Parts of the city were pitch black on a late August evening because of the sporadic power cuts; rain was cutting hard into my face and the thunder was frighteningly loud as I scurried to make my rendezvous. As I looked up, I suddenly saw hundreds of lights illuminate the outline of a vast cross on top of the imposing hill that guards the capital from the south. For a brief moment, I felt imprisoned in a key scene of an apocalyptic movie. And then I remembered I was in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, which so often aspires to the apocalypse but invariably manages to avoid it at the last moment.
The giant cross on Vodno Hill cost an unholy $3 million. It was commissioned by Ljupco Georgievski, Macedonias Prime Minister, of the VMRO-DPMNE political party, which was trounced at the polls on Sunday 15 September. It was blessed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church an organisation that is alive and kicking but is only recognised by itself.
The effort that these influential sponsors put into the Vodno cross contrasts with the progress of the repairs to the main road bridge that links the eastern and western halves of Skopje. These have been going on for months. Ever since they began, the Macedonian capital has suffered the most appalling gridlock morning and evening, even though it boasts a traffic density which is little higher than rural Canadas.
The saga of the bridge is not simply a reflection of Balkan torpor (indeed the Macedonian government contracted the work out to a French company) but together with the cross, it demonstrates how completely detached the VMRO-led government had become from its electorate. Georgievski and his colleagues really did believe that grandiose gestures of patriotism, and of a religious fervour that has never existed in this part of the Balkans, were adequate compensation for economic policies that have ground the country to a standstill. That the triumphalist cross might also cause grave offence to roughly 15 per cent of the people of Skopje who are Muslims (Roma, Turks, Muslim Macedonians but above all Albanians) is almost secondary except, of course, that the offence was quite deliberate.
Last Sundays elections were held thirteen months after the signing of the Ohrid or Framework Agreement brought to an end Macedonias peculiar civil war. In the summer of 2001, the conflict threatened to visit great bloodshed on this tiny land-locked country. But the worst was averted at the last moment when the international community successfully negotiated the disbandment of the NLA (the Albanian paramilitary force, the National Liberation Army whose Albanian acronym UÇK is identical to that of the Kosovo Liberation Army Kosovo has a border with Macedonia). In exchange, Macedonias large Albanian minority (somewhere between 2530 per cent of the population of 2 million) received constitutional guarantees for key collective rights.
It would be a reasonable supposition that the two political parties, VMRO and its Albanian coalition-partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), who accepted the international mediation and led the peace negotiations, would benefit at the polls for their commitment to averting the tragedy. In fact, it was in the three (out of six) electoral districts where the conflict was most intense that Macedonias voters whipped both parties mercilessly.
Refracted through the prism of an increasingly tired Balkan paradigm, the world perceives Macedonias immense difficulties as caused by ethnic and confessional tensions between the majority Macedonians, who are Orthodox Slavs, and the Albanians, who are Muslim. Clearly this cultural divide has an impact but it is consistently exaggerated. And compared to either Bosnia but especially to Kosovo, it is not nearly so significant. The bitterness that characterises relations between Kosovos Serbs and Albanians is generally absent in Macedonia rather the two communities live parallel lives that very rarely impinge on each other.
This has been borne out time and again by opinion polls taken regularly, since the conflict between the NLA and the Macedonian authorities intensified in early 2001 both communities consistently place social and economic issues, such as unemployment, corruption, failing infrastructure and the like, well above ethnic tension as the root causes of personal misery that they want to see addressed by politicians.
The translation of economic grievances into national conflict is brilliantly explained by a study of one of the mixed areas of Macedonia, Kièevo in the west, that will be published in the next week by the think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI). This truly path-breaking analysis demonstrates how the predominantly rural Albanian population has always been excluded from state jobs, denied access to state funds and has depended to a very high degree on remittances. The Macedonians, on the other hand, have relied upon the bloated bureaucracy of Titoism and jobs in factories.
Both communities are now suffering from catastrophic levels of unemployment (reaching as high as 75 per cent) as a result of ten years of precipitous decline and neglect by central government. But because Albanians only ever see Macedonians when dealing with the state and can never get factory work, and because Macedonians purchase most goods from small-scale Albanian enterprises funded by capital from relatives abroad, both sides believe that they are suffering while the other side prospers.
Only a human agent, however, could release the power pent-up in this sense of grievance. The civil war of 2001 was both peculiar and complex. Until the emergence of the NLA, the country was run by the VMRO/DPA coalition. The Albanians boasted five ministers, several ambassadors abroad, and in the DPAs chairman, Arben Xhaferi, one of the most respected and influential leaders in the Balkans. Albanian representation in the police and army was intolerably low, however, as it was in most areas of the state administration (as in Kièevo). The DPA argued for increased representation but expended most of its energy in enriching itself thanks to the symbiotic relationship of corruption that it developed with VMRO.
