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Macedonia's 2005 municipal elections were criticized by international observers as not having fulfilled international standards. In November, the European Commission recommended to the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers that the country be granted candidate member status. Meanwhile, Macedonia received harsh criticism from international and domestic observers for its imprisonment of an Orthodox cleric.
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 very name of "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, and the most serious threat to Macedonia's existence is now internal-the poor relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.
Parliamentary elections in 1998 resulted in the country's first peaceful transfer of power; the left-of-center governmental coalition that had ruled Macedonia since independence was defeated by a grouping of right-of-center parties led by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
In 2000, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia launched an insurrection, 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. After the country veered dangerously close to the brink of all-out civil war, an agreement reached in the town of Ohrid in August 2001 produced a temporary lull in the conflict, which was estimated to have cost the fragile Macedonian economy more than $800 million. Three of the five signatories to the agreement repudiated it in 2003, and two have called for an outright partition of the country.
Macedonia's latest parliamentary elections were held in September 2002. 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 Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanians' armed uprising, became Crvenkovski's main coalition partner.
In February 2004, the man most associated with the Ohrid accords, President Boris Trajkovski, died in a plane crash while on an official state visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Presidential elections called after Trajkovski's death in April 2004 resulted in a victory for incumbent prime minister Crvenkovski after two rounds of voting. Crvenkovski was replaced as prime minister by Hari Kostov, an economic expert with no party affiliation.
The last remaining major reform legislation required by the Ohrid accords-a decentralization plan devolving 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-proved to be the most controversial. Macedonian Slavs reacted to the proposed changes by calling for a referendum on the issue. In November 2004, just days before the tension-filled referendum on the government's decentralization plans, the United States announced that 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. Although the referendum 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. Given these heightened political tensions, local elections scheduled for October 2004 had to be postponed until 2005, and Kostov resigned as prime minister, throwing Macedonia into another period of political uncertainty.
Macedonia held local municipal elections over several rounds during March and April 2005. The voting was marred by irregularities in several districts, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) claimed that the votes did not live up to OSCE and Council of Europe standards in some 35-40 percent of the electoral districts. Electoral conditions were considered "bad" or "extremely bad" in up to 10 percent of polling places. Among the complaints lodged were ballot-box stuffing, theft of ballot papers, intimidation of polling staff, multiple voting, and group voting by family patriarchs. The OSCE especially criticized the government for not rectifying these problems in the second round of voting when they had been so apparent during the first round. Further problems involved a boycott of the second round of elections by some Albanian opposition parties. Low turnout was also noticeable in these elections; by the third round of voting in Skopje on April 10, only 28 percent of the electorate participated.
The international community has tried in a number of ways to support Macedonia's fragile existence, most notably when the EU signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (considered the first step towards full EU membership) with Skopje in April 2002. In November 2005, the European Commission recommended to the EU Council of Ministers that Macedonia be granted candidate status in the EU, though no definite date was given for Macedonia's accession. At the same time, there is concern that the Macedonian government's weak administrative capacity will inhibit the country's ability to implement reforms needed for EU accession, or even to properly manage any funding it may receive as a result of getting a green light from the EU. A report released by the Macedonian Helsinki Committee in January claimed that in the aftermath of the Ohrid accords, decision making in Macedonia is shifting away from legislative bodies and increasingly being made through private bargaining by the leaders of governing political parties, leading to a reduction in the democratic legitimacy of many governmental decisions.
Citizens of Macedonia can choose their government demo-cratically. 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. Legislators are elected to four-year terms. The president of the republic is elected to a five-year term through direct elections. In the two rounds of presidential elections held in April 2004, international organizations again deemed the elections "generally consistent" with international standards. However, both domestic opposition parties and some international organizations, such as the OSCE, reported significant irregularities with the elections.
There are 64 registered political parties in Macedonia, although only a handful have been serious players in Macedonian politics. These parties include President Crvenkovski's SDSM; VMRO-DPMNE, led by Nikola Gruevski; and the primarily ethnic-Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), led by Ali Ahmeti.
