Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Macedonia violence unlikely despite protests

Following elections that brought a pro-Western, pro-market government to power, Macedonia’s future seems promising. But an ethnic Albanian party that feels itself unfairly excluded could cause headaches.

By Christopher Deliso in Skopje for ISN Security Watch (18/08/06)

Since the incumbent coalition was ousted in Macedonia’s 5 July parliamentary elections, the major security concern has been the potential for future violence from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), excluded from the new government.

Holding road blockades and increasing inflammatory rhetoric in public speeches, the party has warned that future interethnic stability is at risk. However, Western officials directly involved with overseeing Macedonia’s development agree that the new government should be given a chance to show what it can achieve - and that armed violence will not be tolerated.

Led by former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, the DUI claims that it automatically deserves to be part of the new government because it won a majority of the minority Albanian vote. However, Macedonia is not an ethnic federation, and as in similar European democracies, the party that wins the most seats in parliament has the unconditional mandate to form the government. In this case, is it the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party of former finance minister Nikola Gruevski that has that mandate. At least 61 MPs from Macedonia's 120-seat parliament are needed for a new government.

In the election, Gruevski’s coalition topped all by taking 45 seats, uniting with other parties afterward to achieve a total of 65 seats. These included VMRO-DPMNE’s traditional Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), which won 11 seats and the New Social Democratic Party (NSDP) of veteran politician Tito Petkovski, which won six.

In comparison, the incumbent Social Democrats (SDSM) won 32 seats and the Albanian coalition of the DUI and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP) managed 17 together, with 14 for the DUI - only slightly more than the DPA’s 11.

And while the DUI claimed that it represented “the will of the Albanian people,” under 50 percent of the Albanian electorate actually voted. International and local monitors claimed that violence and fraud were widespread in key regions.

Pressure and provocations

Ahmeti declared on 10 August that DUI could “not accept to be an opposition party,” according to Skopje’s MakFax. A few days later, at a war commemoration in the village of Radusa, party vice-president and hardliner Rafiz Aliti declared that “only with guns” could the Albanians’ goals be achieved. At the same time, a campaign of daily road blockades was held throughout the country, culminating on 15 August.

On Wednesday, in announcing the end of the blockade campaign, Ahmeti claimed his protests had been waged to alleviate the “humiliation” of the Albanian nation. However, the deafening silence from the Albanian public as a whole indicates that the former war hero’s unquestioned authority and prestige have been damaged.

According to a former member of the general staff at the headquarters of the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), which was commaded by Ahmeti in the 2001 war, Ahmeti is under pressure from “criminal elements” within the DUI to keep them from possible future prosecution for killings of former Albanian fighters since 2002, allegedly committed under the orders of DUI party strongmen.

According to this source and another former NLA commander, from the Kumanovo region, who spoke to ISN Security Watch, scores of murders carried out against “Albanians who disagreed with Ahmeti’s rule” remain unpunished. The disillusionment of some former paramilitaries, who feel their sacrifices were ignored once Ahmeti turned to politics in 2002, has long been evident. But it is illuminating to see how deep the sentiment runs.

“As much as I loved Ali Ahmeti during the war,” said the Kumanovo commander, “I hate him one thousand times more now [...] he has betrayed the Albanian people and ordered many killings, just to increase his own power.”

Both former soldiers claim to be apolitical, but view the DPA as the lesser of two evils. The second explained the differing experiences ordinary Albanians have had with the parties, thus: “During the DPA’s time in government, between 1998 and 2002, the jails were opened and the graves were sealed. But during the DUI’s rule, the jails were sealed and [new] graves were opened.”

Several international officials in Skopje surveyed by ISN Security Watch concur on key issues. First, DUI’s poor post-election sportsmanship has left a very negative impression internationally. Any attempts from the party to foment another armed insurrection would be tantamount to political suicide.

Nevertheless, the new government’s ambitious economic revitalization scheme could be stymied by having to waste time dealing with localized violence and obstructionism from the DUI.

The DUI’s stated program in this regard involves non-cooperation on the municipal level in areas where they control the mayor’s offices and local administration. According to one US official in Skopje, “this will divert the government’s attention, meaning it is possible to miss expected deadlines.”

The leading example so far has been Skopje’s Albanian-majority neighborhood of Cair, where the DUI-appointed mayor announced plans to modify the municipal seal and make other changes unilaterally. These provocations received a stern admonishment from the West, which nevertheless overlooked, for now, the party’s connection in the municipality to a new private security company partially staffed by Wahhabi fundamentalists who have been locked in a turf war with the legitimate Islamic community for years.

Western officials agree that they have high expectations of the new government, which has seen some unusually qualified personnel nominated the cabinet. The West is therefore willing to support Gruevski’s team against the provocations of the DUI, making the outbreak of violence less likely. Finally, violence is not expected because it would complicate Western efforts to make neighboring Kosovo an independent state.

If excluded from government, the DUI could even splinter. The party’s militant wing is determined to protect its interests through any means necessary, whereas the "reformist" wing, Ahmeti himself plays to both groups, is resigned to its fate. As one official from the latter side admits, “we know we have to make the best of it - in the opposition.”

