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Behind the Turkish Boycott in Macedonia: Interview with Kenan Hasipi

February 24, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Kenan Hasipi, the 50 year-old leader of the Turkish Democratic Party (TDP), has been making waves recently with his party’s decision to boycott the upcoming local elections in the municipality of Vrapciste, which is slated to be combined with a neighboring Albanian one (Negotino).

On Wednesday, Director held a special interview with Mr Hasipi, that covered everything from why the TDP will boycott and the precedents on which their fears are based, to Hasipi’s political prognoses for Turkish candidates in other municipalities as well as his thoughts on the future of Macedonia’s Turkish population.

Hailing from the village of Vrapciste itself, Hasipi studied internal medicine at Kyril and Methodi University in Skopje and worked for 10 years in the medical center of Gostivar, a 10-minute drive east from Vrapciste. After going into politics, he became president of in 2002 of the TDP, a party which had been established following Macedonia’s independence.

In the 2002 elections, the 8,000-member party allied itself with SDSM, thus winning parliamentary representation (along with Mr. Hasipi, the other current TDP parliamentarian is Gayur Sarac). In addition, says Mr. Hasipi, the party’s Mahsut Ali has been awarded with a deputy minister position in the Ministry of Finance. Turkish mayors currently preside over two other municipalities, and Turkish directors have also been appointed by the ruling coalition.

For a minority consisting of less than 4 percent of the population, this might seem like fairly decent representation. Why, then, is the TDP boycotting on March 13th?

First of all, reminds Hasipi, echoing the views of many other Turks in Macedonia, “the official number of Turks on the census, 80,000 people or 3.85 percent, is not accurate. The true number is closer to 5 percent.”

Hasipi claims that because of the low official Turkish percentages his party was prevented in 2000 from having its members present at all relevant polling stations – something which he charges allowed the DPA to falsify election results in the 2000 local elections. He specifically mentioned two villages in the Vrapciste municipality (Toplica and Vranovce) where, he claims, DPA logged drastically incorrect numbers of voters and also engaged in ballot-stuffing so as to sway the vote their way.

Following the announcement of the results, he says, both the TDP and rival Albanian PDP announced a mutual non-recognition of the outcome. DPA had previously come under fire for perpetrating organized voting fraud a year earlier, when they had helped VMRO-DPMNE elect Boris Trajkovski as president.

This year, with municipal leaders slated to be granted a whole host of new competencies, Mr. Hasipi is well aware that the parties involved “…have a huge stake in the elections. But it’s impossible to go from a reality of huge irregularities to one of zero irregularities [overnight]… what we need to feel is a sense of fair play.”

Along with Turkish fears of falsification, the boycott is all about percentages. “Currently,” Mr. Hasipi says, “we Turks make up about 36 percent of Vrapciste’s municipal population. Under the new, bigger borders, we will be only 12 percent – far below the Ohrid Agreement’s stated 20 percent [for language and other rights].”

Meanwhile, Macedonia’s international minders have gone on high alert for expected violence at the polls, and apparently even put the Albanian parties on notice. Macedonian-Turkish citizens have told of us cases of intimidation at the time of the 2002 census; so are they afraid of violence and intimidation come March 13th?

“I don’t know [if it will occur],” says Mr. Hasipi. “But obviously, this is something we Turks don’t want, as a party and as a people, and we won’t engage in it.”

What does ruling party SDSM have to say about the TDP’s insubordination in Vrapciste? “Well, they’re not happy about [the boycott], of course; but they just tell us, ‘it’s not a good idea to boycott, but that’s your own business.’”

Considering that coalition partners SDSM-DUI bear responsibility for the impending redistricting so detrimental to Turkish interests, one might consider then why the TDP still plans to support them in other municipal elections throughout the country, Vrapciste excepted. On this subject, Mr. Hasipi takes a philosophical view.

“Now is not the time for new coalitions… we are still with SDSM because we have achieved many positive things,” he says. “We now have a [Turkish] deputy minister, various directors, all officials we didn’t have before. So this is good. Seen in this way, Vrapciste is a localized problem.”

However, it is a significant one. After all, the single largest Turkish enclave is about to be swallowed up, sacrificed to bigger and arguably hostile political interests. Ironically, the Ohrid Agreement and whole decentralization project that were supposed to rescue vulnerable minorities can better be described as selective recentralization – and, in places like Vrapciste, this may actually worsen these minorities’ situation.

Given the TDP’s plans to boycott, it seems likely that the victors will be either DPA or DUI. Regardless, what will the solidification of Albanian control mean for the new Vrapciste municipality – one which will be devoid of Ohrid Agreement language obligations with the carefully engineered ethnic percentages in place? Will Turkish cultural and civic interests be addressed?

“I don’t know,” says Mr. Hasipi. “I guess we will have to wait and see what the new administration will do.”

However, the TDP has brighter prospects elsewhere. Mr. Hasipi expects Turkish candidates to win again in Center Zhupa, near Debar and the Albanian border, and Plasnica, just beneath Makedonski Brod. “In both places, we have I’d say an 80 percent chance of winning.” Over the years, the idyllic though poor mountain village of Zhupa has seen a large emigration of both Turks and Macedonian Muslims to Italy in search of work.

Among other places where TDP candidates are on the voting list, Mr. Hasipi mentions also Debar, Tearce and Tetovo. However, in these municipalities Albanian populations are generally more numerous.

While Turkish populations are scattered throughout other parts of Macedonia, including over 40 small villages in the east of the country, few are large enough and concentrated enough to make much of a difference when it comes to voting, says the TDP leader. However, taken together they are not insignificant.

Radovis, for example has a 14 percent Turkish minority, as does neighboring Konce. Near Stip, Karbinci is 18 percent Turkish and, further south, near Strumica, Vasilevo has 17 percent Turks. In Vranestica (near Kicevo) the Turks comprise 19 percent of the population, Mr. Hasipi says, as they do in Studenicane, a large rural municipality south of Skopje.

Despite the realities of a miscounted population and the planned boycott in Vrapciste, the show must go on. The campaign has begun, and the indefatigable leader has a coalition to take part in and 8,000 party members to minister to.

“I apologize,” he says, getting ready to close his office in Parliament on this balmy Wednesday evening, “but now the campaign has begun, and soon I must go.” Hasipi’s dedication to the coalition seems to be attested by the fact that his stated campaigning destination – Veles – can hardly be considered a bastion of the Turks.

Before heading off, Mr. Hasipi takes a final key question. How does he see his people’s situation five, ten years down the line?

“I don’t know,” he sighs. “We [Turks] have many problems here. Of course, there are many Turkish NGOs which promote culture, sport, information and education. They have an important role. And the TDP, in its work as a political party, is trying to make things better also.”

“But,” he laughs, “I still sometimes feel like if I don’t do it, no one will.”

Like everyone else in Macedonia, in the end Mr. Hasipi can only put his hopes in a “borderless future of European integration” in order to maintain the Turkish people’s sustained viability. Now that Macedonia’s EU course seems to be irreversible, this is a gamble on which everyone now must bet.

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