As throughout the region, corruption remains a serious problem, hampering economic growth and political transparency. Macedonia was ranked 103 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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. Political appointees, rather than professional journalists, are frequently named to senior positions in state-owned media, from which the majority of the population gets its information. The media in Macedonia are frequently criticized for their lack of professionalism and unwillingness to uphold recognized journalistic standards. Libel, defamation, and slander remain criminal offenses punishable by fines and imprisonment.
Macedonia has been fairly open about providing ethnic minorities in the country with media in their own languages. Macedonian Radio Television (MRTV) provides broadcasts in Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, Romany, and Serbian. However, media outlets are strongly divided along ethnic lines, significantly impacting how important political issues are covered. Albanian print media have had difficulties turning a profit in recent years; in February, two Albanian periodicals announced that they were suspending operation for the foreseeable future. Since 2001, four Albanian periodicals have ceased publication, leaving only one Albanian language newspaper still publishing in 2005. 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 during 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, began serving an 18-month sentence in July 2005 for allegedly inciting "ethnic or religious intolerance." The "evidence" used to charge Vraniskovski with "inciting ethnic hatred" was the fact that he had performed a baptism and held church services in his apartment. 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 used have been destroyed. Considerable tensions exist in Macedonia's Islamic community, primarily involving allegations that some Muslim clerics are becoming increasingly fundamentalist in their view and receive financial support from extremists in the Middle East. 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 on these rights in 2005. There are more than 4,000 domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Macedonia, and there were no reports of the government restricting their work or activities during the year. The constitution recognizes the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively, although workers generally have little leverage given the poor state of the Macedonian economy. Nevertheless, strikes and work stoppages are frequent occurrences. More than 50 percent of the legal workforce is unionized. A new labor law passed in 2005 legalized temporary and part-time workers.
The judicial system is widely seen as being composed of corrupt and incompetent officials. During the course of the year, a governmental judicial oversight agency recommended to parliament that 10 judges be fired because of corruption or incompetence; six were eventually dismissed. There is also a large backlog of cases in the judicial system, currently estimated at 1.2 million cases, and some critics have suggested that petty offenses be dealt with by administrative officials rather than by criminal courts. Among the reforms that the EU is demanding for further progress in Macedonia's accession bid include strengthening the independence of judges and reducing the backlog of cases pending before Macedonian courts. A number of international watchdog groups have charged Macedonian police forces with ill-treat-ment and torture of prisoners, although observers noted a decrease in charges of police abuse and corruption in 2005. Prison conditions in Macedonia generally conform to international standards.
Macedonia's most important political and social problem is satisfying the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority for a more privileged status within the country. In fulfillment of 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 Ohrid accords grant more self-government to local municipalities, increase the number of ethnic Albanians in the police force, devolve some central governmental powers from Skopje to local municipalities, and grant amnesty to ethnic Albanian insurgents. Over the past four years, the government has adopted and implemented 15 constitutional amendments and 70 new or revised laws to fulfill the various requirements of the Ohrid agreement. In March 2005, former defense minister Ljube Boskovski was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in connection with the killing of 10 Albanian civilians in the village of Ljuboten in August 2001.
Many Albanian rebel groups remain active in the country; one such group, led by Agim Krasniqi and based in the village of Kondovo outside of Skopje, has repeatedly threatened to shell the capital over the past two years. The Krasniqi group has been accused by Macedonian officials of having ties to Islamist groups in other parts of the world. The majority of Macedonia's Albanian community are Muslim.
Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although social attitudes limit women's participation in nontraditional social roles, in the economy, and in government. Twenty-four of the 120 members of parliament are women, and 3 of the 19 members of the Council of Ministers (cabinet) are women. 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 Albanian Muslim areas, many women are effectively disenfranchised because proxy voting by male relatives is common, and women in these areas are also frequently denied access to education.