If such a split occurs, the militant faction would likely be led by Fazli Veliu, who is Ahmeti’s uncle and veteran of the NLA and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA/UCK) that preceded it, Rafiz Aliti, Gzim Ostreni and other former fighters. However, according to the US official, “Ahmeti will have to remain loyal to the men with guns, or his life is in doubt.”

The proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing

While the 14 seats the DUI won was just enough to beat the DPA, it was not enough to vindicate its prior hubris, nor enough to convince the West of its good intentions. Despite its talk of democracy and inter-ethnic cooperation, the DUI had always been considered the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing by Macedonians. And the internationals were starting to see why.

Even before the elections, the DUI began to lose the confidence of the international community, which was also trying to cope with campaign violence that an angry DUI said had been orchestrated by the DPA. Yet when a photo opportunity for signing a declaration on fair elections was held by the National Democratic Institute, Ahmeti was the only major party president who failed to come.

At the same time, senior DUI officials were privately stating their contempt for the allegedly “fourth-class” Western diplomats with whom they had to do business - while those diplomats were expressing shock at finding “Kalashnikovs on the coffee tables,” in the DUI’s headquarters, as one man put it. “I mean, what kind of a party does that?”

For the 5 July vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent its usual armada of observers to watch the vote and, while far fewer irregularities were noted than in previous elections, observers were allegedly turned back at gunpoint from certain polling areas in Ahmeti’s Kicevo-Zajas stronghold in western Macedonia. Even though this issue was not explicitly stated in the body’s preliminary findings statement, it may be mentioned in the comprehensive report due next month. An OSCE observer also expressed concern that some Albanian voters were being intimidated into voting for the DUI, again through threat of arms.

What is unprecedented now, in the more than a month of post-election protests and verbal accusations from the DUI, is the degree to which Ahmeti has lost the West's favor. His inability to compel the international community to do his bidding has severely damaged the prestige of a man who, during and after the war of 2001, which he started, was effortlessly transformed from war hero to statesman by a fawning procession of foreign diplomats. The strong pro-US streak in Albanian society, a relic of former president Bill Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo intervention, means that any given Albanian political leader is inevitably judged on his ability to curry favor in Washington.

It is this favor that Ahmeti has fatally lost. On 21 July, he sent an inflammatory letter to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in which he warned that the election had “gravely deteriorated the interethnic relations in the country” and that excluding the DUI from the new government “threatens to produce unpleasant situations for all of us.”

The letter had no effect, and further ominous broadsides to the international powers have been similarly ignored. The EU, which made Macedonia’s impending accession talks contingent on fair and free elections in July, has been cool. Special Representative Erwan Fouere’s soft-spoken yet consistent call for dialogue instead of blockades, and his public allusions to the DUI as being part of the “new opposition” have shown where Europe stands.

However, it has been with the US, the key power broker, that the damage has been greatest. Ahmeti allegedly infuriated the US embassy in Skopje when he tried to “go over the head” of Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and appeal directly to the State Department for support. He accused her of “misrepresenting” the political situation in Macedonia, according to the Albanian-language newspaper Laim.

Most recently, in an interview with radio broadcaster Voice of America, senior staff adviser at the US Helsinki Commission Robert Hand stated: “All parties are entitled to raise arguments over their inclusion in the ruling power, nonetheless, the party that holds the mandate should form the governing coalition” - a clear message to the DUI.

More direct condemnation came from one European official in Skopje, who said: “We are extremely disappointed with DUI’s behavior. We expected them to show some political maturity and play a responsible role in the opposition. Hopefully they can come to their senses.”

Pleasantly surprised by VMRO-DPMNE

Yet even as the West has been shocked by the DUI, it has been pleasantly surprised by election winner VMRO-DPMNE. It is, essentially, a completely different party from the one the West worked to dethrone in the 2002 elections. The nationalist old guard, personified by former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski and former interior minister Ljube Boskovski, are long gone. Gruevski, himself untainted by corruption and eminently qualified for his economy-centered agenda, has also assembled a cabinet of fresh young faces; the average age of his ministers is around 36.

The party has kept close ties with similarly oriented Western parties. The Christian Democrat party of German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has historic ties with the VMRO-DPMNE, and has aided its development into a mainstream European center-right party.

Most importantly, perhaps, VMRO-DPMNE is also close to the Bush administration. Before the election, conservative consultants were brought in by the International Republican Institute, which engages in party training and conducts voter opinion polls.

That said, Gruevski’s major strategic decision to stock his cabinet with foreign-trained Macedonians who have taken leadership roles in some of the biggest Western companies and financial institutions, casts his government in a far more favorable light than the DUI, with its reputation for primitivism, incompetence and guns. Bringing in know-how and close contacts with the likes of the World Bank, Microsoft, major oil interests and the US and Australian political establishments can only bolster the new government’s standing.

Now, Gruevski’s challenge will be to implement his economic program sooner rather than later and to bring in major foreign investors. Their presence and lobbying clout could in the end mean the difference between a “wild west” Macedonia where a DUI state-within-a-state thrives, and a country where the harmonization of economic and political interests would allow the government to maintain law and order on a national level.

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