September 15, 2002
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Passers-by pause for reflection at a monument in Macedonia marking the birthplace of Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose homeland is anything but peaceful.
Crime, corruption and ethnic hatred persist in this tiny, troubled Balkan nation rocked by a rebel insurgency last year. Today's parliamentary elections will challenge the resolve of Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians to build a functional society, but few hold out much hope for a clean break with their turbulent past.
From the capital of Skopje, where people on both sides of the ethnic divide lead largely segregated lives, to the villages in the volatile northwest still scarred by war, there is a palpable sense of despair.
"Why should I care about the elections? No one cares about me or how I survive," said Efka Nestorovska, 40, a Macedonian selling used books Saturday in Skopje's central square.
Tensions have soared across Macedonia, where parliamentary elections -- the first nationwide vote since a six-month rebellion ended last year -- are testing fragile efforts at democracy and stability.
Violence stung the country right up to the eve of the election. Early Saturday, police traded fire with armed ethnic Albanians in the northwest, killing one gunman and wounding two others. It was the latest clash in a string of ethnically motivated murders and kidnappings during the past few weeks.
Ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of the country's 2-million people, hope to boost their influence in the 120-seat parliament from 24 seats to 28. But many here say what's really at stake is control of the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian criminal enterprises that rake in millions of dollars trafficking in drugs, weapons, contraband cigarettes and stolen cars.
Signs of illicit activity abound: Gangland shootings are routine, and flashy Mercedes-Benz sedans are a common sight on the streets of Skopje, even though the average monthly income is about $150.
Ordinary ethnic Albanians and Macedonians, struggling to make ends meet, say they are weary of leaders who make lofty promises only to spend much of their time enriching themselves.
"Look at this place," said Imeri Fariz, an ethnic Albanian who runs a hardware store in the shabby northwestern village of Bogovinje, where 10 gunmen attacked a police station last week and killed an ethnic Albanian officer serving with a multiethnic force.
"We're a village of 7,000 people and we don't even have a high school," he said as a Humvee carrying NATO-led peacekeepers rumbled past. "What are our leaders thinking? People have to eat."
Ethnic Albanian rebels who took up arms in February 2001 to fight for more rights and a better future for their embattled minority have pinned their hopes on Ali Ahmeti, a former leader of the rebel National Liberation Army.
His new party, the Democratic Union for Integration, was poised to receive as much as 70 percent of the ethnic Albanian votes in today's election.
Posters of a benevolent-looking Ahmeti are plastered around Tetovo, his power base and the country's second-largest city. The anthem of the now-disbanded rebel army crackles from loudspeakers, an ominous tune that ends with the chatter of machine-gun fire.
Although Ahmeti is popular among ethnic Albanians, the ruling Macedonian party, known as the VMRO, has said it will not govern with a man it considers a terrorist. The Macedonian authorities even issued a warrant for his arrest, a maneuver Ahmeti insists was calculated to discredit him.