Sunday, October 22, 2006

Not so fruity salad

Another troubled Balkan candidate for the European Union

WHICH countries will be next in line for membership of the European Union, after Bulgaria and Romania join in January? Many people would answer: Croatia and Turkey, which are now in negotiations. Few would remember Macedonia, a poor, land-locked country of 2m people, with a stagnant economy, which has been offered membership talks but no firm date for starting them. Macedonians have got used to being unloved and ignored. What is more annoying is that the world notices them only when bad things happen.

Officially, at least, good things are now happening. In 2001 Macedonia went to the brink of civil war when a guerrilla army sprang out of the ranks of the ethnic Albanians who make up 25% of the population. The EU, the Americans and NATO rushed to damp the fire, producing the Ohrid agreement, which has proved a success in keeping the peace. What has been a failure is the economy. More than a third of the workforce is unemployed and, except for some biggish privatisations, there has been little foreign investment.

All of which makes it unsurprising that, in July, the electorate turned against the Social Democrats, ruling in coalition with a party led by Ali Ahmeti, who led the Albanian guerrillas in 2001. Diplomats have since been falling over themselves to praise the peaceful transfer of power to a new centre-right coalition under Nikola Gruevski. In public, that is. In private, there is rising concern about Macedonia. Were it a bigger place—or already in the EU—it might have received the sort of attention that has recently been given to Poland or Hungary. For Macedonia too is in the throes of a political earthquake.

The big bone of contention is the government. Mr Gruevski's party needed an Albanian coalition partner (as elsewhere in the region, people vote on ethnic lines). He struck a deal with the smaller of the two main Albanian parties, much to the fury of Mr Ahmeti, whose party won more than 60% of the Albanian vote. He is now arguing that Albanians must wonder what is the point of voting at all, if a Macedonian gets to choose which Albanian party keeps him in power.

Mr Ahmeti's anger is not just about his interpretation of democracy. To be out of power in Macedonia means to be out of patronage. Within three days of the new government taking office in August, as many as 544 managers and top officials from state companies had been sacked or shunted aside. Hundreds of civil servants have been replaced by loyalists to Mr Gruevski's party or to his Albanian partner. The purge has extended right down to lucrative positions manning motorway toll-booths.

The government insisted that it had to replace all these people as part of its bid to stamp out corruption. In fact, says one well-placed senior Macedonian, “it is the nature of things here that you have to replace everyone around you, because otherwise they will do everything in their power to discredit you. People are dedicated to their parties, not to their country.”

One group caught in this argument over power is Transparency International, a German-based anti-corruption lobby group, which has been an influential voice in Macedonia. Transparency has just announced that it is withdrawing its accreditation of the local branch in Macedonia, though it added it hoped to set up a proper operation again.

Gabriela Konevska-Trajkovska, the minister in charge of European integration, was previously, albeit briefly, head of Transparency International in Macedonia. She hopes negotiations on EU membership can start in 2007. EU officials say this is realistic—so long as the country does what it is asked. But for now, they are hopping mad. Many of the people they had trained over the past few years to deal with intricate details of EU rules and regulations have been replaced.

In Tetovo, the western Macedonian town where most Albanian politicians are based, Mr Ahmeti says that former fighters have been coming to him to suggest that, unless his party is taken back into the government, they should take up arms again. He has told them to keep their cool but adds that he cannot take responsibility for the results if his party continues to be ignored. Yet the implied threat is probably an empty one. Whatever else may happen in Macedonia, there is no appetite for a return to armed conflict.

No comments: