Sunday, June 08, 2008

Pyrrhic victory in Macedonia

The snap parliamentary elections held in Macedonia on June 1 were meant to open the way to calm the continued unrest that had been troubling the small Balkan republic over the past months.

The elections were called after, on April 12, parliament in Skopje voted to dissolve itself. This followed an enduring crisis that had faced conservative prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s government, rooted in events from calls by the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) for more rights for ethnic Albanians, to a row over Macedonian slowness over whether to recognise Kosovo, and the Nato summit in Bucharest which saw Skopje failing to secure an invitation to join the alliance.

Announcing that the snap elections were to be held, Gruevski said that he hoped to win a healthier majority, to facilitate the implementation of intended reforms.

The outcome after June 1 appeared to be a fulfillment of Gruevski’s hopes. According to preliminary results, the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition won 64 seats in the 120-MP Macedonian parliament, while the rival Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)-led bloc did not manage to get even half of these and conceded defeat with 28 mandates.

Gruevski’s landslide victory secured him every politician’s dream – a majority in parliament so overwhelming as to ensure that all legislation and any action proposed by the government will be approved. However, as Radmila Sekerinska, the Social Democrat leader who resigned following her rout, put it, the cost Macedonia paid in these elections could prove too high. The unprecedented violence during the election campaign, followed by the turbulence on election day that led to at least one death and several injuries, could delay its entry into the European Union. In addition, Gruevski’s hard-line stand on the name dispute with neighbouring Greece could result in continued failure to bring Macedonia anywhere near Nato.

Election day violence led to voting being halted at a number of voting stations at the ethnic Albanian village of Aracinovo, north of the Macedonian capital city of Skopje, international news agencies reported. Twenty people were reported arrested after the Aracinovo shootings. Reuters said that Macedonian state news agency MIA had reported scuffles in several ethnic Albanian areas and that a small explosive device had been thrown at an empty cafe. A police source said officers had chased an unknown armed group until they came under fire in Aracinovo. Police retaliated and injured one of the gunmen.

These clashes, having taken place in the Albanian-inhabited regions of Macedonia, came as little surprise since the run-up to the elections was marred by violent incidents between supporters of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party and its rival DPA. The shooting incident allegedly involved DUI members, and a DUI official rejected the police version, saying that interception of the group by plain-clothed police who had fired a shot into the air had led to chaos and further shooting.

Bulgaria’s Focus news agency reported that four people were wounded in a shooting at the Dame Gruev school, in Chair, an ethnic Albanian-populated area near Skopje.

There was also alleged election fraud, with claims of ballot boxes having been tampered with reportedly contributing to the outbreak of violent incidents. Allegedly, armed people had been threatening voters, the State Electoral Commission was quoted by Focus news agency as having told a news conference.

All this violence seriously undermined Macedonia’s position in the eyes of the international community.

“I deeply regret the violence which marred the elections. A day which should have been a peaceful demonstration of democratic values resulted instead in the loss of a life as well as injury to several people [...] Organised violence, intimidation and ballot stuffing in many places prevented citizens from exercising their democratic rights,” European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the elections, concluded that “key international standards were not met [...], as organised attempts to violently disrupt the electoral process in parts of the ethnic Albanian areas made it impossible for voters in many places to freely express their will”.

Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry also declared its stance. The atmosphere in which snap parliamentary elections were held in Macedonia required all political parties in the country to assume their share of the “responsibility”, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dimitar Tsanchev said in a statement.

In an attempt to mollify the severe criticism, Gruevski promised to hold a re-run of elections in areas where violence had prevented them being conducted peacefully. Scheduled for June 15, the re-run is bound to determine the West’s attitude to Macedonia, as it is a chance to either improve its current image and raise hopes for co-operation, or to permanently brand it a state that is shaky, turbulent and torn by ethnic rivalries.

“It is imperative that these re-runs are held in line with international standards [...] I underline that holding free and fair elections is an essential part of the political criteria of the EU accession process,” Rehn said.

In the meantime, Gruevski will spend some time deciding (or pretending he is deciding) which of the two rival Albanian parties to take on board in the next cabinet. Technically he needs none, but this way he can integrate the Albanians in the government of Macedonia, show ethnic tolerance and strengthen his majority. Although the DUI managed to collect a few more votes than the DPA, the two parties each won an equal number of seats in parliament – 13.

Gruevski’s obvious choice might be his current coalition partner, the DPA, but he clearly did not want to make hurried commitments. However, he said that, first, he will not hold any coalition talks before the re-runs and, second, he will ally with the Albanian party that has won the most votes, website Balkan Insight reported, quoting Gruevski as telling local A1 TV that “VMRO-DPMNE will enter a coalition with the one Albanian party that wins [the polls] among Albanians in a fair and democratic way”.

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