The people of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia go to the polls today in key parliamentary elections which could determine whether the tiny nation is capable of putting its history of bloody inter-ethnic violence behind it and joining the EU and Nato.
The elections, Macedonia's fifth since it broke peacefully with the former Yugoslavia in 1991, could make or break the country's chances of beginning accession talks with Brussels in the foreseeable future. The government hopes that, after elections seen by the international community as free and fair, a final date for membership negotiations will be set.
But, despite the government's lofty ambitions, the election campaign has been marred by repeated violence, with a total of 20 incidents reported in June. There have been no deaths but brawls and shootings have become common. One party's headquarters were damaged by a bulldozer.
The hostility has been mostly limited to the Albanian community, which lives mostly in the west of Macedonia and in the capital, Skopje. Bitter rivalry between the different Albanian parties has exploded in the past few years and analysts warn that today, as with the local elections of 2005, violence could flare as voters go to the polls.
If it does, it could prove disastrous for Macedonia's EU and Nato ambitions. The vote, said the EU envoy Erwan Fouere, is "a crucial test for the capacity of a country to demonstrate its political maturity and to show it is a serious candidate for joining the EU".
Macedonia became an official candidate for membership in December, but the EU has not yet set a date for accession talks. A review, which is highly dependent on the standards of today's elections, is due in October; the government hopes it could be a member by 2012.
But, as violence across the country increased, the US ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and Nato warned Macedonia of "serious and damaging consequences" if the elections were not heldpeacefully. Macedonia hopes to be invited to join Nato in 2008.
The local elections of 2005 were declared neither free nor fair by international observers due to the wave of inter-ethnic Albanian violence and intimidation which gripped the country.
The minority Albanian population emerged in summer 2001 from a bloody conflict with Slavic Macedonians, which led the country to the brink of civil war. The six-month conflict was only ended with the help of the EU-sponsored Ohrid agreement that cemented a fragile peace and provided for the participation of ethnic Albanians in government.
The current violence plaguing Macedonia's 2.1 million people is mostly between supporters of the Democratic Union for Integration party. DUI's main political rival is the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), led by Arben Xhaferi, which campaigns for political dominance among ethnic Albanians. Macedonia is now governed by the Social Democratic party of the Prime Minister, Vlado Buckovski, with a number of smaller coalition parties.
The 1.7 million voters face a tough choice. The vote is crucial not only for their own country but also for the entire Balkans region. Analysts caution that the security of the volatile area depends on Macedonia because of its large Albanian population. The result of the elections will be closely followed by Kosovo's own Albanians, currently on the road to independence from Serbia. Many Slavic Macedonians fear the local ethnic Albanian community there might still opt to join Kosovo, thus partitioning the country.
Analysts say the race will be very tight, with the outcome uncertain. Opinion polls are unreliable in a country fighting widespread corruption and organised crime, where the economy is faltering and the unemployment rate is 35 per cent.Reuse content