Yesterday's terrorist, today's peacemaker

In a vote hailed as a landmark stride for democracy, Macedonian voters elect an ethnic Albanian guerrilla leader many authorities still denounce as a terrorist.

By Ashley Fantz

Published September 17, 2002 7:27PM (EDT)

Joyous machine-gun fire filled the air of Skopje and young people swarmed into the streets after voters in Macedonia threw out the ruling party and elected a multiethnic coalition government in parliamentary elections held Sunday. Viewing the government as corrupt and economically incompetent, and mistrusting its ability to shepherd the nation to reconciliation after a violent guerrilla campaign by ethnic Albanians last year, Macedonians voted into power two coalition parties -- one of them headed by Ali Ahmeti, the military leader who led last year's uprising and is still denounced by many Macedonians as a terrorist.

Observers and Macedonians alike hailed the elections for the 120-seat parliament, the fourth held since Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, as largely free and fair, saying they showed that the young Balkan state was taking great strides toward democracy. But tensions in this impoverished, mountainous state remained high: Sporadic violence marred the election, and even though the government and the Albanian rebels, under pressure from the European Union, reached agreement last year on a peace deal that gave the Albanians more civil rights and access to government jobs, extremists on both sides pose a threat to peace.

Macedonia, about the size of Vermont, is a country rife with ethnic tensions that go back to the Ottoman empire. The people are divided by geography, culture, and religion. Ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim, speak a different language than the mostly Christian Macedonians. The educational system is a mess, unemployment is incredibly high (in ethnic Albanian populated areas, it's as high at 85 percent) and organized crime, sustained by Western Europes demand for the countrys massive underground heroin racket, has created a world that in many parts looks and feels medieval.

Despite all these problems, however, many of the Macedonians partying in the streets clearly saw Sunday's vote as a hopeful sign: a vote for peace and a democratic breakthrough. They seemed simply happy to have made it through the day without any major violence: The full-scale street fighting and shootouts many predicted never materialized.

By Western standards, to be sure, the election was far from spotless. Just ask the villagers in Lesok, in a mountainous region about 25 miles from the capital of Skopje and less than a mile from the scene of pre-election day violence in which Macedonian police shot and killed two ethnic Albanians. The dirt road to Lesok looks like backwoods Mississippi in the 19th century -- crumbling concrete houses, roaming wild dogs, old men with rifles sitting in wagons passing the day drinking from rusty tin cups, boys guiding donkeys whose backs carry rows of dried tobacco.

The rare tourists who come to Macedonia these days are kindly warned not to venture up this way. The quiet that pervades these villages, tucked along a mountain that overlooks Skopje, are deceptive: The area was the site of gun battles between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians that captured headlines last year.

On election day, Lesok was again the scene of a violent incident. Sitting on the steps of a ramshackle home, six old ladies, their heads covered with scarves, screamed and pointed to a group of male Lesok dwellers who were going in and out of a car, apparently looting it. The vehicle had been abandoned, the men said, by a member of the Lions, a paramilitary unit ostensibly set up to combat terrorism, but which ethnic Albanians claim has been used to intimidate them. Six days ago several Lions were arrested for blocking a main road to an ethnic Albanian neighborhood.

Villagers claimed that the Lion driving the car had smashed the glass door of Lesoks polling station, placed a gun to the head of one of the village women and ordered her to vote for the ruling party, known as VMRO. When she refused, the man fired two shots near her ear, and smashed her on the head with the butt of his gun. He then grabbed Lesoks ballot box and took off on foot. (It was impossible to determine why he abandoned his car.) About 25 feet from his abandoned car, on a playground where young boys continued to kick a soccer ball as if nothing had happened, lay a dead bonfire of voter registration cards.

Lesok was one of two violent incidents on election day: An ethnic Albanian was shot and wounded at a polling place just north of Skopje Sunday night. But for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continents largest conflict-prevention group, the stolen ballot box, the shooting, and other problems, including widespread ballot stuffing, were minor setbacks. The OSCE had worked for months to train both Macedonian election workers and more than 800 monitors from 55 nations, including the United States, on how to prevent "voter irregularities."

An OSCE monitor insisted the election was a success. "This isnt what I would define as democratic, but in Macedonia, 'democracy' has to be a subjective term right now," he said.

Monday morning, with the ballot box still missing, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, head of the VMRO party, conceded defeat, calling the vote "the most democratic election in the history of Macedonia."

"True, the missing box is bad but that is the biggest problem with the election," said Zoran Tanevski, spokesman for the Macedonian State Electoral Commission late Monday. Tanevski, who worked as a journalist at Radio Skopje for 17 years, insists that that one ballot box would not have changed the outcome of the election. "We are very happy. It was democratic by our terms. No one was killed. That is really a step forward."

Perhaps an election without murders is indeed a cause for parties in Macedonia. During the last election in 1998, the bodyguard of a Macedonian politician killed an ethnic Albanian Muslim teenager, and the 1999 and 2000 local elections were tainted with serious allegations of voter fraud.

Europe and the United States had a lot riding on this election. Europe wanted to stabilize the region, prevent another Balkan war, and move Macedonia one step closer to E.U. membership. The U.S. has cut its peacekeeping troops in the area from 4,400 last year to 1,800 this year. Preoccupied with preparing for a war in Iraq and pursuing al-Qaida terrorists, the last thing it needs is a lawless country that would make a convenient hiding place for terrorists.

But an election without a body count doesn't necessarily mean an unqualified victory for American interests. Ahmeti was added to the Bush administration's list of outlawed Albanian terrorists last year: His legitimate victory mocks the Bush administration's us-vs.-them declaration that all "terrorists" are equally evil and must be hunted down.

