On July 5, Macedonian citizens went to the polls
to elect a new government for the first time since September 2002. Since all
previous elections in the country's 15-year history have been marred by violence
and fraud, it was no surprise that the "international community" was
holding its breath. Ominously, the run-up to the campaign had been characterized
small war of attrition between the main ethnic Albanian parties, the ruling
DUI of Ali Ahmeti and challenger Arben Xhaferi's DPA.
It thus indeed seemed that election day was in danger of going up in flames
and, with it, Macedonia's hopes of ever joining NATO and the European Union;
the West had warned bluntly that the country's fate in this regard depended
on its ability to conduct
"fair and free" elections.
Nevertheless, despite the cultivation of a certain Wild West atmosphere in
some of the Albanian-populated parts of the country, in the end very heavy Western
pressure prevailed, and the elections went off almost without a hitch. Senior
figures such as U.S. Ambassador Gillian
Milovanovic and EU Special Representative Erwan
Fouere were dispatched to potential trouble spots, and the baby-sitting
seemed to have achieved the desired results.
I admit that I was somewhat surprised by the utter placidity of the event,
not only considering the checkered history of Macedonian elections but also
in light of the fact that a very high Albanian politico had recently astonished
me by saying that neither his party nor his people respected the U.S. ambassador,
since she was a woman, and that in any case the West had sent "fourth-rate"
diplomats to supervise the proceedings- showing just how much they cared for
the current political contenders.
A Deep Dissatisfaction
This frustration, I believe, derives essentially
from the fundamental contextual difference between this election and its 2002
predecessor. The latter was held barely a year after war had engulfed the country,
with the West fearful that it could resume in the future. In an attempt to mollify
the men with guns, it helped to create a political party out of the former terrorists/freedom
fighters in the Albanian NLA.
Those were heady times indeed to be a freedom fighter: plenty of meet-and-greet
cocktail parties with foreign luminaries, fulsome talk of democracy and integration,
the endless press conferences featuring Western symbols wedded with Albanian
ones, and so on, all inspiring a sense of uniqueness and entitlement in a dubious
group of well-armed aspiring civil servants.
Finally, an interventionist campaign of unprecedented ferocity was waged to
ensure the defeat of the incumbent government (the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE and
Albanian DPA). However, though they got the result they wanted, it had less
to do with their clumsy and heavy-handed propaganda barrage and more to do with
the dynamic of cyclical change that has always seen the people neatly depose
their rulers every four years – as happened in last week's vote.
The major difference from the election of 2002 is that this year's was not
framed against the backdrop of a war. The frustration of the Albanian politicians,
especially the DUI of former golden boy Ali Ahmeti, stems ultimately from this
fact. Five years have passed since the unprovoked war they started. Peace has
long been restored to the land, and they thus find themselves somewhat less
vital to the powerbrokers. Ahmeti's dubious transformation from warmonger to
peacemaker owed entirely to his ability to "contain" the situation.
It might seem odd to most of us that a person could claim to be an ardent peacenik
deserving of gratitude simply by saying that he could have shot you in the head,
but didn't; yet this is – or was – the logic in Macedonia. Nevertheless, even
to the most ardent sympathizers such peacemaking by racketeering grows tiresome
after a while.
The tactic wasn't exclusive to DUI, however. At various times, most notably
last summer with the "Kondovo
crisis," DPA has gotten into the act. During that adventure, DPA local
leader Agim Krasniqi threatened to bomb Skopje if his demands were not met.
They weren't. Negotiations quieted the situation and, though Krasniqi is technically
on trial, he was allowed to run as a candidate last week for the party. If there
is one thing the outgoing government can be credited for, it is that despite
numerous violent provocations from Albanian extremist groups since early 2003,
it has conducted quick police operations and never taken the bait by getting
bogged down in a larger conflict.
