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Macedonia received a downward trend arrow due to increasing ethnic tensions related to difficulties in passing a local governmental decentralization plan, forcing a delay in local elections, as well as an increase in the harassment of leaders of various religious groups.
In 2004, one of the last - but perhaps most important - aspects of the 2001 Ohrid accords, which had barely averted a civil war in the country, faced considerable public opposition after ethnic Macedonian citizens called for a referendum on controversial aspects of the decentralization proposal. Although the referendum to defeat the government's plans did not succeed, it forced a delay in local elections. In the aftermath of the referendum, the prime minister resigned, throwing the country into a period of considerable political uncertainty.
Macedonia, a republic in the former Yugoslav Communist federation, was recognized as an independent state in 1992. Since gaining independence, Macedonia has suffered from disputes with most of its neighbors over a number of issues: the name "Macedonia" with Greece; the status of the Macedonian language, with Bulgaria; and Macedonia's northern border, with Serbia and Montenegro. Most of these external disputes have been successfully resolved. The international community has tried in a number of ways to support Macedonia's fragile existence, most notably in April 2002, when the European Union (EU) signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (considered the first step towards full EU membership) with Skopje. In November 2004, just days before a tension-filled referendum on the government's decentralization plans, the United States announced it would recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name to bolster confidence in the country and reassure Macedonian voters that the international community would continue to support its existence.
Parliamentary elections in 1998 resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power from the left-of-center governmental coalition that had ruled Macedonia since independence to a grouping of right-of-center parties led by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
Relations between the country's two primary ethnic groups - Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians - deteriorated precipitously after the 1999 Kosovo war. By 2000, ethnic Albanian guerrillas who had participated in the Kosovo conflict were operating in Macedonia, often using NATO-occupied Kosovo as their base. Among the guerrillas' political demands were changes to the Macedonian constitution endorsing greater use of the Albanian language in official institutions, an increase in the number of ethnic Albanians in the civil services, and a decentralization of governmental powers to local municipalities. In August 2001, an agreement reached in the town of Ohrid produced a temporary lull in the conflict, which was estimated to have cost the fragile Macedonian economy more than $800 million.
In mid-September 2002, Macedonia held its latest set of parliamentary elections. The elections returned to power the left-of-center Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), led by Branko Crvenkovski, which succeeded in ousting former prime minister Ljubco Georgievski's right-of-center coalition. As in previous governments, ethnic Albanian parties were included in the governing coalition. After the 2002 elections, the Democratic Union for Integration BDI, led by the leader of the ethnic Albanians' armed uprising, Ali Ahmeti, became Crvenkovski's main coalition partner.
Implementation of the 2001 Ohrid accords has proceeded in fits and starts. Three of the five signatories to the 2001 agreement repudiated it in 2003, and two have called for an outright partition of the country. A further blow to the Ohrid accords came in February, when the man most associated with the agreement, President Boris Trajkovski, died in a plane crash while on an official state visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Presidential elections called after Trajkovski's death were held in April. The leading candidate for the position, Prime Minister Crvenkovski, scored a comfortable second-round victory in the election, winning 62 percent of the votes against the 37 percent gained by his leading challenger, VMRO-DPMNE leader, Sasko Kedev. In a sign of how contentious the election had been, however, VMRO-DPMNE officials boycotted Crvenkovski's inauguration ceremony. Upon Crvenkovski's assumption of the presidency, the prime minister's post was assumed by Hari Kostov, an economic expert unaffiliated with any political party.
Nevertheless, most of the measures called for in the Ohrid accords had been passed by parliament and implemented by 2004. The last remaining major reform legislation - a decentralization plan intended to devolve powers from the central government in Skopje to local municipalities, along with a redrawing of the capital's boundaries to increase the number of ethnic Albanians living in the city - has proved to be the most controversial. Macedonian Slavs reacted to the proposed changes by calling for a referendum on the issue; although the referendum, held in November, did not pass (only 26 percent of a required 50 percent of the electorate turned out), ethnic tensions in the country increased significantly during the political debates preceding the referendum. Ethnic Albanian politicians warned that canceling the government's decentralization plan could lead to a renewal of ethnic violence, while opposition leaders from ethnic Macedonian parties claimed that the decentralization plans were a sellout to the Albanians and would eventually lead to the country's breakup. Given the heightened political tensions in the country resulting from the decentralization debates, local elections scheduled for October had to be postponed. In the aftermath of the referendum, Prime Minister Kostov resigned, throwing Macedonia into another period of political uncertainty.
