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Macedonia Again Faces Political Uncertainty - 2004-03-29


Macedonia, the southernmost and poorest of the republics that comprised the old Yugoslavia, is again facing political uncertainty as a presidential election will be held April 14. The special election results from the death of President Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash last month.

The political outlook has become more uncertain since Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski announced last week that he will be a candidate for president. The presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but has a considerable role in foreign policy.

Experts say the prime minister is favored to win an anticipated second-round presidential run-off in late April. If that happens the ruling social democratic-led coalition will have to choose a new prime minister. Mr. Crvenkovski, whose second term as prime minister began less than two years ago, rules in partnership with Macedonia's largest ethnic-Albanian party.

With only two million people, Macedonia was nearly torn apart by ethnic warfare in 2001. A framework accord to end that conflict promised more rights to Macedonia's Albanian minority. That accord, agreed to by all major parties, is being slowly implemented and will be a key challenge for the new president, and possibly a new prime minister.

A former finance minister who heads the main opposition party in parliament, Nikola Gruevski, says implementation of the framework is essential to preventing the renewed ethnic strife in Kosovo from spilling over into Macedonia. Mr. Gruevski says the first priority is the decentralization of decision-making.

"The second is to solve the problem of the border with Kosovo. It is not demarcated," he said. "I think it has to be finished before solving the final status of Kosovo. Some people think it is better to solve these [issues] together. But I am afraid that maybe this failure [to solve the border issue] could be an excuse for some radical structures [among Albanians] to transfer the problems, or maybe the war [to Macedonia]."

Many Macedonians believe the Albanian insurgents in 2001 initially came from Kosovo. That Serbian province is ruled by the United Nations with a NATO-led peacekeeping force responsible for security.

The head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Skopje, William Hennessey, sees economic development as crucial to the effort to hold Macedonia together. Unemployment is 40 percent and there has been little foreign investment in recent years.

Mr. Hennessey says the development of rail and road links would exploit Macedonia's central location in the western Balkans. "Therefore, build the infrastructure. And focus on the rail links. The first rail link to build is the one to Albania. That would advance things," he said.

The European Union has expressed a willingness to build a road and rail link that would connect the Albanian port of Durres with Macedonia and western Bulgaria.

Analysts say Macedonia remains a fragile nation in an unstable region. People worry that renewed clashes in Kosovo will impact Macedonia, and they are focusing on the presidential election for clues about Macedonia's political future.