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Macedonia held parliamentary elections in July 2006, resulting in a change in government from the left-of-center Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM) to the right-of-center Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). The electoral campaign was marred by significant irregularities and some violence, and a major ethnic Albanian political party staged demonstrations throughout the country to protest its exclusion from the new ruling coalition. Separately, Macedonian police again arrested a cleric for his ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Macedonia, formerly a republic in the Communist-era Yugoslav federation, gained international recognition as an independent state in 1992. It subsequently suffered from a number of disputes with its neighbors. Greece objected to the country’s name, arguing that it referred to a northern Greek region, while Bulgaria assailed the status of the Macedonian language and Serbia contested its northern border. Most of these external quarrels have been successfully resolved, and the most serious threat to Macedonia’s existence now comes from 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, as the left-of-center coalition that had ruled Macedonia since independence—led by the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM)—yielded to 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 launched an insurrection, demanding greater use of the Albanian language in official institutions, an increase in the number of ethnic Albanians in the civil service, and a transfer of certain powers from the central government to municipalities. As 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 precarious lull in the conflict, which was estimated to have cost the fragile Macedonian economy more than $800 million.
Parliamentary elections held in September 2002 returned the SDSM to power, this time led by Branko Crvenkovski, who became prime minister. As in previous governments, ethnic Albanian parties were included in the new ruling coalition. Crvenkovski allied his party with the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), headed by the leader of the ethnic Albanians’ armed uprising, Ali Ahmeti.
By 2004, the government had implemented all but one of the major reforms required by the Ohrid accords—a plan devolving powers from the 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. Macedonian Slavs reacted to the proposed changes by calling for a referendum on the issue. In November 2004, just days before the tension-filled vote, the United States announced that it would recognize the country under its constitutional name to reassure Macedonians that the international community would continue to support its existence and territorial integrity. 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 balloting, prompting officials to postpone local elections from October 2004 until 2005. A report released by the Macedonian Helsinki Committee in January 2005 claimed that in the aftermath of the Ohrid accords, Macedonian party leaders had increasingly used private bargaining rather than open legislative debate to arrive at key decisions, leading to a reduction in the democratic legitimacy of many policies.
The latest parliamentary elections, which were held on July 5, 2006, resulted in Macedonia’s second peaceful change of power—this time from the SDSM-BDI coalition to a government led by the VMRO-DPMNE. However, international observers reported serious flaws in the electoral process. Preelection violence—including bombings, shootings, and fist fights—was followed by significant irregularities on election day, such as ballot box stuffing, proxy voting, and intimidation at voting places. The elections were then followed by weeks of protests and demonstrations by BDI supporters, who were unhappy that the VMRO-DPMNE’s leader and prime minister–designate, Nikola Gruevski, had decided to form a coalition with a rival Albanian group, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). Most violent incidents involved clashes between supporters of the BDI and the DPA. In a positive sign, however, the BDI changed course in September and ended its protests and boycott of Parliament, apparently realizing that its tactics were alienating both the international community and its own constituency. Another cause for optimism is the fact that the results were tabulated and accepted—at least by the major Macedonian Slav parties—in record time; five hours after polling stations closed, outgoing SDSM prime minister Vlado Buckovski conceded to Gruevski.
The international community has sought to bolster Macedonia in a number of ways. In April 2002, the European Union (EU) signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (considered the first step towards full EU membership) with Skopje, and, in December 2005, the EU officially granted Macedonia candidate status, although no definite date was given for its accession. There is concern, however, that the Macedonian government’s weak administrative capacity will inhibit its ability to implement reforms needed for EU entry or even to manage properly any funding it may receive from the bloc. Despite these problems, Macedonian officials hope to receive an official accession target-date sometime in 2007.
Macedonia is an electoral democracy. Despite the existence of serious flaws in the electoral process, international monitors deemed the July 2006 elections for the 120-seat, unicameral Sobranie (Assembly) to be “largely in accordance with … international standards for democratic elections.” Approximately 56 percent of registered voters turned out, a significant decrease from the 70 percent recorded at the last parliamentary elections in 2002, and the lowest voter turnout for parliamentary elections since Macedonia became independent. Legislators are elected to four-year terms. The president of the republic is elected to a five-year term through a direct popular vote. In the two rounds of the April 2004 presidential election, international organizations also found the balloting “generally consistent” with international standards. However, both domestic opposition parties and some international observers, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, reported significant irregularities. The presidential election was held several months early after the incumbent died in a plane crash; then–prime minister Crvenkovski won the vote to replace him.