This was helped, of course, by the fact that the West was slavishly supportive
of the now-deposed SDSM-DUI regime; nevertheless, it should be pointed out,
in fairness, that the outgoing government did generally keep the peace, even
if it did not raise the standard of living. Indeed, as was predicted, they were
thrown out on their ear last week because the main issue was not war or ethnicity
but a sluggish economy.
Relying on a Flawed Precedent
Yet you would almost not have known it from the
Western media articles pumped out in the aftermath of the election, which implied
that since the election winners (the VMRO-DPMNE of Nikola Gruevski) were last
in power during the 2001 war, that Macedonia somehow risked backsliding into
ethnic strife. By far the worst offender in this category was the Times of
July 6 broadside by Europe correspondent Anthony Browne darkly warned that
"the last time the VMRO-DPMNE party was in power in 2001, its hardline
nationalist policies provoked an insurgency among ethnic Albanians, almost plunging
the country into a civil war that was averted only by Western diplomacy."
Aside from being blatantly false in many ways, this statement insinuates that
the "troubled" country is in danger of more conflict between "Slavs"
and Albanians. And from the tone of the article, it seems that for whatever
reason the author relishes such a scenario.
However, despite the claims here and elsewhere that a "nationalist"
party has won, the fact of the matter is that nationalism was nowhere to be
found, at least not among the Macedonian parties in the campaign. Gruevski's
campaign centered entirely on the economic situation – not surprising considering
that the VMRO-DPMNE president received international praise as a finance minister
for the pre-2002 government. And even those frequently associated with nationalism,
most notably former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski, who broke away to form
the VMRO-Narodna (People's) Party, campaigned primarily on economic concerns.
Indeed, while some articles noted that Gruevski's party had "shed
its national image," they did not state that the party had actually
broken apart, sending the nationalist and old-guard elements out several years
ago. So the war comparisons don't hold water, since Gruevski's current lot is
hardly even the same party that existed in 2001.
In contrast, the Albanian parties as always centered their campaigns on nationalism,
pointing to hollow symbolic "victories" such as the right to officially
use the flag of the Republic of Albania, language rights, and even the construction
of mosques and statues of national heroes. Depressingly, the Albanian political
leadership across the board continues to play on their people's nationalist
sentiment rather than their economic well-being and daily sustenance. Yet as
one disaffected local Albanian cynically puts it, "The people are still
poor and hungry – but you can't really eat a statue."
With a campaign slogan of "forward, not backward," the incumbent
SDSM did, however, resort to the sort of cheap fear-mongering that, judging
from the voters' choice, only the Western media still seems to believe. Nevertheless,
the voters didn't fall for it, and the increasingly desperate pleas of the incumbent
losers became simply pathetic by the end.
The Real Potential for Violence
The recent election was not only interesting for
the fact that it passed so peacefully. It was most portentous for the future
implications that will be drawn from the new ruling coalition's make-up. A few
hours after the polls closed, when
Gruevski's party was claiming victory, supporters of both the Albanian DUI
and DPA were cheering. The former had taken the majority of the Albanian vote,
and therefore laid claim to a clear mandate and thus a position in the new government.
But the DPA, despite getting less votes than its rival, felt that its role as
the historic coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE meant that it would get the nod
as the new government's junior partner.
The negotiations are still going on, but it is already clear that what is being
put to the test here is no less than the clarification of Macedonia's status
as a political entity. Should the DUI be chosen for the coalition against the
will of the majority vote-getter, simply because it won the majority of the
minority vote, it will mean that the country is officially an ethnic federation.
Should DPA be chosen, on the other hand, the government will be tarnished from
the start since its president, the crafty old Arben Xhaferi, is known for extremist
views, such as that Macedonia should be ethnically partitioned in anticipation
of a future Greater Albania.
