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Albanian Political Leaders Present Platforms before Debate, as Campaign Looms

February 27, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

On Wednesday evening at eight, an unprecedented televised debate will be held between Ali Ahmeti and Arben Xhaferi, respective leaders of the two major ethnic Albanian parties, DUI and DPA.

The debate, which will air on Albanian-language MTV2, will give viewers – and prospective voters – a rare chance to see the long-polarized rival leaders face off on the key issues affecting Albanians, as Macedonia begins to prepare for parliamentary elections later this year.

So what do the two parties have to offer? We recently surveyed leaders of both to get a sense of what issues will shape their campaigns; the interviews also covered potential coalition partners, the mysterious Islamic protests held a few weeks ago, and the question of voting irregularities, which the EU will be watching closely as it tries to decide when to open accession talks with its newest candidate country.Since the March 2005 local elections, mutual recriminations have flown between the two parties on a number of issues, though owing to its entrenched position in the government, DUI has largely been able to shrug off its adversary’s charges.

According to the ruling party, which would like to reprise the mandate it earned in 2002, Wednesday’s debate has been a long time in coming.

“The media has been saying we are at war with DPA,” says Agron Buxhaku, DUI’s Secretary for Integration and Foreign Relations and currently Director of the government’s Center for Crisis Management. “The truth is, we have been constantly saying that we should have a dialogue, and we invited them to speak with us several times, though until now [DPA Vice-President Menduh] Thaci had refused our requests.”

The apparent cessation of hostilities has relieved international officials charged with overseeing the process. Speaking at St. Clement of Ohrid National and University Library in Skopje, EU Special Representative Erwan Fouere stated that he is “satisfied” with the behavior of Ahmeti and Xhaferi, according to MIA, noting that “a dialogue exists which is very important for strengthening and improving the atmosphere in the process of preparation for the elections.”

Explaining the Boycott

To a great extent the impasse seems to have been due to DPA’s symbolic parliamentary boycott, which began after the party denounced the March elections as fraudulent and ended only a month ago. The atmosphere in DPA was subdued as the ruling party swept in most of the municipalities that matter to Albanians, including Tetovo, Aracinovo, Gostivar, Debar and Struga.

When asked why his party had launched the boycott in the first place, DPA General Secretary Ruzhdi Matoshi told us the following. “Our boycott came about for two reasons: first, in the local elections, many ballot boxes were broken by DUI; second, the Ohrid Agreement has not been implemented sufficiently, but only with statements… we Albanians still have a lot of problems of gaining access on the national level.”

He also confirmed previous speculation that the party ended the boycott partially because of assurances received during a meeting with US Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic and the subsequent removal from the US and EU travel blacklist of several members, though “there were other reasons too.”

Mr. Matoshi hinted that further key officials may be exonerated in the months to come as well. Whatever may happen, he has reason to believe that his party will enjoy a thaw in relations with Macedonia’s Western minders as the elections draw closer.

Party Platforms: Economics, Integration and Education

Wednesday night’s debate between Ali Ahmeti and Arben Xhaferi will probably provide a better understanding of where both parties stand on the issues. But some planks of their campaign platforms have already been laid out.

According to Rafiz Aliti, DUI Deputy Chairman and coordinator of the party’s parliamentary group, DUI’s agenda will be broad: “we offer our people the political platform which we elected in our party congress. We are for the equality of all nations in the Republic of Macedonia, which includes offering economic solutions for Albanians to become equal with Macedonians and others. We are of course for NATO and EU integration, and against corruption and crime. These are priority questions.”

“Our campaign will be based on promoting economic solutions, social cohesion and equal rights,” adds Mr. Buxhaku. “We are waiting for a coalition partner who will be serious about reforms [after the elections].”

He adds, “in the beginning [2002] we were a “thematic party’- formed to help implement the Ohrid Agreement, which we consider to be the most important founding document of the new Macedonia, as opposed to the Macedonian national state created after 1991, something based on an ethnic inferiority complex that just postponed the other ethnic problems for later.”

