SAT, 23 SEP 2000 01:10:19 GMT
AIM Athens, September 23, 2000
More than seven people were wounded during a shooting among Albanian voters on 10 September, the day of the first round of local elections in Macedonia, I covered on behalf of AIM-Athens. Due to destruction of ballot boxes and open violence, the elections were cancelled in the municipality of Debar in Western Macedonia, densely populated by ethnic Albanians. In some villages around Debar, Tetovo and Gostivar, all in Western Macedonia, also a number of other irregularities were found: a man voted for the whole family, some voted without identity cards, or political activists stayed in front of the polling stations and silently or openly threatened those who might vote for their political rivals.
The opposition ethnic Albanian "Party for Democratic Prosperity" (PDP) strongly accused the ruling Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) of instigating the shooting and the irregularities. According to media reports, PDP leaders claimed that the DPA activists involved in those incidents were 'well-known criminals'. That is why, even after having secured one mayoral place in the first round, the PDP declared it will withdraw its candidates from participating in the second round on 24 September. On its part, also the DPA found some cases to accuse their political rivals of committing violence and irregularities, but generally it tried to keep a 'low profile'. In an interview with AIM, DPA's leader Arben Xhaferi attributed the violence to some reactions of 'particular individuals' and claimed that his party had no political interest in putting pressures, since according to pre-election polls DPA was the one to lead. Indeed, in the first round the DPA secured 11 seats for mayors, including the seat for a mayor for the crucial town for Albanian political life in Macedonia, Tetovo. 17 DPA candidates for mayors will participate in the second round.
While incidents of open violence were also present in previous elections, shooting among Albanian voters is discussed in the open now. This immediately raised the question in Macedonia whether there is any 'militarization of Albanian political life'. This was to be allegedly facilitated by connections of organized crime to some high-ranking governmental officials. While information like this is difficult to prove, it is visible that the two main Albanian parties have recently embarked on a bitter struggle.
One apple of discord has been the June 2000 introduction of a new law on higher education, pursued with the blessing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) High Commissioner on the National Minorities, Max van der Stoel. With this law Albanians achieved the right to higher education in the Albanian language in private universities in Macedonia. The law aimed at finding a compromise between Albanians due to their growing discontent that they do not have the right to higher education in their mother-tongue apart from studying in a pedagogical and philological faculty, and ethnic Macedonians, feeling that such a right will give too many concessions to the Albanians. However, the law did not change the status of the highly controversial Tetovo University, established in 1994 by Albanian activists as a parallel structure to provide with Albanian-language education, and aiming at becoming a state university, but not a private one. With the law its students were only allowed to take additional exams so that their diplomas can be officially recognized in Macedonia. Since the ruling DPA has pushed through this project, the opposition PDP took the demands for recognition of the Tetovo University as an issue for its further political struggle. However, by September 2000 average Albanians far removed from political activism have felt that they were betrayed on the Tetovo University issue, and thus, their discontent against the governing DPA was growing. Also in September, the Tetovo University started a new academic year, and continued to rapidly build its new premises.
However, the conflict between the two Albanian parties is not only due to the substantive issue of education, but also due to a long-lasting strive just for the sake of power. The PDP governed in a coalition with the Social Democrats (SDSM) between 1992 and 1998, and - according to the International Crisis Group - most of its functionaries were nomenclatura people, vigorously promoted by the [then-] President Kiro Gligorov. The PDP was more moderate in stance on the Albanian demands unlike the more nationalist DPA which gained political power after the local elections of 1996. Nevertheless, until 1998, the inter-ethnic peace with PDP in government had a bad record. Paradoxically, the nationalist DPA - when entering a governmental coalition with the Macedonian nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and the more moderate Democratic Alternative in 1998 - mellowed its stance and managed to broker several improvements in the status of the Albanians. Major achievements were an Amnesty law releasing Albanian political prisoners, placing Albanians in high positions of public administration and the introduction of the education law. According to Xhaferi, further on his political agenda are issues of 'consociationalism', such as making Albanians a constituent nation, introducing the Albanian language as an official one in Macedonia, the decentralization of the state and a proportional representation of Albanians in the state institutions. Again paradoxically, at present the PDP is more radical, especially on the Tetovo University issue. Following its poor results in the 1998 elections, the PDP reformed itself by changing its old post-communist leadership and put in central positions more radical intellectuals.
