the Next Balkan Flashpoint
Christine Stone
British Helsinki Human Rights Group

Special to

While the war in Chechnya was preoccupying delegates to the OSCE summit in Istanbul last week another potential crisis was developing in the Balkans. On 14th November the small republic of Macedonia elected a new president, Boris Trajkovsky. But supporters of the losing candidate Tito Petkovsky – who led by a considerable margin in the first round of voting cried foul. Since then, large demonstrations by outraged supporters of the losing candidate have taken place in the capital Skopje which could continue during the forthcoming visit of President Clinton.

Macedonia is a strange place, even by Balkan standards. It sought independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 to distance itself from the Serbian rampage, but arguments with neighbouring Greece over the country's name and flag persisted for several years. A substantial Albanian minority in the West of the country also posed problems. Its more radical members demanded, among other things, the establishment of a purely Albanian university in the small town of Tetovo.

Nevertheless, under its old Communist president, Kiro Gligorov, and the ruling SDSM – the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia – the country posed few problems to the West as it made a hash of peacekeeping in the rest of Yugoslavia. To many, Macedonia's constitution made ample provision for ethnic minorities. A moderate Albanian party, the Party of Democratic Prosperity, (PDP) was also a partner in the government.

The Socialists were defeated in elections held in the Autumn 1998. A coalition government emerged of a strange hue. The party that led in the polls, VMRO-DPMNE (the Revolutionary Macedonian Organization) is ultra-nationalist with a long reputation for violence. European history had been marked by its extremism, most famously in 1934 when VMRO assassins killed King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Marseilles. Had the party now changed? It seemed so as it entered into a coalition with the most radical Albanian party in Macedonia, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) led by Arben Xhaferi, himself originally an extreme nationalist from Pristina. This explosive mix was somewhat leavened by the presence of a moderate party, the Democratic Alternative under Vasil Tupurkovski, an old Yugoslavia-hand now converted to market reform.

The VMRO candidate for the presidency added a further incongruous element to this heady brew. Boris Traijkovsky, an Al Gore look-alike, is a Protestant in a country consisting of Orthodox and Muslim believers plus a healthy component of atheists. His wholesome appeal – exemplified by an election poster transposing his name on to a page of the Bible open at Psalm 138 – is somewhat tempered by the number of black-leather clad young men who swarm around the VMRO party headquarters in Skopje.

While it is difficult for any normal observer to imagine how this particular circle could be squared, analysts opined that common sense and harmony had prevailed in Macedonia's political class – unlike elsewhere in the Balkans.

However, a darker interpretation can be put on these developments.

Back in Autumn 1998 the confrontation in Kosovo was looming. The Americans and their allies needed pliable governments in the region both for political and logistical reasons. The previous Macedonian government had been uneasy about the growing violence in Kosovo and saw its secession from Yugoslavia as a threat to its own delicate ethnic balance. However, the new government, despite its radical Macedonian leadership, proved to be more cooperative. As the conflict intensified in the early months of 1999 Macedonia's role in the events that were unfolding deepened and by March the country had even signed a Rambouillet-style agreement, including terms similar to the infamous protocol that allowed NATO troops free movement around the country.

Everyone remembers the pictures of Kosovan refugees streaming across the border into Macedonia where they were accommodated in camps near the border crossing at Blace. But the country received little international kudos. Politicians, like Britain's Claire Short, condemned Macedonia for its allegedly inhumane treatment of the refugees. At the same time local farmers had their fields and buildings confiscated without any thought being given to the economic loss such people might suffer.

NATO's headquarters at this time were near Skopje but by June when the 'liberation' took place its armies, now known as KFOR, had moved to Kosovo. Six months later the country is still swarming with NATO troops as well as a medley of humanitarian organizations. Many Macedonians have become resentful of this army of occupation which is free from the constraints of local law, thanks to the agreement made with NATO. There have been numerous road accidents caused by KFOR vehicles and the situation came to a head when a government minister was killed by Norwegian KFOR troops in a traffic accident in October.

Inevitably, the upper hand gained by Albanian extremists in Kosovo had radicalised Western Macedonia where weapons and drugs flowed freely from Kosovo and Albania itself. But little criticism seems to have been directed towards Mr. Xhaferri's Albanian nationalists from his coalition partners.

By the time the presidential elections came around many Macedonians had had enough. For, quite apart from the effects of the war in neighbouring Kosovo the government was perceived as corrupt and of having failed to deliver on any of its promises. It should have come as no surprise that the main opposition candidate, Tito Petkovsky, would do well.

But by November 1999 Macedonia had, if only temporarily, forfeited much of its independence to NATO and its leading members states. The US embassy in Skopje – a vast, fortified building – testifies to where the real power in the country lies. Alarm bells there will have rung loudly when it looked as though a Socialist was about to become president of Macedonia. For, although the role is mainly cosmetic the presidency creates another power base which can be a focus of opposition if the government of the day is unpopular.

And it is here that the OSCE enters the picture.

Through the ODIHR, its human rights and democracy branch, the OSCE monitors elections in the former Communist states as well as ex-Yugoslavia – it has (not yet, anyway) extended its activities to its Western member states. Despite stated commitments to objectivity, the organization has turned out to be a foreign policy arm of the United States and its European allies. Its verdict on the acceptability or otherwise of election processes in the countries it has monitored is, basically, foreign policy by other means. For example, when the United States wanted to remove Albania's Sali Berisha from office it falsely accused him and his party of election fraud in parliamentary elections held in 1996. Conversely, since 1992 elections in the former Soviet republic of Georgia have been a farce. But, to prop up the Western-sponsored regime of Eduard Shevardnadze the OSCE has given these charades of democracy a clean bill of health.

