The Political Players

IWPR profiles the main players on the Macedonian political scene in the run-up to elections.

The Political Players

IWPR profiles the main players on the Macedonian political scene in the run-up to elections.

Friday, 13 September, 2002

The democratic system that has evolved in Macedonia over the last decade or so is dominated by centralised political parties, all characterised by a low level of internal democracy and a lack of checks and balances.

On the top of these party pyramids that are so reminiscent of communist times stand the party presidents, who enjoy significant political and financial power.

Because of this, elections in Macedonia have always taken on the aspect of highly personalised conflicts between the party leaders and their closest collaborators.

Among ethnic Macedonians, a fierce conflict has always existed between the two young party leaders of the two main opposing options: on the left, the president of the Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, Branko Crvenkovski, and on the right, the leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE, Ljupco Georgievski.

Crvenkovski, 40, is an electrical engineer who has headed the SDSM since 1991 when the party accepted a social democratic platform and ditched its former communist heritage.

Prime minister from September 1992 until the last parliamentary elections in November 1998, when VMRO-DPMNE defeated the SDSM and formed a government, he was Europe's youngest prime minister in 1992, at only 29.

Crvenkovski belongs to the generation of politicians who helped to set up an independent and sovereign Macedonia, avoiding the carnage caused by Slobodan Milosevic in other parts of former Yugoslavia.

Those who know the SDSM chief say he is highly intelligent man who has learnt the "secrets" of high office from his mentor, the former president and SDSM founder Kiro Gligorov. He is seen as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue.

After an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Gligorov in October 1995, Crvenkovski purged it of reformers. And over a period of time, real power appeared to move from government ministries to officials from the SDSM and their Albanian coalition partners, the Party of Democratic Prosperity, PDP, primarily interested in enriching themselves. Anyone who challenged this was either pushed aside or forced to resign.

Crvenkovski's government fell in 1998, mainly because voters were disillusioned by the pains of the economic and political transition process and increasingly saw the authorities as corrupt and beholden to criminals. Faced with a steady fall in living standards, the electorate punished the SDMS by voting in the VMRO-DPMNE opposition.

Ironically, Crvenkovski has made corruption and crime in the current government the main topic in this year's election campaign. "This government not only does not fight crime but protects crime," he said. "Macedonia cannot have happiness if 200 or 300 people are wealthy while 2,300,000 are poor. Such a state has no perspective and no future."

His arch-opponent, only four years younger, is Ljupco Georgievski, 36. This professor of comparative literature has never done anything but practice politics. He has been president of VMRO-DPMNE since its foundation in April 1991.

In 1991, at only 25, he became vice-president of Macedonia under Gligorov. Eight months later he resigned. His biography claimed he was "dissatisfied with the pace of transformation from communism to democracy". He spent eight difficult years in opposition.

Georgievski was elected president of his party not only because he was a young and romantic nationalist, but also because older and more experienced politicians in the VMRO-DPMNE thought they could manipulate him.

But Georgievski has proved a tough nut and a politician who learns fast. Different party factions, some aided by the secret police, have tried to bring him down but with no success. After his party's 1998 poll victory, Georgievski became prime minister.

VMRO-DPMNE won the election after radically rowing back from its former hard line nationalism of the late 1990s. Until then, the party's vocabulary and platform was dominated by nationalist, anti-Albanian rhetoric, coupled with a strong dose of anti-communism and a deep suspicion both of neighbouring Serbia and the international


But the VMRO-DPMNE and Georgievski himself toned down their rhetoric and began advocating co-existence with the Albanian community. In 1997 and 1998, Georgievski fell under the influence of Vasil Tupurkovski, head of the Democratic Alternative, DA, which later would be the moving force in Georgievski's government, and Arben Xhaferi, the political guru of the Albanians, who heads of the Democratic Party of Albanians.

Under their direction, Georgievski softened his nationalistic stance and thus become more acceptable not only to the international community but also to many Macedonian voters who put him in power in 1998.

Georgievski is the undisputed charismatic leader of VMRO-DPMNE. In politics, he seems governed mainly by instincts, rather than by knowledge and wisdom. He is the author of two novels and a book of poetry that is provocatively erotic. His poems were widely published in the local press.

His overall approach proved a disadvantage in the complex security and political situation that erupted in the 1999 Kosovo crisis and the armed conflict in Macedonia itself in 2001.

Pressured by the poor economy and dismal security and political situation, and aware of his own responsibility for it, Georgievski returned to his old habits, talking of "foreign conspiracies", diplomatic "great games" in the Balkans, "internal enemies" among journalists and the opposition, and so on.

Even if he loses the election, his position as party president looks safe, in spite of the fact that the opposition claims four years in power have made him "one of the wealthiest people in the Balkans".

Georgievski's election strategy is simple: he wants to make a post-election coalition between SDSM and the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, impossible, accusing Crvenkovski of planning to form a coalition with "a terrorist" - a reference to the DUI president, the former political representative of the National Liberation Army, NLA, Ali Ahmeti.

Thus, Georgievski hopes Arben Xhaferi's DPA will be the only potential Albanian partner for an incoming new SDSM government.