As in the legitimate economy, so in the black economy the Macedonian side (or VMRO) used state funds as a virtually limitless personal resource. Here Georgievski was ably assisted by a key adviser, Manoli Manolis, who holds both Greek and Macedonian passports, who used to work in Greeces diplomatic representation in Skopje. The Prime Minister and his colleagues thus became deeply implicated in the process of asset stripping that has been happening throughout the Balkans whereby foreign companies (mainly German, Greek, Austrian and Italian but also Russian) buy up utilities as part of the privatisation process. The state, aka the party in power, receives huge sums of cash (hundreds of millions of dollars) as one-off payments while the new monopoly (be it in the oil, mobile phone or whatever sector) can charge ludicrously high prices for its services and be well positioned in the economy should it develop beneficially.
VMRO could not do this without the collusion of the DPA. And in its Deputy President, Menduh Thaci, they found the ideal partner. The DPA was granted only limited access to money generated by state enterprises, but it did create monopolies in important areas of the smuggling trade. In particular, Macedonia was a key transit route for the export of untaxed cigarettes into the European Union, and also women being trafficked from other parts of the Balkans and the CIS. This was not, as many crude nationalists claim, because the Albanians are more prone to criminal activity it reflected the fact that Albanians traditionally had no connection with the state. Thacis trade was actually granted him as a concession by VMRO and the Chief of Customs, Dragan Daravelski, a prominent VMRO supporter in the election campaign of 1998.
Corruption is not the way it is so often painted to me: a demonic force somehow wedded to Balkan mentality. It is a very significant force in the European Union. However, its impact is usually swamped by our relative affluence. The states of south-eastern Europe face tremendous economic challenges but they lack the resources for investment and nobody from abroad (apart from the asset strippers) shows the least interest. From this perspective, corruption on the parochial level is often the only way that families can survive. Furthermore, the business of politics in the Balkans is extremely expensive, and political parties are funded exclusively by commercial interests. This is the way in which those interests, often criminal, are able to access the mechanisms of state for their own benefit. This is an institutional and not a behavioural problem.
The problem for the VMRO/DPA arrangement was not that they were corrupt (it is impossible to function effectively unless corrupt), it was because they were greedy. Corrupt operations that capture the state are very bad at distributing wealth equitably amongst their own people.
And this is where Ali Ahmeti, the guerrilla leader of the NLA, enters the game. Ahmeti is not anti-Macedonian. In contrast to the urbane leadership of the DPA, he does not even speak Macedonian and his contact with Macedonians during his long spell in exile as a political refugee from Yugoslavia was non-existent. His chief war aim was to secure the guarantee of collective rights for Albanians that were largely enshrined in Ohrid. In that sense, he is probably one of the most successful guerrilla leaders in history. But his rebellion was aimed clearly at the DPA and Thacis greed that had excluded the majority of Albanians from the fruits of corruption. In contrast to almost all major politicians in Macedonia, Ahmeti has retained a strong sense of social justice from an earlier political incarnation as a MarxistLeninist. More worrying, perhaps, is his complete lack of coherent economic policies to deal with Macedonias difficulties.
The lessons of the NLA should have been clear to both VMRO and the DPA. But their reaction was to commit political suicide. They maintained the nationalist rhetoric of conflict that they had adopted for the civil war period, whilst re-establishing their corrupt economic arrangement. And the electorate saw through this.
The SDSM has been in government before and the incoming Prime Minister, Branko Crvenkovski, was accused of corruption last time he held the post. But if Georgievski failed to learn his lessons, there are real indications that Crvenkovski and the SDSM do understand that the rape of the state that has characterised the last four years can no longer continue (the privatisation of the Macedonian Electricity Company, the last remaining utility in state hands, will provide a major litmus test of the SDSMs intentions).
A major test
The greatest challenge now concerns how Crvenkovski will integrate Ahmeti, undoubtedly the popular choice of the Albanians, into government. Albanians consider Ahmeti a moderate, but the Macedonians still perceive him as a radical and as a war criminal. For Macedonia to enjoy any stability in the future, Ahmetis party, Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), must feel it has a stake in government.
This is going to be complicated. Part of the Ohrid Agreement was that an amnesty law should be passed so that Ahmeti and other leaders of the NLA would not be tried in Macedonia. It left open the possibility of war crimes trials taking place in The Hague. In what looked suspiciously to be part of VMROs election campaign, the state prosecutor suddenly announced ten days before the poll that he had issued warrants for the arrest of Ahmeti and two colleagues. It remains to be seen if The Hague Tribunal will bring charges against any Albanians, including Ahmeti, or Macedonians.
Notwithstanding this major test for Crvenkovskis new administration, Macedonia overcame a very difficult hurdle last Sunday. Whether its politicians and the international community will understand the lessons of the war and the intervening period, and begin to channel the substantial aid promised for Macedonia to the Kièevos of this world, remains to be seen. But Macedonia proves quite clearly that the greatest policy failing in the Balkans is on the social and economic level, not on the national question.