The OSCE sent over 150 observers to monitor the Macedonian presidential election. The immediate problem though was to produce the 100,00 votes plus that Trajkovsky would need to win. This would not be easy for it would mean that most of the votes recorded for the four losing candidates in the first round must go to him even though two of those candidates were close to the SDSM and, in the case of the PDP, former coalition partners. As there was a strong possibility that the desired result could only be achieved through a less than transparent process, the foreign observers had, somehow, to be neutralized.

In the days leading up to the second round of the poll journalists close to the ruling classes put the word around Skopje that people would not turn out to vote, meaning that neither candidate would win because less than 50% of the electorate would vote, 50% + 1 being the necessary turnout for the election to be valid. Another presidential election would have to take place within 60 days as stipulated by the constitution. Those in the know pointed, in particular, to the unlikely participation of the Albanian community in the West. The message was clear: there would be no point observers going to Western Macedonia on election day as no one there would vote.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Albanians in the region of Tetovo and Gostivar voted in respectable rather than excessive numbers, yet they all seemed to vote for the candidate of the extreme Macedonian nationalists, Boris Trajkovsky. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was marked by appalling instances of cheating. As an observer with a small independent group not attached to the OSCE I saw numerous examples of fraud. People were blatantly voting several times or voting on behalf of other people by producing a profusion of the voting cards that are now compulsory in a Macedonian election.

Observers from the SDSM were evicted from several polling stations – we visited one such person in Gostivar's main hospital where he had gone for X-rays after been kicked and beaten to the ground in a polling station in the town.

In other places members of our group were asked to protect SDSM observers and commission members and shield them while they escaped from the polling stations outside which hordes of young men in black leather jackets stood menacingly around. The turnout was of Stalinist proportions: some places had reached a 100% turnout by 10.30 in the morning, others assured us they would get there later in the day – even though they admitted that many young men on the electoral register were working abroad. But nowhere did we see any foreign observers. They had, presumably, taken heed of the message that no one in the region was going to vote and deployed themselves elsewhere.

The extraordinarily large, official turnout of Albanians in Western Macedonia (60% – 70% – all for Trajkovsky) ensured his victory. Despite early optimism, when votes started to come in by late Sunday night, the mood at SDSM headquarters was grim: from a seemingly unassailable lead third candidate had lost the election.

But the most distasteful part of the proceedings was still to come. On the Monday 15th November a steady stream of foreign ambassadors visited the party to urge it not to "over react" and promote instability. Yes, violations had taken place but it was partly the SDSM's own fault for withdrawing its observers from polling stations where (as pointed out) they could have been kicked to death!! A Swedish diplomat had already told me that he couldn't observe the voting in western Macedonia because it would have been "too dangerous." All agreed that the party must accept the results which the OSCE itself had deemed "generally satisfactory".

After his victory around 5,000 Trajkovsky supporters gathered to celebrate in Skopje's main square. They were all young men aged between 16 and 25 dressed in black leather shooting wildly into the air. On the following night, 15th November, around 100,000 people gathered in the same square to protest the result. Despite attempts to portray these people as aged Communists they were from all walks of life and all ages. They arrived and left on the buses not in stolen cars. Instead of waving guns though they carried posters of Boris Trajkosky and Vasil Tupurkovsky with Albanian skull caps transposed onto their heads. Funny but ominous.

For the upshot of this farce could be an upsurge of the very inter-ethnic violence the outside world has always tried to prevent in Macedonia. The losers know that had it not been for the outrageous fraud perpetrated by their Albanian neighbours, Tito Petkovsky would have been elected president. Another large demonstration took place on the night of 17th November and although the defeated candidate begged his supporters not to march on the parliament, no one knows what will happen next.

Perhaps, though, the fabled international community does not want racial harmony in Macedonia. So far, all outside intervention in the Balkans has led to more not less ethnic cleansing. The impression created is that, despite the rhetoric, NATO wants manipulable small, ethnically homogenous states in southeastern Europe. Perhaps the Albanians of Macedonia would be better off attached somehow to Kosovo and Albania proper. Eastern Macedonia might then be incorporated into its larger neighbour, Bulgaria, where many people in the West think it belongs historically.

I visited the headquarters of VMRO's sister organization in Sofia last May which then advertised itself as a 'holding company' – it has since become a political party exercising more influence by the day in Bulgarian political life. In the same building was an organization straight out of the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel, the "Macedonian Institute," whose rationale is to show there is no such country as Macedonia, i.e. it is really a part of Bulgaria!

Cultural contacts between Bulgaria and Macedonia are growing apace as well as mutual agreements over transport and trade. The power behind this rapprochement in Skopje is the vice-chairman of the VMRO party – a former teacher of Marxism-Leninism turned raving nationalist.

While the Albanian component in this equation might be happy to break away and join some kind of Albanian confederation, Macedonians proper are vehemently opposed to unification with their larger neighbour. I was taken aback by the hostility to the idea bearing in mind the historical and linguistic connections between the two countries. They are right to be suspicious. Despite the legacy of Communism, life in Macedonia is paradise compared to Bulgaria. For example, the country is self-sufficient in food unlike Bulgaria where 'reform' has devastated agriculture and industry and reduced ordinary people to poverty.

So, it will be very difficult to push these two entities together. But, remember, Macedonia is basically an occupied country. Should outrage with the election results and fears for an Anschluss with Bulgaria get out of hand there are plenty of KFOR troops to turn on protestors and restore order.

Meanwhile the OSCE and its election observer team will have moved on to prevent conflict and promote stability elsewhere.

Christine Stone is director of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group which observed the presidential election in Macedonia. Other reports on Macedonia by BHHRG can be found on the Group's web-site at

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