So what does DPA promise? “If we come to power,” Mr. Matoshi declares, “we will push to increase funds and infrastructure for schooling in Albanian language. The top priority places will be in Lipkovo, Kondovo, Aracinovo and Studenicani [south of Skopje], which all together have 100,000 Albanians.”

Mr. Matoshi wants to see Albanian used on a wider level, even in private businesses like banks. Above all he wants to increase the number of Albanian-language high schools.

“We don’t have enough high schools teaching in the Albanian language,” he complains. “In Studenicani, the girls have to start going to school. Only small numbers of students are going.”

But is it really the fault of the state that girls in patriarchal, rural Muslim villages don’t get much schooling? The remote southwestern village of Labunishta, for example, is populated mostly by Macedonian Muslims who were “persuaded’ to vote for DUI in the last elections, as well as some Albanian Muslims and a few Orthodox Macedonians. One local mother sounded surprised when we asked whether her 10 year-old daughter would continue after elementary school. “What for?” said the perplexed mother. “Whatever they would teach her, it won’t be useful in her future life in the village.”

Mr. Matoshi concedes that the place of women in rural communities can differ considerably from in the towns and cities of Macedonia. However, he says, “we have to start from somewhere. If we could open even 2 classes and get 10 girls to go, they will communicate eventually with 100 girls who didn’t go, and the families will be under pressure to send them.”

Interestingly, Matoshi says, speaking of the rarely mentioned Studenicani (perhaps a growth market for Albanian politicians), “only the imams are continuing their education [in the madrasah]. I’m disappointed in this – we are a European nation, we need to see development in other subjects.”

Traditional Albanian village society is coming under increased scrutiny from the West in the run-up to the elections. A recent article from the US Army-funded SE European Times, quoting an official OSCE report on voting irregularities witnessed last March, highlighted the continued existence of “group voting and proxy voting… particularly in western and northwestern areas of the country, where women were effectively disenfranchised.”

The article adds that “patriarchal family traditions in predominantly Muslim parts of the country” accounted for this problem. Yet while the government claims the situation can be ameliorated “by boosting the participation of women on election boards,” it’s hard to see how hundreds of years of tradition will be overturned within the next few months.

The Islamic Protests: Recriminations and Intrigue

One of the more bizarre affairs to have affected the Albanian parties of late was the Islamic protest march on January 10th, ostensibly held for the purpose of upholding the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad following the still simmering Danish cartoons row. Both Albanian parties blame each other for organizing the march, and not only that, they also accuse the Macedonian, Serbian and even Russian secret services of having a hand in it. The truth must lie, if not somewhere in between, at least somewhere- though given the opacity of the controversy, it’s hard to say where.

The DPA’s Matoshi claims that criminals and alleged Islamic fundamentalists with links to the now-deposed Skopje Mufti Zenun Berisha were behind the march, which began from the Wahhabi-friendly Yahya Pasha Mosque in Cair. “We worked for 30 years to build a partnership with the West,” he says, “and these people would like to destroy that in 5 minutes. What if it had been broadcast on CNN, with images of Albanians in Macedonia looking like something out of Beirut or Pakistan – it would have been a [public relations] disaster!”

After leaving the mosque, most of the marchers – various reports claimed there were anywhere from several hundred to 5,000 – headed for the Danish Consulate, which was heavily guarded by police, and in smaller numbers to the offices of Vreme, the newspaper which had originally published some of the cartoons. However, the paper had originally received a very small reaction from readers, and following a complaint from Macedonia’s Islamic Community (IVZ), it even issued an apology, which was accepted. That was a full 5 days before the “spontaneous” protests.

According to DPA’s version of the event, the famous Agim Krasniqi was dispatched from Kondovo with party colleagues Daut Rexhepi-Leka and Ernat Fejzulahu to try and dissuade and dispel the marchers. Then the scene became truly bizarre, with Krasniqi blocking the men’s path with his car, while he and his colleagues orated to the crowd to go home and thus preserve the better interests of the Albanians.

