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Macedonia: Special Forces "Election Threat"

There are fears that paramilitary police units could be used to keep the government in power
By Saso Ordanoski

The killing of two young people by paramilitary police this week renewed fears that this notoriously brutal force might be thrown into action to sway the coming Macedonian general election.


Ostensibly set up to combat terrorists, these units - who along with police reservists are said to have been responsible for provoking a series of violent incidents over the past ten months in which about 30 civilians have died - are under direct control of the governing party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, known as the VMRO-DPMNE.


With the election only two months away, the party is faring badly in public opinion polls and there are concerns that the special forces - made up of squads called the Tigers and the Lions - will be let loose to frighten voters and journalists and intimidate opposition politicians.


The latest killings came in two separate incidents. On July 14, in Vinica, a small town in eastern Macedonia, Alberto Stojanovski, 21, was knocked unconscious with a bottle and then beaten to death as he lay there. At least 12 others were wounded, three of them seriously. The following day, Aleksandra Ristovska, 20, girlfriend of a paramilitary officer, was killed by careless gunfire in the village of Jegunovce, close to the border with Kosovo.


At Vinica, witnesses said that about 20 members of the Tigers unit drove into town wearing civilian clothes and speaking to each other through walkie-talkies. They headed for the Cool and La Costa nightclubs where they launched unprovoked attacks on everyone within reach, according to one witness who was too scared to give his name.


More than 200 people watched it all happen. Apparently the attack was in retaliation for a fight the previous night between the Tigers and some bar room thugs. One of the paramilitary unit's training camps is located on nearby Golak Mountain and from time to time they go on wild sprees to Vinica. Outnumbered and ineffective, the local police are unable and unwilling to stop them.


The Tigers and the Lions - one of whose units was involved in the Jegunovce shooting - are supposed to represent the most powerful anti-terrorist police forces in Macedonia. However, they rarely get involved in countering terrorism.


Even during the ethnic conflict in Macedonia last year, there were only a handful of clashes between these police units and the Albanian Liberation Army. According to unofficial statistics, most of those killed and injured by the former and other members of the police were ethnic Macedonians.


Despite charging 14 Tigers involved in the Vinica incident with serious criminal offences, the authorities sought to play down the episode. "Journalists make generalised accusations against all police officers and whole police units," said government spokesman Georgi Trendafilov.


Most of the new recruits to the Tigers, and almost all the Lions, are members of VMRO-DPMNE. A significant number have criminal records and they spend most of their time in police compounds or drinking in bars and restaurants.


Very often they feature on the crime pages of Macedonian newspapers - sometimes for demolishing a bar in a fight over a girl, sometimes for shooting at waiters for slow service or just killing people through the inept use of firearms. Their overall commander, the notorious interior minister Ljube Boskovski, has already physically threatened journalists. He also figured personally in violent assaults.


Most opposition politicians, diplomats and journalists are critical of the special forces, with many calling for them to be disbanded.


Radmila Sekerinska, an opposition Social Democratic Alliance deputy, commented,


"Incidents in the last couple of weeks reflect a growing misuse of these police units. In the last couple of years, we have frequently warned that they are becoming uncontrollable. Today they represent a Praetorian Guard of the VMRO-DPMNE which is quite prepared to use them for political purposes."


Aleksandar Comovski, well-respected political analyst and editor at the independent A1 TV in Skopje, commented, " The special police units are dangerous for Macedonian democracy because their real targets are the free press and political opponents of the government."


With the elections due on September 15, public opinion polls make grim reading for parties in the present government coalition. A survey published on July 15 showed VMRO-DPMNE likely to lose to the opposition SDSM by a 3-1 margin. Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia looks like being crushed 2-1 by Ali Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration, made up largely of ex-National Liberation Army members.


Ethnic Macedonian and Albanian opposition forces and a number of foreign observers warn that the government may be prepared to use the special police units to destabilise the country and jeopardise the reconciliation process in order to stay in power.


"I am very concerned about the potential for violence and escalation during the elections in Macedonia," said Edward Joseph of the International Crisis Group. "It is very clear from some recent incidents that special forces are involved in creating incidents - Vinica was more a lack of discipline and control, but that is also of a concern having in mind that they should be specially trained and discipline. The propensity for creating incidents is there and it has already been demonstrated."


One senior diplomat, who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity, said a number of ambassadors believe Georgievski nurses plans to create some kind of security confusion that would afford him a pretext to proclaim martial law at the end of August.


"But it will be extremely difficult for him to do it now," the ambassador said. "Georgievski does not have enough popular support. And the international community believe his record on advancing Macedonian democracy is woeful."


Saso Ordanoski is IWPR coordinating editor in Macedonia and the editor of the Skopje-based weekly magazine Forum