international community" was holding its breath. Ominously, the run-up to the campaign had been characterized by a small war of attrition between the main ethnic Albanian parties, the ruling DUI of Ali Ahmeti and challenger Arben Xhaferi's DPA.

It thus indeed seemed that election day was in danger of going up in flames and, with it, Macedonia's hopes of ever joining NATO and the European Union; the West had warned bluntly that the country's fate in this regard depended on its ability to conduct "fair and free" elections.

Nevertheless, despite the cultivation of a certain Wild West atmosphere in some of the Albanian-populated parts of the country, in the end very heavy Western pressure prevailed, and the elections went off almost without a hitch. Senior figures such as U.S. Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and EU Special Representative Erwan Fouere were dispatched to potential trouble spots, and the baby-sitting seemed to have achieved the desired results.

I admit that I was somewhat surprised by the utter placidity of the event, not only considering the checkered history of Macedonian elections but also in light of the fact that a very high Albanian politico had recently astonished me by saying that neither his party nor his people respected the U.S. ambassador, since she was a woman, and that in any case the West had sent "fourth-rate" diplomats to supervise the proceedings- showing just how much they cared for the current political contenders.

A Deep Dissatisfaction

This frustration, I believe, derives essentially from the fundamental contextual difference between this election and its 2002 predecessor. The latter was held barely a year after war had engulfed the country, with the West fearful that it could resume in the future. In an attempt to mollify the men with guns, it helped to create a political party out of the former terrorists/freedom fighters in the Albanian NLA. Those were heady times indeed to be a freedom fighter: plenty of meet-and-greet cocktail parties with foreign luminaries, fulsome talk of democracy and integration, the endless press conferences featuring Western symbols wedded with Albanian ones, and so on, all inspiring a sense of uniqueness and entitlement in a dubious group of well-armed aspiring civil servants.

Finally, an interventionist campaign of unprecedented ferocity was waged to ensure the defeat of the incumbent government (the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE and Albanian DPA). However, though they got the result they wanted, it had less to do with their clumsy and heavy-handed propaganda barrage and more to do with the dynamic of cyclical change that has always seen the people neatly depose their rulers every four years – as happened in last week's vote.

The major difference from the election of 2002 is that this year's was not framed against the backdrop of a war. The frustration of the Albanian politicians, especially the DUI of former golden boy Ali Ahmeti, stems ultimately from this fact. Five years have passed since the unprovoked war they started. Peace has long been restored to the land, and they thus find themselves somewhat less vital to the powerbrokers. Ahmeti's dubious transformation from warmonger to peacemaker owed entirely to his ability to "contain" the situation. It might seem odd to most of us that a person could claim to be an ardent peacenik deserving of gratitude simply by saying that he could have shot you in the head, but didn't; yet this is – or was – the logic in Macedonia. Nevertheless, even to the most ardent sympathizers such peacemaking by racketeering grows tiresome after a while.

The tactic wasn't exclusive to DUI, however. At various times, most notably last summer with the "Kondovo crisis," DPA has gotten into the act. During that adventure, DPA local leader Agim Krasniqi threatened to bomb Skopje if his demands were not met. They weren't. Negotiations quieted the situation and, though Krasniqi is technically on trial, he was allowed to run as a candidate last week for the party. If there is one thing the outgoing government can be credited for, it is that despite numerous violent provocations from Albanian extremist groups since early 2003, it has conducted quick police operations and never taken the bait by getting bogged down in a larger conflict.

This was helped, of course, by the fact that the West was slavishly supportive of the now-deposed SDSM-DUI regime; nevertheless, it should be pointed out, in fairness, that the outgoing government did generally keep the peace, even if it did not raise the standard of living. Indeed, as was predicted, they were thrown out on their ear last week because the main issue was not war or ethnicity but a sluggish economy.

Relying on a Flawed Precedent

Yet you would almost not have known it from the Western media articles pumped out in the aftermath of the election, which implied that since the election winners (the VMRO-DPMNE of Nikola Gruevski) were last in power during the 2001 war, that Macedonia somehow risked backsliding into ethnic strife. By far the worst offender in this category was the Times of London. Its July 6 broadside by Europe correspondent Anthony Browne darkly warned that "the last time the VMRO-DPMNE party was in power in 2001, its hardline nationalist policies provoked an insurgency among ethnic Albanians, almost plunging the country into a civil war that was averted only by Western diplomacy."

Aside from being blatantly false in many ways, this statement insinuates that the "troubled" country is in danger of more conflict between "Slavs" and Albanians. And from the tone of the article, it seems that for whatever reason the author relishes such a scenario.

However, despite the claims here and elsewhere that a "nationalist" party has won, the fact of the matter is that nationalism was nowhere to be found, at least not among the Macedonian parties in the campaign. Gruevski's campaign centered entirely on the economic situation – not surprising considering that the VMRO-DPMNE president received international praise as a finance minister for the pre-2002 government. And even those frequently associated with nationalism, most notably former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski, who broke away to form the VMRO-Narodna (People's) Party, campaigned primarily on economic concerns. Indeed, while some articles noted that Gruevski's party had "shed its national image," they did not state that the party had actually broken apart, sending the nationalist and old-guard elements out several years ago. So the war comparisons don't hold water, since Gruevski's current lot is hardly even the same party that existed in 2001.

