Macedonia Vote Shows Trouble Below Surface

BALKANS DOMINO?

MACEDONIA avoided bloodshed when the other former Yugoslav republics fell to war. It has averted open confrontation with Greece, which has demanded that it change its name and national symbols. It has accommodated its minorities.

So it is perhaps no surprise that in their first democratic elections since declaring independence in 1991, Macedonians chose not to rock the boat.

President Kiro Gligorov, the former communist who garnered the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff, celebrated his reelection this weekend in what some observers took as positive news in a troubled region.

``The emerging results are significant in a geopolitical sense because a victory for Gligorov and his people would preserve stability in the region,'' says Zoran Degramadziev, a Macedonian political observer.

But Gligorov's victory has provoked strident protests of ballot fraud from the opposition, betraying what political analysts call a growing frustration just below the surface. The results of elections to the 120-seat assembly are still wide open, and the opposition have threatened to boycott the second round.

When Yugoslavia broke apart, Gligorov steered Macedonia toward statehood. Since then, however, he has struggled with a flagging economy and a restive Albanian minority that accounts for roughly a quarter of Macedonia's 2-million population.

Already the poorest of the former Yugoslav republics, Macedonia's economic problems have increased under the United Nations blockade of Serbia - there are roughly 1,000 US troops observing the border - and a Greek embargo against Macedonia.

Athens imposed the latter earlier this year following Skopje's refusal to change the new state's name, constitution, and flag. The Greeks claim they imply that Macedonia has a territorial claim to their country. That embargo, which officials say has quadrupled transport costs, has helped accelerate a recession. Almost half the work force is unemployed, while many of those with jobs have not received their wages for months.

The Albanian minority, meanwhile, has demanded its own schools and regional autonomy in the western part of the republic.

In its campaign, the opposition Democratic Party - the principal vehicle for Albanian interests - claimed that officials have mismanaged the economy and grown rich from corrupt activities, such as sanctions busting.

The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Party (VMRO) charged that Gligorov's gestures have emboldened the Albanians to make ever more ambitious demands, such as territorial autonomy.

According to the state electoral commission, only 10 parliamentary candidates - eight from Gligorov's Alliance for Macedonia - earned seats in the first round of voting on Oct. 16; some 389 of the 1,765 candidates will advance to a second round on Oct. 30.

Shouting ballot fraud, the Democratic Party and the VRMO are calling for the government's resignation, the annulment of the vote, and fresh elections within two months.

Election monitors from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) reported serious irregularities, but attributed them to confusion and technical problems. They have dismissed charges that the authorities sought to swing the vote.

``Given the legal context, one could consider these elections as an important step toward democracy,'' says Lambert Klechtemans, head of the CSCE monitoring mission.

Gligorov's Alliance for Macedonia have based their election platform on security and peace pledges, insisting the nationalism of radical Macedonians and Albanians may lead to instability.

``Despite widespread dissaffection with the way Gligorov and the Alliance have been running the country,'' says a Western diplomat in Skopje, ``It seems many people believe they are a safer bet than the opposition, whose nationalism and wooly economic programs could plunge the country into deeper trouble.''

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