Macedonian Opposition Revels in Win Over Ruling Party
The Washington Post
By Nicholas Wood
SKOPJE, Macedonia — Election victory celebrations continued here into a second night tonight, following the defeat of Macedonia’s nationalist ruling party in the first parliamentary voting since interethnic conflict brought this Balkan country close to full-scale civil war last year.

Fireworks were set off and rock music blared in the center of the capital, Skopje, as the opposition alliance, Together for Macedonia, held a rally to celebrate its victory. The alliance, like the ruling party, draws its support mainly from members of the country’s ethnic Slav majority, who often call themselves ethnic Macedonians.

Once the street parties are over, members of the majority will have to come to terms with the strong likelihood that leaders of last year’s armed rebellion by the ethnic Albanian minority will become part of a new government. That’s because in the ethnic Albanian community, established parties also suffered an upset. The leader was the newly formed Democratic Union for Integration, or DUI, led by the guerrillas’ former commander, Ali Ahmeti.

Official results from the voting Sunday still have to be confirmed. But Macedonia’s ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, known by the initials VMRO, conceded defeat early this morning. Exit polls and results collected by political parties show that Together for Macedonia, led by the center-left Social Democratic Union, won the most votes, with more than 40 percent.

Western officials who have spent the last 12 months chaperoning a fragile peace process barely disguised their relief at VMRO’s admission of defeat. The party had run a campaign strong on nationalist rhetoric directed against ethnic Albanians, leading to fears in Western capitals of further violence.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson called the elections “a decisive step in the right direction and a clear rejection of the violence which tarnished the last months.”

Now the big question is “how to explain to [majority] Macedonians the need to have a coalition with DUI,” said Alexander Danovski, managing editor of Dnevnik, Macedonia’s biggest-selling daily newspaper. In an editorial today, he said the Social Democratic Union had no choice but to form a government with Ahmeti, the former guerrilla.

The suggestion is a sign of how much Macedonian politics have changed in just 12 months. More than half of the legislators elected to parliament from the DUI are former members of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, and until August last year, were fighting against the Macedonian police and army.

A glance across Macedonia’s border to U.N.-administered Kosovo, where during the 1998-99 war another ethnic Albanian army staged a rebellion, shows how difficult it can be for guerrilla fighters to make the transition to politics. Today, many former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters are accused of links to organized crime and of supporting the uprising last year in Macedonia.

Teuta Arifi, an education professor at the South Eastern European University in the Macedonian city of Tetovo and, by unofficial numbers, the second-biggest vote-getter on the DUI’s party list, said Macedonia’s rebel leaders have very different objectives than their neighbors in Kosovo.

Last year’s conflict in Macedonia was about getting the government to recognize ethnic Albanian rights within the state, and not about trying to create a separate state, as was the objective in Kosovo, she said in an interview.

“Albanians very much wanted to take part in building the political nation, a right which was not recognized until the creation of the Ohrid peace accords,” Arifi said, referring to the agreement signed last year to expand Albanian rights in an effort to settle the conflict.

Western diplomats maintain that Ahmeti, a former factory worker who lived in exile in Switzerland, has been a linchpin of the peace process, keeping a lid on tensions in former conflict areas.

But Danovski said it is too soon for non-Albanian voters to accept the idea of the former guerrilla commander in the cabinet. He suggested that noncombatants such as Arifi would be more acceptable. But with time, he said, people may come to accept Ahmeti.

“Till now, he is one of the few men to keep his word,” said Danovski. “He has stuck to the [terms of the] Ohrid peace accords, unlike other Albanian leaders, which is very important to us, because we see the agreement as an end to never-ending demands of Albanians.”

Research conducted by the International Republican Institute indicates that, on the whole, both communities have no desire to see a return to last year’s conflict. Security and the economy topped voters’ concerns, according to an exit poll by the institute.

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