Why did anyone think that Krasniqi had the ability and authority to stand down an unruly mob of religion-fuelled protesters? “We sent him there because the Islamics fear him- after all, he had the power to block the state,” says Mr. Matoshi, referring to the standoff between Krasniqi’s armed gang in November-December 2004 and again last summer.

In fact, new Skopje Mufti Taxhedin Bislimi, whose position was formalized in February 7 IVZ elections, told us in late December that during the summer turmoil it was Krasniqi’s gang which saved him and his clerical colleagues, who were being assaulted by another armed group allegedly associated with Mr. Berisha.

However, DUI denied any involvement with the controversial march. “DPA organized the protests,” charges Mr. Aliti. “They put it on so they could make themselves look like the saviors, by trying to stop it later [with Krasniqi’s action] – as in Kondovo.”

Whatever was the case, the protesters seemed to have gotten over whatever fear they may have had of Mr. Krasniqi, who tried to persuade them to leave twice, but to no avail.

Coalition Partners for the Campaign?

Both Albanian parties claim they are confident of victory, and both say they have no plans to campaign together with a Macedonian party. The current disarray in the Macedonian camp, where various splinter parties have formed and existing schisms are widening among the major players, indicates that at least for now DUI and DPA are better off on their own- knowing as they do that whichever party wins their own community’s vote will have to be included in any future coalition government.

“We will wait and see what the result will be [before committing],” says the DPA’s Matoshi. He believes his party will do well, claiming that every election since 2002 has seen the voter gap narrow. “In the 2002 parliamentary elections, we were beaten badly,” he concedes. “We had 62,000 votes and they had 164,000. But in the presidential election, our side had 85,000 and theirs, 130,000. In the local elections last spring, we really had 150,000 to DUI’s 120,000, but because of corruption they were shown to have more.”

However, DUI Deputy Chairman Aliti disagrees, both with the fraud charges and with the optimistic prognosis.

“First, I think they aren’t being realistic in their statements, given the results of the latest IRI [International Republican Institute] poll, which showed high approval ratings for DUI,” he says. “Right now, according to the poll, we are the second-most popular party in the whole country, after VMRO-DPMNE. Our advantage [over DPA] is three-to-one.”

Given this perceived advantage, the DUI feels free to turn its back on governing coalition partner SDSM. “We won’t run [during the campaign] with SDSM,” stated Mr. Buxhaku, again citing the party’s second-place ranking in the IRI poll. “We will definitely win among Albanians.”

Mr. Buxhaku says there are several ways that one can “do the math’ and come out with a DUI victory. Since passing the most important parliamentary legislation relies on the double-majority “Badenter Principle,’ by which the will of the parliamentary majority must be confirmed by the majority of the cumulative minority MPs (currently, there are 35), DUI is keen on increasing their current 16 seats to 19 – and thereby ensuring that they become indispensable to any future government.

According to his calculations, Mr. Buxhaku believes that DUI can win 19 seats and thus ensure their future participation in the next government, whether or not VMRO-DPMNE or SDSM captures the majority of the Macedonian vote. “We know that nobody likes us,” he says, “but they won’t be able to exclude us, either.”

Further Turbulence to Come?

Still, the question remains as to whether there will be a repeat of the intimidation and sometimes violence that have characterized most of Macedonia’s elections throughout its short history. It is likely that the EU will not take any chances and that the number of foreign observers coming to enjoy a nice paid weekend in a country they may know little about will only increase.

A preview of potential violence occurred just under a week ago, when DPA’s office in the Kumanovo-area village of Orizari was shot up by unknown assailants. This was followed by the stoning of the party’s office in Kumanovo, reports A1 Television.

While the DPA’s Matoshi told the television station that the attack was directed by Hisni Shaqiri, a former NLA commander who broke away from DUI to form his own party, the latter rebutted that DPA had simulated the whole affair: “they don’t know how to do anything except things like this.”

This affair and the others recounted above remain murky. But it seems clear that despite the higher intentions of party leaders, we will see a few more manifestations of Macedonia’s old “Wild West” behavior before all is said and done, as campaign season kicks into high gear.

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