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Elections Expose Centrifugal Forces at Work in Macedonia

Monday, June 23, 2008

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Still today, whenever there are elections in the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the alarm bells start going off in the EU. Nowadays, however, the principal conflict in Macedonia is not between ethnic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians who constitute some 25 percent of the population of the country. The violence that broke out on election day earlier this month was the result of a worsening power struggle within the local Albanian community itself.

Despite heavy security and the deployment of some 13,000 police, the parliamentary elections on June 1 were yet again marred by irregularities. Armed groups attacked polling stations and threatened voters. In some localities, ballot boxes were stolen and later turned up stuffed with ballots. Several shooting incidents resulted in one dead and several wounded.

And all of this in Macedonia: a country that diplomats like to cite as a success story for European Balkan policy. In 2001, the country was on the verge of a civil war as ethnic Albanian guerilla forces began to carry out attacks on police and soldiers. Through the mediation of the EU and the U.S., however, an escalation of the conflict was avoided and Macedonia was preserved as a multiethnic state. Since then, things have been calm in the former Yugoslav republic.

"A triumph, not just a normal win": that's what Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said he wanted from the elections. And with his cumbersomely named VMRO-DPMNE party winning 48 percent of the vote after running a highly nationalistic campaign, he got what he wanted. The party's social democratic opponents, the so-called Sun Coalition, received only 23 percent of the vote, and the two parties of the Albanian minority, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) 12 percent and 11 percent respectively. Gruevski spoke of a historic victory and a "shining future" for Macedonia. Representatives of the EU and of the OSCE, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic. From their perspective, Macedonia had failed yet another "test" of the fitness of the country to join the European Union.

Anyone who wants to understand the conflict in Macedonia has to go to Tetovo, the unofficial capital of the Albanian minority. It is here in the northwestern part of Macedonia, at the foot of a massive mountain range that separates the country from Kosovo, that the two most important Albanian parties have their headquarters. Their flags hang from nearly every streetlamp: red for the DPA and blue for the DUI.

But even if the DUI, with its Marxist-Leninist roots, presents itself as a social democratic party and the DPA as a conservative one, in fact ideological programs play virtually no role in the bitter struggle between the two factions. "They are just two different job agencies," explains Bujar Luma, the director of a local cultural center, "which both pursue the same aim: namely, to form part of the government." For whoever has political power disposes of financial resources and can dispense government jobs. On the other hand, whoever has nothing to give loses support among the population. In an economy based on patronage -- where even positions in the toll stations on the highways are assigned according to party membership -- to find oneself on the right side is of downright existential importance.

In the meanwhile, more and more observers see even the 2001 armed Albanian rebellion as having been less a matter of an honorable struggle for greater rights within Macedonia and more a matter of a struggle for power and influence within the Albanian minority itself. It is true that the ethnic Albanians did obtain more rights as a consequence of the rebellion. But, above all, the guerillas of rebel leader Ali Ahmeti obtained a share of political power, with their newly founded Democratic Union for Integration party replacing the DPA as junior partner in the governing coalition.

The sinecures were then redistributed in strict proportion to the percentage represented by the respective ethnic groups in the population as a whole. The constellation of power within the Albanian minority community changed again following the 2005 parliamentary elections. The DUI was again able to win the majority of votes among ethnic Albanians. But as the winner of the elections, Gruevski chose instead the smaller DPA as coalition partner. The DUI, which regards itself as the true representative of Albanian interests, responded with threats of violence, demonstrations, and a temporary boycott of the parliament.

Just which of the two Albanian parties will participate in the future governing coalition is yet again the decisive question this time around. Gruevski has hinted that he would like to have the DPA as a partner again. "That would be a serious provocation," the DUI's Musa Xafherri told this reporter. Xafherri was deputy prime minister of Macedonia until 2006. He even speaks vaguely of the "chaos" into which Macedonia "could slide" if Gruevski chooses the DPA.

In any case, the participation of the DPA in the government would strengthen the forces pursuing a further decentralization of the country: a process of decentralization that in the end could amount to the de facto dissolution of Macedonia as a unified state. Independent observers like Bujar Luma suspect that the government could even have an interest in provoking an extreme reaction. "There are signs of a gradual partitioning of the country," he said. According to him, despite its official statements to the EU, the government in fact has no interest in preventing this from happening. "The fact is that Macedonians and Albanians do not want to have anything more to do with one another. You see it in the government, in the institutions, and you feel it among ordinary people."

The situation has been made even more delicate by virtue of the declaration of independence in neighboring Kosovo. The Albanians of Macedonia are pushing for rapid recognition of Kosovo, whereas the leaders of the parties of the Macedonian majority are hesitating. Many observers fear that if the Serb-populated northern part of Kosovo declares its independence in turn and the existing de facto partition of the province is thereby consecrated, the Albanian question could return to the agenda in Macedonia as well.

Several young men are standing around a black limousine in front of a DPA-affiliated bar in Tetovo. They have pistols under their t-shirts. Asked if they are for all ethnic Albanians being united within a single state, they shake their heads. Now that Kosovo is independent, they say, that is no longer necessary. "It's much better like this," one of them says: "Now, we have three states."

Dirk Auer is a freelance journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He has reported extensively on the Balkans for the German public radio Deutschlandfunk and other German-language media. The above article first appeared in German in issue number 24/08 of the Berlin weekly Jungle World. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

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