Citizens of Macedonia can choose their political representatives in free and fair elections. The last elections to the 120-seat, unicameral Sobranie (Assembly), held in September 2002, were deemed by international organizations to be 'largely in accordance with ... international standards for democratic elections." Voter turnout was approximately 70 percent of the electorate. In April's two rounds of presidential elections, called after the death of President Boris Trajkovski, international organizations again deemed the elections "generally consistent" with international standards, but both domestic opposition parties and some international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, reported important irregularities with the elections. There are 64 registered political parties in Macedonia.
As throughout the region, corruption remains a serious problem hampering economic growth and political transparency. Within days of assuming the presidency, Crvenkovski authorized a number of high profile arrests of individuals in the defense ministry and the police forces on charges of accepting bribes, and, in some cases, complicity in the murder of six Pakistani migrant workers. Macedonia was ranked 97 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the media are often aligned with particular political interests that render them less than independent. Many senior positions in state-owned media, from which the majority of the population gets its information, are filled by political appointees rather than by professional journalists. The media in Macedonia are frequently criticized for their lack of professionalism and unwillingness to uphold recognized journalistic standards. Macedonia has been fairly open about providing ethnic minorities in the country with media in their own languages. According to one recent report, Macedonian Radio Television (MRTV) provides broadcasts in Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, Romany, and Serbian for the different ethnic groups in the country. One of the most notable developments in the media in 2004 was the purchase by the German WAZ media group of the country's three major dailies, which together account for 90 percent of the print newspapers in circulation in the country. There were no reports of restrictions of access to the Internet during the year.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice. A number of religious sites were destroyed or damaged in the fighting in 2001, although vandalism against religious sites has decreased significantly since then. In 2002, a serious rift developed within the Orthodox Church in Macedonia, when part of the church split off from the so-called "Macedonian Orthodox Church," which remains unrecognized by any other church in the Orthodox world, and agreed to come under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The leader of the pro-Serbian branch, Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski, was arrested several times in 2004, and in August he was given an 18-month sentence for allegedly inciting "ethnic or religious intolerance." Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. Bishop Vraniskovski and his followers were also physically attacked on a number of occasions during the year, and churches they have built or served in have been destroyed. There are considerable tensions in Macedonia's Islamic community as well. The leader of Macedonia's Muslims, Hadzi Arif Efendi Emini, was taken hostage on two occasions during the year by other Muslim clerics unhappy with policies within that community. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and there were no reports that the government infringed upon these rights in 2004. The constitution also recognizes worker's rights to organize and to bargain collectively, although given the poor state of the Macedonian economy, workers generally have little leverage. Nevertheless, strikes and work stoppages are frequent occurrences. More than 50 percent of the legal workforce is unionized.
The judicial system is widely seen as composed of corrupt and incompetent officials. In January, Macedonia's public prosecutor noted that in recent years, 47 judges, 10 prosecutors, and 41 Interior Ministry officials have been formally charged with a variety of offenses, but that over half the cases had to be dropped because of lack of evidence. Nevertheless, some of the abuses have been egregious; in the town of Strumica, a judge released from custody a well-known dealer of arms and illegal drugs who was the subject of an international arrest warrant. There is also a large backlog of cases in the judicial system, and some judges maintain that reform is needed to allow petty offenses to be dealt with by administrative officials rather than by criminal courts. A number of international watchdog groups have charged Macedonian police forces with serious cases of ill-treatment and torture of prisoners.
A serious blow to the reputation of Macedonia's official institutions came in March, when it was alleged that the former interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, had been involved in a plot in 2002 in which a group of Pakistani and Indian migrant workers were lured into the country and subsequently killed by Macedonian security forces. At the time, Macedonian officials had claimed that the workers were members of an al-Qaeda cell traveling through Macedonia, and the setup was meant to portray Macedonian as a loyal ally in the war on terror. After an arrest warrant was issued for Boskovski, he fled the country.
Macedonia's most important political and societal problem remains satisfying the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority for a more privileged status within the country. In accordance with the Ohrid accords, references in the constitution to Macedonia as the "land of the Macedonian people" have been eliminated and the Albanian language has been made an "official" language in municipalities where ethnic Albanians constitute at least 20 percent of the population. The constitutional reforms envisioned by the Ohrid accords include granting more self-government to local municipalities, increasing the number of ethnic Albanians in the police force, devolving some of the powers of the central government from Skopje to local municipalities, and granting amnesty to ethnic Albanian insurgents.
Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although lingering patriarchal social attitudes limit women's participation in nontraditional social roles in the economy and in government. Twenty-two of the 120 members of parliament are women (21 ethnic Macedonians and an ethnic Albanian). Violence against women is considered a particular problem within the ethnic Albanian and Roma (Gypsy) communities. Domestic violence and trafficking of women from former Soviet republics remain serious problems. In Muslim areas, many women are effectively disenfranchised because proxy voting by male relatives is common.