Jul 05, 2006

Albanians in Macedonia Want More Say, Better Life

Albanians in Macedonia gave up a six-month fight for the promise of more say for them in the running of their own affairs and greater recognition of their rights
Enter Macedonia by night from Kosova and the giant cross on the black hill above Skopje appears to hover over a capital draped in election fare.
Its lights blaze the message that this is a Christian country.
Clearly no one told Tetovo, a 20-minute drive to the west in the heart of Macedonia's 500,000-strong Albanian minority.

On the eve of a general election in Macedonia on Wednesday, this grey city is alive with the red and black of the Albanian national flag, slung from balconies and speeding cars.
Monday evening saw the Tetovo football stadium shudder to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana as opposition leader Arben Xhaferi strode onto the field like a boxer in a title fight.

In the city centre, Xhaferi's rival, Ali Ahmeti, hosted a more sober affair. A few spluttering fireworks faintly lit the hill which Macedonian forces pounded aimlessly five years ago in the hope of hitting Ahmeti's guerrilla positions.
He's now in a suit, and in government.

Ahmeti's people gave up a six-month guerrilla fight for the promise of more say for Albanians in the running of their own affairs and greater recognition of their rights.
The peace is expected to hold but hopes of a major economic improvement after the election are not high.

"There won't be any more violence after the elections. On the economy I am not an optimist but Macedonia will at least be a peaceful country," said Abdurrahim Maksuti, an ethnic Albanian former guerrilla who is now unemployed.

Albanians account for at least 25 percent of Macedonia's 2 million people. Almost all are Muslim, many in name only.
The European Union brokered a peace that took hold in autumn 2001, inked at Lake Ohrid on the Macedonian-Albanian border.

Both sides took heart from the promise of a route to joining the prosperous 25-nation bloc, the glue that binds all the former Yugoslav republics in a common, if distant goal.
Xhaferi keeps alive the "national question," stirring again as Kosova's Albanians push for independence from Serbia. But Ahmeti, in coalition with Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski's Social Democrats, appears committed to the peace.

Buckovski and Ahmeti talk of joining the EU within six years, NATO in two. Their opponents say this is a pipe dream, "wind and fog" according to opposition leader Nikola Gruevski.
He points to an economy still sleeping, foreign investors put off by rampant corruption. Unemployment is over 30 percent and the average monthly wage less than 250 euros ($320).
As Macedonia votes, it's not war and peace that are on the minds of the people, nor foreign talk of "EU stabilisation and association" or NATO "fast-track". It's jobs and money, and who can provide more. In this, the country is united.

"The only people who'll benefit are those close to the parties," said Musa Rrahmani, an Albanian engineer from Tetovo.
"But we the people will stay as we are now. We might improve our own standard of living, but not thanks to the government."