Comment: Skopje's Choice

Macedonian politicians must resist temptations to destabilise the upcoming elections.

Comment: Skopje's Choice

Macedonian politicians must resist temptations to destabilise the upcoming elections.

Friday, 13 September, 2002

It's decision time in the Balkans - again.

The big issues of war and peace in the Balkans appear for now to have been resolved, or at least shelved, thanks to international forces in the region. The focus is now on creating economic development in functioning democracies. The big carrot of ultimate EU membership is on the table, and has generated impressive progress in some parts of the region.

But we are not yet out of the Balkan woods. Remaining problems include corruption, radical nationalism and continuing lack of respect for the rule of law. All these strain international patience and budgets, putting at risk the entire process of moving definitively beyond war towards real peace.

A series of elections this autumn - in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo - will test the success of international policies in the region. The first and most urgent challenge is Macedonia, a state, which survived a small-scale conflict last year thanks to prompt international intervention. An awkward coalition government faces the voters on September 15 with slim prospects of re-election, according to polls.

Defeat means more than just loss of office. As exhaustively detailed in a recent International Crisis Group report, corruption allegations implicate political figures at the highest level of the Macedonian government. Huge sums - from local trade and international assistance - have been siphoned off into political coffers and the pockets of individuals. Loss of office could mean loss of control of such channels, and possible investigation on corruption charges. The stakes are high.

The run-up to the election has seen increasing violence. Two Macedonian policemen were shot dead on August 26; two ethnic Albanians were killed on September 5. Small explosions and shootings are commonplace. The press has been filled with vitriolic government condemnations of the West, with the local offices of both our organisations amongst the targets.

The interior minister has even announced that he is considering the detention of journalists for "spreading western scenarios in order to destroy the government". Local analysts suggest the intention is either to create tension that would reduce the turnout (which could benefit the incumbents) or to provoke such instability that the elections themselves are postponed or even cancelled.

That would be a disaster for Macedonia, the Balkans and the international community. A flawed or thwarted election would set back democracy, further radicalise already aggrieved populations, block essential European development aid and set a dangerous precedent for Kosovo, Bosnia and other trouble spots in the region where the international community has invested enormous effort.

In the days before the vote, it is time for Macedonians - ethnic Macedonians who comprise the majority of the population and ethnic Albanians - to make a choice. They may hark back to the violence, nationalism and corruption that have served the region so poorly over the past decade. Or they can reach for a more prosperous longer-term choice of peace and democracy within Europe.

The international community can exert sharp and clear pressure to help, by making absolutely plain to the current government - and all political leaders - that jeopardising democracy will jeopardise aid and long-term development in Macedonia. It must emphasise that it will refuse to recognise a flawed election.

At the same time, it has to make clear to politicians in Macedonia that failure to advance the cause of democracy will not shake the West's commitment to assisting other parts of the Balkans.

The United States, though utterly preoccupied with Iraq, should get its eye back on the Balkan ball long enough to join firmly with Europe in the task.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Nicholas Whyte is Balkans programme director at the International Crisis Group.

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