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Comment: Macedonia Spared Kosovo Illness
In less than a month, two events have raised serious questions about the stability of Macedonia.
The first was the death of President Boris Trajkovski. Given his role as a conciliator who averted all-out civil war in 2001, this was widely interpreted as a threat to stability and as creating an opportunity for renewed conflict between the country's two main communities.
The second was the latest violence in Kosovo, which have raised concerns that it could spill over to Macedonia.
In the days since Trajkovski's death, Macedonia was united in grief, however, and it become increasingly clear that the tragedy has not brought the country's internal stability into question.
As for the explosion of violence in Kosovo, which at moments appeared out of control and quite capable of spilling over into Macedonia, it must be said that the public here has shown more maturity and reason this time than before.
In stability terms, owing to the large number of Albanians either side of the border, Kosovo and Macedonia have long been treated as inter-related issues.
The position of the previous Macedonian government, especially that of its leader Ljubco Georgievski, was that in 2001 Macedonia was the victim of aggression on the part of Albanian-dominated Kosovo.
Until last year, most Macedonian political parties continued to view the independence of Kosovo as the first step towards the union of all Albanians in a Greater Albania, which they identified with the destabilisation of the region.
But during the latest clashes in Kosovo, the danger of violence spreading south towards Macedonia has been treated with restraint. The issue has been given little space in newspaper columns, even by those elements in the media that normally never fail to analyse issues in whatever way will cast a grim light on inter-ethnic relations.
This change in Macedonia's position with regard to Kosovo's destabilising potential had already become clear before Trajkovski’s death and the latest violence in Kosovo.
The government's official position on Kosovo's final status is precisely defined and says only that a stable Kosovo under the rule of law is in Macedonia's greatest interest.
In the Albanian political bloc in Macedonia, only the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, and its leader, Arben Xhaferi, in the pre-election campaign for the 2002 parliamentary elections insisted on independence for the UN protectorate as a precondition for Macedonia's own stability.
Ali Ahmeti and his Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, on the other hand, is much more focused on Macedonia's internal situation. Even before establishing his party, Ahmeti said the solution for Kosovo lay in the hands of the international community and those of its own citizens.
Ahmeti has become the first Albanian leader in Macedonia not to rely heavily on the consultative visits to Pristina and Tirana that used to be the norm among Albanian party leaders in the country.
The Prizren Declaration, which Ahmeti signed in spring 2001 on behalf of the rebel National Liberation Army, NLA, and the leaders of the then strongest Albanian parliamentary parties - Imer Imeri of the Party for Democratic Prosperity, and Arben Xhaferi of the DPA - enshrined the principle that “territories are not a solution for ethnic problems”. This same principle was later taken on board and included in the Ohrid Agreement.
By the time the NLA disbanded in September 2001, the government had lost control over nearly one-third of its territory. But since then, mixed police patrols, with OSCE help, have been deployed in all the former crisis regions. The European mission, Proxima, is already present in the same areas, and is starting police reforms aimed at solving the most obvious weaknesses in the police force in the former crisis regions.
The number of ethnic incidents in western, mainly Albanian, Macedonia has fallen, while some of the local troublemakers who controlled entire villages - or even regions - are now out of the country or in prison.
Given that background, the forthcoming presidential campaign is likely to proceed calmly and no one is expecting a fight for votes playing on ethnic tensions.
The elections will be interesting only as a test of power and influence within the two communities, and one of public opinion before upcoming local elections in autumn.
The main topic will be the battle between the Social Democrat leader and present prime minister, Branko Crvenkovski and the little-known candidate of the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, Sasko Kedev.
On the Albanian side, after Xhaferi - who played on Kosovo in his 2002 campaign - withdrew his candidacy, the presidential elections lost much of their uncertainty. However, there may be problems if there are incidents between the supporters of the Albanian parties, as was the case in the 2000 local elections.
This does not mean Macedonia has suddenly become an oasis of stability or that it is totally immune to the ills of the region. It simply means that the potential for instability lies mainly within itself.
The county is entering a period of elections that will last until the end of the year. After the presidential ballot comes a local election in the autumn. The chances of Crvenkovski becoming the new president are realistic, so Macedonia is likely to have both a new prime minister and a new government.
On the negative side, these elections will practically freeze the work of parliament, which is supposed to be winding up a debate and adopting laws on decentralisation and other provisions of the Ohrid peace agreement.
And the poor economic and social situation, with its own potential for creating trouble, is not improving. While industrial production continues to fall and unemployment hovering around the 400,000 level, Macedonia's permanent peace and stability can never be assured.
Iso Rusi is editor in chief of Albanian language weekly Lobi.
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