There are dozens of registered political parties in Macedonia, but only a handful have been serious players in national politics. The major parties include Crvenkovski’s center-left SDSM; the right-leaning VMRO-DPMNE, led by newly elected prime minister Gruevski; and the primarily ethnic Albanian BDI, led by former guerrilla commander Ahmeti.
As in other countries in the region, corruption continues to hamper economic growth and political transparency in Macedonia. Campaign financing reform remains a serious issue, as current rules provide numerous loopholes for corruption. Macedonia also suffers from the politicization of its civil administration. Within months of coming to power, the new VMRO-DPMNE government had dismissed over 500 state employees from various ministries and state-owned enterprises, claiming that it was tackling corruption and streamlining a bloated bureaucracy. Critics, however, charged that the new government was simply rewarding its political supporters with government jobs. Macedonia was ranked 105 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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 obtains its information. The media in Macedonia have been criticized for their lack of professionalism and unwillingness to uphold recognized journalistic standards. Libel, defamation, and slander remain punishable by fines, but a law passed in May 2006 decriminalized these offenses, and they are no longer punishable by imprisonment. The profession as a whole suffered a significant blow to its reputation when it was revealed in 2006 that journalists at several leading media outlets secretly worked for a public relations firm that shaped reports to favor SDSM government activities and officials. Media experts blame the poor quality of Macedonian journalism on its size; though a relatively small country, Macedonia has 48 television stations, 160 radio stations, and nine daily and eight weekly newspapers. Political parties either own or are closely linked to three of the five television stations that are licensed to broadcast nationwide.
Macedonian Radio Television (MRTV) provides ethnic minorities with programming in Albanian, Turkish, Vlach, Romany, and Serbian. Media outlets, however, are strongly divided along ethnic lines, significantly affecting how important political issues are covered. Albanian print media have had difficulties turning a profit recently, and several have gone out of business over the past five years. 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, but vandalism 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 prison sentence in July 2005 for allegedly inciting “ethnic or religious intolerance.” The charge was loosely based on 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 was again arrested in August 2006. Considerable tensions also exist in Macedonia’s Muslim community, primarily involving allegations that some clerics are becoming increasingly fundamentalist and receive financial support from extremists in the Middle East. Academic freedom is not restricted.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, which generally are respected by the authorities. Over 4,000 domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate 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 bargain collectively. They have little leverage given the poor state of the Macedonian economy, but 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 judiciary is widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. The EU is demanding a number of reforms as part of Macedonia’s accession bid, including measures to strengthen the independence of judges and reduce the backlog of court cases. A number of international watchdog groups have charged Macedonian police forces with ill-treatment and torture of prisoners, though observers noted a decrease in charges of police abuse and corruption in 2005. Prison conditions in Macedonia generally conform to international standards. However, the February 2006 double suicide of two inmates in the country’s largest penitentiary, coming on the heels of four suicides in Macedonian prisons in 2005 (NGO officials believe the actual numbers are higher), revealed the strains prisoners feel due to overcrowding, staff corruption, and drug trafficking within the system. Separately, in April 2006, EU officials expressed their unhappiness with Macedonia’s handling of charges that government officials had cooperated with the CIA in the rendition of suspected terrorists to secret prisons in Afghanistan.
Macedonia’s most important political and social challenge is satisfying the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority for a more privileged status within the country. 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. Other reforms attached to the 2001 Ohrid accords granted more self-government to municipalities, increased the number of ethnic Albanians in the police force, and granted amnesty to ethnic Albanian insurgents. Ethnic Albanians employed in the police force increased from 2 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2006; in the Defense Ministry from 2 percent to 14 percent; and in the Economics Ministry from 5 percent to 24 percent. Despite these overall improvements, Albanian rebel groups remain active in the country, and some have been accused by Macedonian officials of having ties to Islamist groups in other parts of the world.
Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although societal attitudes limit women’s participation in nontraditional social roles, in the economy, and in government. Women currently hold 3 out of the 20 positions in Macedonia’s new cabinet and 29 out of 120 seats in Parliament. Women account for 42 percent of Macedonia’s labor force. 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 through proxy voting by male relatives and are frequently denied access to education.