In contrast, the Albanian parties as always centered their campaigns on nationalism, pointing to hollow symbolic "victories" such as the right to officially use the flag of the Republic of Albania, language rights, and even the construction of mosques and statues of national heroes. Depressingly, the Albanian political leadership across the board continues to play on their people's nationalist sentiment rather than their economic well-being and daily sustenance. Yet as one disaffected local Albanian cynically puts it, "The people are still poor and hungry – but you can't really eat a statue."

With a campaign slogan of "forward, not backward," the incumbent SDSM did, however, resort to the sort of cheap fear-mongering that, judging from the voters' choice, only the Western media still seems to believe. Nevertheless, the voters didn't fall for it, and the increasingly desperate pleas of the incumbent losers became simply pathetic by the end.

The Real Potential for Violence

The recent election was not only interesting for the fact that it passed so peacefully. It was most portentous for the future implications that will be drawn from the new ruling coalition's make-up. A few hours after the polls closed, when Gruevski's party was claiming victory, supporters of both the Albanian DUI and DPA were cheering. The former had taken the majority of the Albanian vote, and therefore laid claim to a clear mandate and thus a position in the new government. But the DPA, despite getting less votes than its rival, felt that its role as the historic coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE meant that it would get the nod as the new government's junior partner.

The negotiations are still going on, but it is already clear that what is being put to the test here is no less than the clarification of Macedonia's status as a political entity. Should the DUI be chosen for the coalition against the will of the majority vote-getter, simply because it won the majority of the minority vote, it will mean that the country is officially an ethnic federation. Should DPA be chosen, on the other hand, the government will be tarnished from the start since its president, the crafty old Arben Xhaferi, is known for extremist views, such as that Macedonia should be ethnically partitioned in anticipation of a future Greater Albania.

Such views are anathema to Western policymakers, whose foolish 15 years of Balkan intervention have resulted in a proliferation of weak and even failing states. With Montenegro and Kosovo gone or going independent, and the Serbian half of Bosnia threatening to do the same, the powers-that-be are not eager to see the Balkan disintegration intensify. By unwritten directive the new Macedonian government will thus be crippled in advance, having to choose between the overt xenophobia of the DPA and the creeping secessionism of the DUI, whose leader Ahmeti quietly harbors grand designs of making Albanian an official language even where no Albanians reside, and eventually, perhaps, becoming president himself – since no ministerial post is apparently good enough for a demagogue who prefers to pull the strings from offstage, thus avoiding criticism and political responsibility.

Yet this has all been lost on an ignorant Western media, which has, since 2002, pulled out almost all of its correspondents from the country. It thus becomes understandable that when making a rare revisit to Macedonia the only precedent that springs to editors' minds is the dated one of inter-ethnic conflict. Yet the real post-election danger is one of intra-ethnic violence between the Albanian parties; whichever is excluded from the new government will feel that it has been wronged unfairly, and may well resume the internecine violence that marred the run-up to the election. While the Western diplomatic community took credit for defusing the volatile situation before the election, the DUI-DPA showdown may not be over. The current quiet may just be the calm before the storm.

Making (Sense of) a Coalition

The prevailing conditions are thus. DUI has the advantage of four years of governance and since 2002 has been able to place its people at all key levels of the bureaucracy. If it becomes the "junior" coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE, it will in effect actually be the senior one. Gruevski's party will have to play catch-up from day one, while also facing even greater demands from DUI for ever more ministerial appointments and ethnic concessions. The latter will justify these demands by claiming the Albanian voters have given it a mandate two elections in a row.

Indeed, on Saturday, Ahmeti and Abduljadi Vejseli (the leader of smaller coalition partner PDP) said that their bloc is the "legitimate" representative of the Albanian population since it won more of their votes than its rival. For the VMRO-DPMNE to deny such "legitimacy" would be to not only unleash controversy from day one – it would also serve to fire up the same bunch that started the 2001 war and whom a NATO officer recently mentioned as having strong influence in neighboring Kosovo at a particularly tumultuous period in its development. And it is not at all certain that a party created four years ago from a paramilitary outfit has the political maturity to peacefully accept a role in the opposition.

However, should DPA be excluded from power, the results could be even worse. The party of Xhaferi and vice president and strongman Menduh Thaci was ostracized for its ultranationalist rhetoric by the West and spent much of 2005 boycotting parliament over perceived electoral fraud in the March 2005 local elections. It was partially rehabilitated for last week's elections and made a better than expected showing, picking up 11 seats in parliament to DUI's 18. For DPA to be relegated to the political wilderness for another four years, given all the violent incidents they have perpetrated recently, would leave them with nothing left to lose. In such a situation, violence and mischief become distinct and amply precedented possibilities.

Creating a coalition thus becomes a thankless task where the only choice is between bad and worse – without knowing for sure which party represents which. To his credit, Gruevski has called the bluff of those outsiders who define governing Macedonia as a sort of charity project, infused with affirmative action by Western-mandated obligation. Indeed, Gruevski's spokesman, Antonio Milososki recently stated that any party that agrees with VMRO-DPMNE's platform of economic development is welcome to be a possible colleague. Neither nationalism nor ethnic issues were stipulated, and for good reason – the main concern of all citizens is to raise the standard of living and develop a functioning market economy. Yet such goals are apparently not "sexy" enough for the cynical, conflict-hungry foreign media.

Indeed, in its ignorance and spite, the Western media seems to be enjoying focusing on issues that are either nonexistent or insignificant, while distorting reality in a way that tarnishes the country's reputation and guarantees that, should new trouble arise in the future, the real causes and significance of it will not be correctly understood. And the outside world will continue to have unnecessary apprehensions about a country that is actually friendly, safe, and stable, a welcoming destination for tourists and investors alike.

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