SKOPJE (Reuters) – Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski scored an overwhelming election victory on Sunday but the violence that marred the poll may perpetuate divisions and delay the country’s progress towards European Union membership.
Gruevski’s conservative VMRO-DPMNE party will have the healthiest majority in parliament in more than a decade, riding on a wave of nationalist anger over Greece blocking Macedonia’s NATO membership invitation in April.
The victory vindicated Gruevski’s controversial decision to call a snap election, gambling that the snub would strengthen his hand and pay off with a stronger four-year mandate.
But with one man dead and nine others wounded, some observers blamed Gruevski for ignoring the risk of violence among the 25-percent Albanian minority, divided between two hostile parties both with links to armed groups.
“We can expect a very bad report card,” said analyst Dane Taleski. “We won’t be getting a date for (EU) accession talks this year.”
Though confined to Albanian areas, the violence could perpetuate a Western impression that, seven years after Macedonia was pulled back from the brink of all-out ethnic war, the Kalashnikov is still a part of the political process.
Newspapers ran headlines such as “Bloody Election” and “Macedonia fell into a bloodbath”.
“Our fatherland said goodbye to good reason and to its EU and NATO ambitions,” influential broadsheet Dnevnik said in an editorial. “If Athens vetoed us (at the NATO summit) in Bucharest, we vetoed ourselves in Aracinovo,” he said.
Besides the gunfire, which halted voting in Aracinovo, ballot boxes went missing and two election officials were briefly held by gunmen, then rescued by police.
In 2001, the West used the lure of NATO and the EU to get Albanian guerrillas to disarm and join politics. But the community is now riven by disputes over who gets to share power.
The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) blamed the rival Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) — Gruevski’s partners in the outgoing coalition — of colluding with the police on Sunday in “provocations, violence and psychological terror”.
They have been on bad terms since 2006, when the DUI, the most popular Albanian party, was left out of the government.
Radmila Sekerinska, head of the opposition Social-Democratic Union, conceded defeat but said “the price Macedonia had to pay is too high”.
The West is alert to any instability in the Balkans so soon after the February secession of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians from Serbia, the latest shudder in a region torn apart by the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In an ominous echo of 2001, police in armored cars rushed to the bullet-scarred town of Aracinovo after monitors reported the arrival of men with machine guns. They came under fire and retaliated, killing one gunman and injuring two others.
But the DUI said plain-clothes police started the shooting. Among a dozen men arrested later was a notorious veteran of the “Albanian National Army” of 2001, who has links to the DPA.
“In most parts the vote was fair and democratic, but sadly in one part there were irregularities,” Gruevski said, promising a re-run in all the areas where there had been trouble.
His next step will be to form a coalition to bolster his estimated 60 seats in the 120-seat assembly. He has said he would prefer an alliance with the DPA, a move likely to further alienate the large number of Albanians who voted for the DUI.
“Despite the violence and ballot-stuffing, we still have more deputies than the DPA,” said senior DUI official Xhevat Ademi. “It won’t be the first time they convert defeat into victory.”