Such views are anathema to Western policymakers, whose foolish 15 years of
Balkan intervention have resulted in a proliferation of weak and even failing
states. With Montenegro and Kosovo gone or going independent, and the Serbian
half of Bosnia threatening to do the same, the powers-that-be are not eager
to see the Balkan disintegration intensify. By unwritten directive the new Macedonian
government will thus be crippled in advance, having to choose between the overt
xenophobia of the DPA and the creeping secessionism of the DUI, whose leader
Ahmeti quietly harbors grand designs of making Albanian an official language
even where no Albanians reside, and eventually, perhaps, becoming president
himself – since no ministerial post is apparently good enough for a demagogue
who prefers to pull the strings from offstage, thus avoiding criticism and political
Yet this has all been lost on an ignorant Western media, which has, since 2002,
pulled out almost all of its correspondents from the country. It thus becomes
understandable that when making a rare revisit to Macedonia the only precedent
that springs to editors' minds is the dated one of inter-ethnic conflict. Yet
the real post-election danger is one of intra-ethnic violence between
the Albanian parties; whichever is excluded from the new government will feel
that it has been wronged unfairly, and may well resume the internecine violence
that marred the run-up to the election. While the Western diplomatic community
took credit for defusing the volatile situation before the election, the DUI-DPA
showdown may not be over. The current quiet may just be the calm before the
Making (Sense of) a Coalition
The prevailing conditions are thus. DUI has the
advantage of four years of governance and since 2002 has been able to place
its people at all key levels of the bureaucracy. If it becomes the "junior"
coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE, it will in effect actually be the senior one.
Gruevski's party will have to play catch-up from day one, while also facing
even greater demands from DUI for ever more ministerial appointments and ethnic
concessions. The latter will justify these demands by claiming the Albanian
voters have given it a mandate two elections in a row.
Indeed, on Saturday, Ahmeti and Abduljadi Vejseli (the leader of smaller coalition
partner PDP) said that their bloc is the "legitimate" representative
of the Albanian population since it won more of their votes than its rival.
For the VMRO-DPMNE to deny such "legitimacy" would be to not only
unleash controversy from day one – it would also serve to fire up the same bunch
that started the 2001 war and whom a NATO officer recently mentioned as having
strong influence in neighboring Kosovo at a particularly tumultuous period in
its development. And it is not at all certain that a party created four years
ago from a paramilitary outfit has the political maturity to peacefully accept
a role in the opposition.
However, should DPA be excluded from power, the results could be even worse.
The party of Xhaferi and vice president and strongman Menduh Thaci was ostracized
for its ultranationalist rhetoric by the West and spent much of 2005 boycotting
parliament over perceived electoral fraud in the March 2005 local elections.
It was partially rehabilitated for last week's elections and made a better than
expected showing, picking up 11 seats in parliament to DUI's 18. For DPA to
be relegated to the political wilderness for another four years, given all the
violent incidents they have perpetrated recently, would leave them with nothing
left to lose. In such a situation, violence and mischief become distinct and
amply precedented possibilities.
Creating a coalition thus becomes a thankless task where the only choice is
between bad and worse – without knowing for sure which party represents which.
To his credit, Gruevski has called the bluff of those outsiders who define governing
Macedonia as a sort
of charity project, infused with affirmative action by Western-mandated obligation.
Indeed, Gruevski's spokesman, Antonio
Milososki recently stated that any party that agrees with VMRO-DPMNE's platform
of economic development is welcome to be a possible colleague. Neither nationalism
nor ethnic issues were stipulated, and for good reason – the main concern of
all citizens is to raise the standard of living and develop a functioning market
economy. Yet such goals are apparently not "sexy" enough for the cynical,
conflict-hungry foreign media.
Indeed, in its ignorance and spite, the Western media seems to be enjoying
focusing on issues that are either nonexistent or insignificant, while distorting
reality in a way that tarnishes the country's reputation and guarantees that,
should new trouble arise in the future, the real causes and significance of
it will not be correctly understood. And the outside world will continue to
have unnecessary apprehensions about a country that is actually friendly, safe,
and stable, a welcoming destination for tourists and investors alike.