While the voting of the Albanians was in the limelight - due to stability reasons and since Albanians constitute between 23 percent of the population, according to 1994 census data, - media paid almost no attention to the political developments in the Roma minority. Their real numbers are claimed to be much higher than the ones declared in the 1994 census, i.e. 43,732 people. Since the census quoted citizens and not residents - a fact that also concerned the Albanian minority in Macedonia - the London-based Minority Rights Group International claimed that the real number of Roma in 1991 had reached around 200,000 people.
During elections most of the attention within the Romani community is paid to the Shuto Orizari district, the biggest Romani settlement near Skopje, governed since 1996 by the first ever Romani mayor in the Balkans, Nezhted Mustafa. This is the only place where Roma have real chances to win a mayoral seat, so the three main Romani parties - the Party for Total Emancipation of the Roma, the Alliance of Roma in Macedonia (ARM) and the United Party of Roma in Macedonia (UPRM) - have run their candidates for a mayor and the 17 members of the town-council. UPRM's leader Mustafa won a decisive leadin the first round, but will have to go to a second one up against the VMRO-DPMNE-DA coalition candidate, Sali Salievski, who is also a Rom.
The election day among Roma had only few irregularities. According to the local monitor of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) Martin Demirovski, in Shuto Orizari some Roma have seen activists of the VMRO-DPMNE and DA coalition to give out flower and oil in exchange for a promise for the 'proper vote'. This strategy used by many parties has helped for several years buy off Romani votes, but - according to Demirovski - during this campaign it has had a negative effect. Many of the targeted Roma rejected to be a subject of purchase, and decided to vote not in favor to the 'proper' candidates. Moreover, media reported that, on election day, mayor Mustafa has appeared on his own TV ."Shutel". Talking to AIM, he said that his behavior was not different from that of other politicians who were shown on other TV stations when casting their ballot on election day. He claimed that in his televised address he only appealed to people to go and vote in the polling stations, but he had never campaigned for his own party. Media also reported that Amdi Bajram, the only Romani member of parliament and ARM leader, was allegedly campaigning in Shuto Orizari. On his part, he claimed that UPRM activists were threatening the voters in front of a polling station. Other media claimed that SDSM activists chased away some Roma from voting in the town of Prilep. However, international monitors concluded that there were no major incidents during Roma voting.
Although the Roma community in Macedonia is not as big as the Albanian one, it is much more split in its political life and voting. After the collapse of communism, several parties emerged to defend Roma interests in Macedonia. In 1990, first was founded the Party for the Total Emancipation of the Roma headed by Faik Abdi, who held a seat in the parliament until the general elections of 1998. During the local elections of 1996, Amdi Bajram left this same party and formed his own, the Alliance of Roma in Macedonia. The Democratic Progressive Party of Roma in Macedonia was founded by a group of intellectuals in 1991 under the leadership of Bekir Arif, but, in late 1998, the present mayor of Shuto Orizari became its head. Later on, this party's name was changed to the United Party of Roma in Macedonia. A fourth party, the Party for the Unification of Roma in Macedonia, based in Tetovo, is reported to have been founded in view of the 2000 local elections, but has not actively participated in them.
The split of Romani votes goes beyond the boundaries of the Romani community. Traditionally, Roma run also as candidates on the lists of ethnic Macedonian parties. In this election campaign, Roma were strongly supporting the Democratic Alternative. Moreover, ARM's leader Bajram claimed during the current campaign it is supporting the two Macedonian government parties, but also the ruling Albanian DPA in Western Macedonia. However, usually Romani parties have no serious connections to the Albanian ones, nor do they support each other in electoral coalitions and - as in this campaign - Albanian parties do not incorporate Romani candidates on their lists. This is because although relations between Roma and Albanians in Albanian-dominated areas have been marked by relative peace, they have never been cordial. One reason is that Roma feel threatened regarding their identity, which is predominantly Muslim as is the one of the majority of Albanians, and, thus, Roma fear of becoming targets of assimilation on religious grounds. However, Albanians seem not interested in incorporating Roma into their political life, while still being interested in their votes. Although the hatreds between Albanians and Roma in Kosovo after the 1999 war were not mirrored in Macedonia, Roma still prefer to be politically affiliated with Macedonians. This is also due to a widely held Romani view that Roma, "unlike the Albanians, are 'good' citizens of Macedonia".