Macedonia: Albanian Power Struggle Hots Up

A reputation for crooked politics seems unlikely to harm Menduh Thaci in his battle against popular guerrilla leader, Ali Ahmeti.

Macedonia: Albanian Power Struggle Hots Up

A reputation for crooked politics seems unlikely to harm Menduh Thaci in his battle against popular guerrilla leader, Ali Ahmeti.

Wednesday, 1 May, 2002

A struggle for leadership of Macedonia's Albanian ethnic minority has broken out between a former guerrilla hero and a wily politician who amassed wealth and power during 10 years of working on the shadowy margins of government.

Ali Ahmeti shot to popularity with his exploits as leader of the National Liberation Army, NLA, in last year's conflict between Albanians and the Macedonian security forces. When it was over, he was widely acclaimed as the new community leader, displacing Menduh Thaci who had long been regarded as the most influential Albanian in the country.

For some six months, Thaci swallowed his displeasure and kept a low profile. Now he is out in the open and fighting hard to eclipse Ahmeti. Knowledgeable analysts believe Thaci is certain to win.

As the driving force behind the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, the country's most important Albanian group, Thaci wields great authority. He is the guiding light for the DPA president, Arber Xhaferi, the intellectual who dominates Albanian political thinking in Macedonia.

Thaci opened his offensive with a fierce assault against the leaders of the two other Albanian parties, the Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, and National Democratic Party, NDP. He also sought to topple the Coordination Council, set up by Ahmeti to enforce the terms of the Ohrid peace agreement, which improved civic rights for Albanians.

Thaci poured scorn on Ahmeti's effort to unite Albanians under one umbrella organization. "Who gave Ahmeti this mandate?" he asked last week, before announcing that the DPA would split from the Coordination Council and campaign independently in next September's general election.

The council had planned to field a joint list of election candidates and will also mount a concerted campaign against corruption. Council sources said Thaci may fall victim to the latter.

Throughout his rise in politics, Thaci has repeatedly demonstrated an ability for survival. Although he never held office, he has exerted a behind-the-scenes influence that has brought him great power. Analysts say he controls the business scene in the Albanian community.

A failed dentist student from Pristina University, in Kosovo, Thaci learned his first lessons in politics from the student protests in the province during the Eighties.

He became president of the Tetovo branch of the PDP when it was the strongest Albanian party in Macedonia. In 1993 he broke away and formed the Party for Democratic Prosperity of the Albanians, PDPA, which later became the DPA, with Xhaferi as president. Even in the DPA's early days Thaci's control was so evident the media called Xhaferi "the president of Menduh Thaci's party".

It was Thaci who started building the party infrastructure and appointing the leadership in the branch offices. At first, Thaci said he would never let the DPA participate in government. He changed his mind after the parliamentary elections of 1998 and brought the party into coalition with the government of Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski.

Alhough Thaci declined to hold office the media said he successfully pulled strings from the sidelines. He controlled the DPA's share of appointing government ministers, ambassadors and executive positions on the boards of public enterprises.

Sources close to the government and to the DPA confirmed that Thaci was instrumental in electing the current Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski. Thaci told this correspondent that he managed to drum up 250,000 Albanian votes for Trajkovski. At the local elections in 2000, the PDP accused the DPA and Thaci of sending thugs around the polling stations to intimidate voters.

Although it seemed that last year's war had devastated relations between DPA and VMRO-DPMNE, the ruling Macedonian party, the coalition still functioned efficiently in the business arena throughout the seven months of conflict.

Thaci told this correspondent, "The money comes from the government, if we do not take it, someone else will." He made it compulsory for every DPA member in the government to pay a percentage of his "revenues" to the party.

Thaci admitted in 2000 that the revenue from corruption and cigarette smuggling reaches millions of Euros. "And if someone expects that I will live modestly and drive a 'Fico' (a small Yugoslav car), he is wrong," Thaci told this correspondent.

His party moved its offices from a modest apartment into a luxurious building in Tetovo. The party's one old car was replaced with several limousines. Party staff multiplied rapidly.

When the NLA came into being in February-March, 2001, to fight for greater Albanian political rights, Thaci viewed it as a threat to DPA business interests. He and several party associates, including the deputy prime minister, Bedredin Ibrahimi, and the deputy speaker of parliament, Iljaz Halimi, denounced the guerrillas.

But when the NLA under Ahmeti gained popular support from Albanians, the DPA was forced to back it. Ahmeti emerged as a strong political leader and anti-corruption campaigner. Thaci felt his comfortable position was endangered.

Only three months ago it seemed impossible that Thaci could come out fighting against Ahmeti. Now that it has happened, Thaci has sprung yet another political surprise and the Albanian political scene in Macedonia is clearly not big enough for both of them.

Neither man is likely to go quietly. But the betting is mostly on Thaci to win.

Iso Rusi is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Albanian weekly Lobi

Macedonia, Kosovo
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