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International Observers to Monitor Sunday's Vote in Macedonia - 2002-09-11

Macedonia holds parliamentary elections Sunday under revised laws intended to assure greater freedoms for the country's large ethnic-Albanian minority. The vote will be monitored by international observers.

President Boris Trajkovsky says Macedonia's credibility is on the line and that the country is determined that the vote will be free and fair. To help ensure this, the election is being observed by more than 800 international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

More than 20 parties are contesting the vote for the 120-seat parliament. The current government, led by a nationalist Macedonian party in coalition with Albanians, is on the defensive because of a weak economy and charges of corruption.

On the Albanian side, the political scene has changed dramatically as the leader of last year's rebellion, Ali Ahmeti, has recast himself as a moderate favoring ethnic reconciliation. Mr. Ahmeti's new party, the Democratic Union for Integration, is expected to do much better than the two traditional Albanian parties.

But the government has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Ahmeti, charging him with war crimes, and has forbidden him from campaigning in Skopje. Mr. Ahmeti has made no attempt to come to the capital.

The European Union, a principal force behind last year's reconciliation accord, has warned the government against attempting to arrest Mr. Ahmeti.

Sheila Fruman is a Canadian who heads the Macedonian office of the National Democratic Institute, a group that promotes democracy and receives considerable U.S. government money. She was instrumental in crafting an electoral code of good conduct agreed to by 22 political parties.

Ms. Fruman said as the elections draw near, the code is being violated more frequently. "Unfortunately, there were two murders [last week] involving policemen. Whether it was directly linked to the campaign or not, we do not know," she said, "but they did occur during the campaign. There have been some kidnapping and other acts of violence during some rallies."

Analysts say that the major parties, with the exception of Mr. Ahmeti's, are generally ignoring the August, 2001, agreement that committed Macedonia to unity and ethnic reconciliation. But Ms. Fruman said though Macedonians are becoming more cynical, the voter turnout is expected to be high. "I think there is a combination of cynicism and hope in this campaign - and maybe that is odd, but I think it is true," she said. "There is cynicism because it has been very difficult times here; but there is hope that with an election will come fresh blood and a new vision."

Campaigning continues through Friday.