Citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are going to the polls today, ostensibly to choose a new president and several regional officials but mostly to demostrate to the European Union that they can hold elections in a manner befitting a civilized society.
Macedonians began voting Sunday in presidential and local elections seen as crucial for the country’s EU membership bid, amid tight security to prevent violence that has marred previous polls.
Police patrols have been reinforced in regions where incidents occurred in previous polls. One person was killed and several wounded in gunbattles in unrest in ethnic Albanian areas during elections last June. Some 8,500 police officers were given written instructions on how to act on election day and prevent violence at polling stations as a part of a special security plan drawn up by the interior ministry.
The authorities, presidential candidates but also international officials have appealed for violence-free elections that would be conducted in accordance with international standards and serve as a proof of the Balkans country’s ability to organise free and fair polls. European Union enlargement chief Olli Rehn says the elections are a “moment of truth” for Macedonia, which has yet to start EU accession talks four years after becoming an official candidate to join the bloc.
Deutsche Welle agrees that “The vote is a fresh test of the troubled country’s democratic maturity and could affect its EU aspirations.”
The EU envoy in Skopje, Erwan Fouere, said failure to deliver elections in line with international standards would push Macedonia away from EU membership. “It simply would bring Macedonia very far back and would considerably delay prospects of coming closer to the EU,” Fouere said in an interview on Thursday. “That would signal a tremendous failure. It is not an option we would like to contemplate.”
Indeed, the report notes, “the Macedonian head of state carries little political weight and, personal prestige aside, Sunday’s vote is more important as a test of Macedonia’s ability to finally hold a clean contest.”
So, why the fear of tensions over elections with little policy consequence?
Albanians comprise around 25 percent of the population, but dominate much of the north-western section of the country. Slavic Macedonians are the majority among the 2.1 million inhabitants.
Hostility and mistrust between the two largest ethnic groups led to a brief conflict in 2001, which was ended when the West brokered a peace-and-reform deal to give the Albanians more rights. Tension nevertheless persists, and is fuelled by widespread poverty.
Lagging reforms, corruption, ethnic tensions and electoral violence have stalled Macedonia’s progress toward European Union membership since it received the status of a membership candidate in 2005.
On top of that, Skopje is embroiled in a long-running diplomatic row with Athens over the name of Macedonia, which Greece claims for its northern province. The fight over the name led to the Greek veto on Macedonia’s membership in NATO 11 months ago.
AP points out that 2001 wasn’t the end of the violence: “Last year’s parliamentary elections were marred by fraud and gunfights between supporters of rival ethnic Albanian parties that left one person dead and several injured.”
BBC quotes Fouere as saying the vote was “the last chance not to miss the train again to EU” and “This is probably the last opportunity for quite some time for the country to show that it has not only the capacity, but also the political will, to organise elections in line with international standards.” But, frankly, while failure to conduct these elections peacefully may doom Macedonia’s bid for years to come, giving the EU an excuse for taking the issue off the table, it has slim hope anyway. In addition to legitimate fears about its political stability and the row over the country’s very name, it’s simply not a strong candidate for joining the world’s foremost economic confederation: “Macedonia is of Europe’s poorest countries, with unemployment running at about 35 percent and a struggling economy.”
The bottom line is that Macedonia is sure to not get an EU bid if these elections go poorly but incredibly unlikely to get one even if things go swimmingly.