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Macedonia Votes Amid Hopes for NATO, EU Embrace


The people of Macedonia have begun voting in the final round of presidential and local elections that are seen as key for the country's efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. A right-leaning candidate is expected to win.

As the people of Macedonia voted Sunday in presidential and local elections, they may have words spoken a day earlier by U.S. President Barack Obama on their minds.

"I also like to note that as we welcome Albania and Croatia to NATO, this will not be the last time that we have such a celebration," he said. "And I look forward to the day that we can welcome Macedonia to the alliance. The door to membership will remain open for other countries that meet NATO standards and can make a meaningful contribution to allied security.

Greece has blocked Macedonia's entry into the military alliance, in part because of a dispute over the name of the country.

Since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, Athens has demanded the republic change or amend its name, saying it wants to protect its own northern province called Macedonia from potential territorial claims.

Western officials say Macedonia's integration into NATO and the European Union is also dependent on whether Sunday's ballot will be truly democratic and free of violence.

The Balkan nation narrowly avoided civil war following clashes between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in 2001, but renewed violence led to at least one death and injuries in last year's parliamentary voting.

Observers said Gjorgje Ivanov, the presidential candidate from the ruling conservative (VMRO-DPMNE) party, is favored to win. He led the first election round last month with 35 percent of the votes.

His opponent, Ljubomir Frckovski of the main opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, picked up 20 percent of the ballots on March 22. Only Frckovski supports a deal to find a compromise with neighbor Greece over Macedonia's future name.

Despite political tensions, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has welcomed the peaceful first-round poll. But he warned that Macedonia's future integration into the European Union hinges on whether Sunday's runoff round meets international standards.

"In the past months the EU has insisted on the importance of these elections for the European future of the country," said Rehn. "And I trust there will be fair play. And I call on all the citizens and leaders of the country and state institutions, to ensure that the conduct of the second round of elections on the 5th of April will meet international standards."

While Macedonians also vote for mayors of 43 municipalities, hundreds of international and thousands of local observers have been monitoring the election. First results are expected by early Monday.

Nearly two-million people were eligible to cast ballots to choose the new president, who will have a five-year mandate.

Although the post is regarded as ceremonial, observers point out that the president is supreme commander of the army and has decision-making authority in foreign policy and the judiciary.

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