If Xhaferi's DPA enters the government, Georgievski will have an easier time in opposition, as the rampant corruption and crime in the current government are associated with the VMRO-DPMNE and DPA, that is, Georgievski and Xhaferi. To protect his back in government, the latter will have to protect the former.

On the other hand, after years of dominance by the charismatic Xhaferi, the ethnic Albanian camp is in a state of ferment. The crisis last year has propelled new men to the forefront, starting with Ali Ahmeti.

"The future of Macedonia lies in the functioning of democracy and developing trust among the communities, not in violence," Ahmeti told IWPR last April. Only a year ago, in the mountains around Tetovo, he headed an Albanian guerrilla force. Most ethnic Macedonians regarded him as a terrorist leader. Today, he sees himself a social democrat and leader of a political option that supports reconciliation between Macedonians and Albanians.

Those who know Ahmeti describe him as cold-blooded and calm. When he talks, he acts modestly and appears tolerant. He is aware of his political inexperience but acquaintances say he has learned "the secrets of the political trade" fast.

Ahmeti was born 43 years ago in Kicevo, western Macedonia. He does not speak Macedonian. For 20 years, he worked in Switzerland and spent much time in Kosovo. In the 1980s, the former Yugoslav government charged him with Albanian irredentism and nationalistic activities. At the time, he belonged to the then numerous Marxist-Leninist circles in Kosovo.

At the end of the 1990s under the nickname Commander Abazi, he was one of the founders and organisers of Liberation Army of Kosovo, KLA. In 2001, he became political leader of the NLA, a rebel formation that started an armed conflict in Macedonia, which almost led to all-out civil war.

Because of his former activities in the NLA, Ahmeti is on President George Bush's official black list of individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Since signing the Ohrid Agreement on August 13 last year, which improved the rights and status of the Albanian minority in Macedonia, Ahmeti has completely supported the treaty and become one of its staunchest defenders.

Having failed to unite the various Albanian factions under the Albanian Coordinative Council, Ahmeti set up his own political party, the DUI, which campaigns mainly for consistent implementation of the Ohrid Agreement.

Public opinion polls suggest the DUI will be the undisputed winner among ethnic Albanians in the election. Ahmeti has said he will take part in any government but would prefer to work with Crvenkovski's Social Democrats. "I'm a Social Democrat," he told journalists after reforming the NLA last autumn.

Ranged against Ahmeti in the Albanian camp is Arben Xhaferi, 54. A former chief of cabinet in communist-run Kosovo in the 1980s, Ahmeti built up his career and profile in Kosovo, working closely with the ex-Communist Party leader in the province Kaqusha Jashari.

Before becoming politically active, he worked as an editor-in-chief at TV Pristina. He was never arrested or detained by the Yugoslav police for his politics or for supporting Albanian irredentism in Kosovo in the 1980s.

He came to Macedonia in the early 1990s, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, joining the only ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia at the time, the PDP.

Xhaferi, in coalition with the young and ambitious Menduh Thaci (who later became vice-president of DPA and Xhaferi's right-hand man) started organising a faction in the PDP that opposed the then moderate course of the party, which was in power at the time.

Xhaferi's chance to break up the PDP and start his own party came in the crisis over the controversial Tetovo University. Xhaferi supported the idea of creating the Albanian-language university - which the government refused to recognise - attacking the PDP, at the time headed by Abudlrahman Aliti, for not resisting Macedonian attempts to close it.

After breaking away from the PDP to form the DPA in 1994, Xhaferi embraced a more radical line than his former party. In a short time, he became very popular among the Albanians in Macedonia and the Balkans and was visited by envoys from Kosovo, Albania and the Albanian diaspora.

In establishing his authority, Xhaferi was significantly helped by his mysterious illness. Because of it - possibly a rare form of Parkinsons disease - his movements are slow and deliberate and his voice soft and whispery, giving him an aura of wisdom.

"I have serious health problems but I know how to make my bad health part of my personality and to live with it," he told a magazine in February 2000.

At the 1998 elections, the DPA won less votes than PDP but Xhaferi accepted Georgievski's offer to join a new coalition.

Since then, the DPA have been constantly accused of corruption, in much the same way as the PDP was in the past. This - together with the government's failure to promote the cause of Albanian human rights - was the reason for the NLA emergence on the political scene.

Iso Rusi, publisher and editor of Lobi, an Albanian weekly in Skopje, says Xhaferi told that he had "accepted the laws of politics: politics is dirty and it should be managed that way! If you are in power it means an inflow of money and if you don't take it, somebody else will".

"Those are the principles practiced by Xhaferi as a politician as opposed to Xhaferi the intellectual and opposition leader," Rusi concluded.

Xhaferi has denounced these accusations as part of a "tendency to damage the image of Albanians and present them as a mafia".

Faced with the DUI's popularity, at the beginning of the election campaign, Xhaferi upped the DPA's radicalism, openly saying the Ohrid Agreement did not mark the limit of Albanian demands in Macedonia.

According to reports in the Albanian language media, his vice-president, Thaci, has publicly called for the unification of all "Albanian territories" in Europe in one state.

Xhaferi's family has for many years lived in Norway. In some Kosovo circles, there are rumours that he is building a big house in Pristina. It has triggered reports that the pressures of his illness may force him to retire from politics.

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