Anti-American sentiment still lingers here -- from both sides of the bloody Slav-Albanian conflict. When President Bush visited a U.S. base in Kosovo in July 2001, it set off a series of riots in Skopje, led mostly by Macedonian Albanians angered because he neglected to invite their politicians to the event. Protesters burned symbols of Western culture, including the American flag.

Compounding tensions, the respected Macedonian Albanian-language paper Fakti ran a series of editorials last fal denouncing Bush for associating Albanian Muslims in the country with al-Qaida. Ahmeti said, "They [America] know very well that we are mountains apart from bin Laden. There were never ideological elements in the UCK [the Kosovo Liberation Army], including the mujahedin element."

Anti-American feelings have subsided since then but have not disappeared. Little more than a week ago, outgoing prime minister Georgievski said in a speech that Macedonia must fight not only against "Albanian terrorists," but also against "U.S. and NATO generals."

The election was a landslide victory for two coalition parties: the leftist Together for Macedonia coalition led by Branko Crvenkovski, which defeated the VMRO, and Ali Ahmeti's Union for Democratic Integration, which defeated the Democratic Party of Albanians, the junior party in the ruling coalition. Ahmeti's triumph, in particular, is a remarkable story. Ali Ahmeti has undergone one of the most amazing transformations in political history. Last September he traded his guerrilla camouflage outfit for a blue suit, calling for a union between his people, ethnic Albanians, and the Macedonians he had waged war against since February 2001. That a significant number of Macedonian voters joined ethnic Albanians in voting for Ahmeti can be attributed not so much to their enthusiasm for him as to their disgust with the VMRO. Ahmeti was seen as the lesser of two evils: He at least was regarded as doing something for some of the people, however violent his means, and his platform of bringing Macedonians and ethnic Albanians together appealed to voters weary of ethnic violence.

As the former leader of the National Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian rebel group, Ahmeti instigated eight months of fighting between Macedonian authorities and ethnic Albanians in the treacherous mountains outside Skopje between February and September of 2001, shattering the relative peace the country had enjoyed since it seceded from Titoist Yugoslavia in 1991.

The reason for the uprising, Ahmeti wrote in letters he sent to the media from his headquarters deep in the mountains of Tetovo, was to obtain long-overdue equal rights for ethnic Albanians, mainly Muslims, who had been historically oppressed by the mainly Christian Macedonian majority. (Albanians make up about a third of the nation's 2 million inhabitants.) He also addressed a highly publicized missive to international figures, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, in which he wrote that the NLA wanted "only for our families to live and prosper in peace without being considered modern slaves of an ethnic state."

Armed with sophisticated weapons from the Kosovo Liberation Army, in which many of Ahmeti's men earned their fighting stripes, the NLA consistently trounced the more lightly armed Macedonians. Throughout the fighting, which was mostly contained in the Tetevo and in remote areas outside Skopje, it was next to impossible to know which side was doing what. News media, divided themselves and unapologetically biased (one Macedonian television reporter actually filmed himself firing a grenade into an ethnic Albanian village) could not be trusted. The Macedonian news blamed Ahmeti and NLA for bombing Macedonian police stations and killing police officers during random daylight drive-by shootings. Albanian papers claimed the Macedonian government was behind the slaughter.

As the summer months wore on, violence escalated. The NLA admitted to abducting five people on a highway in western Macedonia; Human Rights Watch accused the Macedonian police of brutal, sometimes fatal attacks on innocent Albanian civilians. Finally, the E.U., with the help of the United States, intervened and negotiated a peaceful hostage release.

When the smoke cleared, it became clear that the NLA's violent methods had achieved their ends. The E.U. and the U.S. pressured the Macedonian government to write into the country's laws provisions that would ensure that the Albanians received more equal representation on government bodies, including the police force, and equal civil rights. The Ohrid Agreement, named after Macedonia's largest lake, also guaranteed that the Albanian language be legally recognized.

Ahmeti became a hero to ethnic Albanians. This past May, he began campaigning as a moderate, calling for ethnic Albanians to join with Macedonians to promote peace. Little was made of a sign hanging on the front of his Tetovo campaign headquarters showing an Albanian eagle attacking a Macedonian lion. Campaign posters showing Ahmeti gazing pleasantly upward, a soft grin between his chubby cheeks, wallpapered Macedonia. He accepted his victory on Monday flanked by American, E.U., and Albanian flags. Noticeably absent was a Macedonian flag.

Macedonian attorney general Stabre Djikov is outraged by Ahmeti's win. Calling the politician a "war criminal," Djikov has publicly threatened over the past three months to arrest Ahmeti if he went to Skopje. Representatives of the E.U. and NATO warned Ahmeti, who had planned to hold a rally in the middle of the city, to stay out of town to prevent likely clashes.

"We have elected someone who is guilty of heinous atrocities," Djikov said on Monday. In the months leading up the election, Djikov accused Ahmeti of killing hundreds of civilians and forcing thousands from their homes. But Djikov's mission to prove his case -- which he has yet to show the public solid evidence of - seems doomed. He has next to no public support from the Albanians, and even some Macedonians view the war-crime allegations as a ploy to tarnish Ahmeti's election chances. Moreover, Djikov doesn't have any jurisdiction. As part of the Ohrid agreement, NLA fighters were given amnesty for, or were pardoned of, all incursion acts. Only the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague can charge someone with war crimes. And the court has given no indication that it plans to indict Ahmeti, at least before he assumes his new office.

Ashley Fantz

Ashley Fantz is a staff writer at the Memphis Flyer. She writes frequently about crime and justice issues.

MORE FROM Ashley Fantz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------