Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Balkan Belgium?

A FASHIONABLE idea is circulating among Balkan-watchers: “Belgianisation”. This is not meant to suggest complex federalism. Instead it implies that different nationalities whom history has left sharing a state are at last behaving like Belgians, reaching for ballot boxes and courts, rather than guns and bombs.

The Macedonian election on June 1st was condemned by observers for not meeting international standards. One person died in a shoot-out with police; several others were injured; and irregularities were reported at several polling stations. Yet it does not disprove the Belgian theory.

A quarter of Macedonia's 2m people are ethnic Albanians. In 2001 they skirted perilously close to civil war. Now, although no love is lost between the two sides, there is no violence between them. The election-day problems and reports of intimidation were entirely among Albanians. That is not good, but also not as bad as it could have been.

Macedonia's election was called after NATO's Bucharest summit in April, when Greece blocked its invitation to join alongside Albania and Croatia. Ever since Macedonian independence in 1991, Greece has tried to stop it being called by its name, insisting that it implies territorial claims to Greek Macedonia. That is why Macedonia labours under the name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, in most international gatherings.

Recently the name issue, which had been dormant, was raised again. Skopje's airport was renamed Alexander the Great, a main reason why the angry Greeks blocked Macedonia's NATO bid. The Greeks now say they will prevent any movement towards European Union accession as well. Macedonia is an official EU candidate but it has not been given a date to start membership negotiations.

Drive into Macedonia from Kosovo and it is clear why the issue needs to be resolved. From the border to the Vardar river, which runs through Skopje, all the election posters have been for Macedonian Albanian political parties, and all flags Albanian. Cross the river and you might be in a different country. All posters are for Macedonian parties and all flags are Macedonian. Once the name is settled, Macedonia can join NATO and later the EU. Nobody could then question its statehood.

If the name continues to poison the region, says Veton Latifi, a political scientist in the main ethnic-Albanian town of Tetovo, politicians will set “new agendas” for the country. By this he really means old ones: a Greater Albania or a Greater Kosovo, and who knows what for the rest of the country. Yet the election gave ground for hope. Nikola Gruevski, prime minister and leader of the centre-right ruling party, gambled on an early poll and won. The coalition led by his party gained an absolute majority in parliament. And though it needs an Albanian partner for comfort, he can “no longer be held hostage” as he was before by his Albanian allies or anyone else, says Ana Petruseva, assistant editor of Balkan Insight, a website.

Three questions arise. Which of the two Albanian parties will Mr Gruevski invite into government? Will he be strong enough to do a deal with Greece over the name and steer it through a referendum? And biggest of all: is Greece interested in a deal or is it happy for its companies to invest profitably in its northern neighbour while keeping it dependent on Greek goodwill for its NATO and EU aspirations? After all, only the EU (and euro) membership holds Belgium together nowadays.

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