Just a year after ethnic violence rocked Macedonia in a seven-month armed insurrection, former commanders of the since-disbanded ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, or UCK, yesterday founded a political party on an equal-rights/anticorruption platform. With general elections just three months away, it is far from clear how Albanians, who make up nearly a third of Macedonia's population, will cast their votes among the four parties claiming to represent their interests.
Prague, 6 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Participants at the founding session in Tetovo yesterday of the Democratic Union for Integration, or BDI, elected former ethnic Albanian rebel commander Ali Ahmeti as party chairman.
Ahmeti ran unopposed. His election was greeted by hundreds of participants in the western Macedonian city's "House of Culture." Some 5,000 supporters watched the proceedings on screens outside with shouts of "UCK, UCK," the initials of Ahmeti's disbanded National Liberation Army.
Participants sang the Albanian national anthem and stood in silence for one minute for the 64 UCK fighters who were killed in last year's insurrection. The only visible signs of Macedonian statehood were on the badges of the large number of police who were deployed to secure the premises.
In his inaugural speech delivered beneath a large Albanian flag, Ahmeti emphasized that the BDI is founded on the principle of equality, rather than discrimination. He said it is open to all ethnic and religious communities in Macedonia, not just Albanians. "Therefore, I believe other ethnic groups will find themselves within the party, because our engagement for full equality is in the interest of all ethnic communities, not just the Albanians," Ahmeti said.
Macedonia's non-Albanian population includes the majority Macedonians, as well as smaller numbers of Serbs, Turks, Roma, and Vlachs.
Ahmeti said his party stands for democracy, a war on corruption, and complete fulfillment of last August's Ohrid peace agreement that brought the insurrection to an end and resulted in constitutional and legal changes to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians.
Unlike the three other parties in Macedonia competing for Albanian support, the new party's name contains neither the word "Albanian" nor "national," nor does it promise economic benefit. Instead, its most important element is a call for integration.
Ahmeti has traditionally promoted the view that Albanians do not want to remain a segregated minority and have no desire to secede. He said rather that ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a third of Macedonia's 2 million inhabitants, want to be fully integrated into society.
Other members of the new party's presidium are former rebel chief of staff Gezim Ostreni, the UCK's eminence grise, Fazli Veliu, and several lesser-known former UCK commanders.
The BDI's leadership includes two members of parliament who last week quit one of the main Albanian parties, the Party of Democratic Prosperity, or PPD. Those two parliamentarians, Aziz Pollozhani, who had been PPD's deputy chairman, and Rizvan Sulejmani, ensure that Ahmeti has immediate and direct representation in the Macedonian parliament.
Also in the BDI's leadership is a former member of parliament, Hysni Shaqiri, of the other main Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh. Shaqiri quit parliament to fight in the UCK last year.
The founding of Ahmeti's new party comes just three months after Ahmeti tried to form a coordinating council of Albanians in Macedonia intended to offer a joint platform for the three existing Albanian parties. However, two violent incidents and accusations of corruption led the PDSh to quit. The other main party, the PPD, was already deeply divided before Sulejmani and Pollozhani quit.
The third Albanian party, the National Democratic Party, was formed a year ago in the apparent hope of riding on the coattails of the UCK, but it has not yet had an opportunity to compete for votes.
Parliamentary elections are due to be held on 15 September and Ahmeti will be riding the crest of success by having led last year's insurgency.
In his speech yesterday, Ahmeti signaled his awareness that the election campaign could be violent as certain parties seek to intimidate voters as in past elections. "We call on the Albanian parties to respect the integrity of Albanian voters and to refrain from any use of violence. The rights of Albanians have been violated for decades and enough is enough. We want to protect the Albanian voter and thereby protect dignity and democratic principles," Ahmeti said.
Uncertainty surrounds the future of what had been until now the leading Albanian party, the PDSh, led by Arber Xhaferi and his deputy Menduh Thaci. The party, and particularly Thaci, have repeatedly faced accusations in the media of involvement in corruption and cigarette smuggling. PDSh, a junior partner in the current government, is closely allied with the ruling Macedonian nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, and above all with Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski.
PDSh and BDI will have a tough fight on their hands. The biggest loser is likely to be PPD.
Ahmeti, in an interview yesterday with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, noted that nationalism must be avoided in the upcoming election campaign. "Now you are all witnesses that in the last election, everyone played the nationalist card, [with] one side [the Macedonians] calling for sending Albanians to the gas chambers [and] the other side saying the opposite with different words. This card has to be put to rest and we appeal to the public with more responsible methods so as not to provoke a conflict, regardless of whether Albanians or Macedonians are involved."
Meanwhile, a parallel move to form a new political party is under way in neighboring Serbia by former ethnic Albanian insurgents in the Presevo valley.
Former leaders of the disbanded Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, or UCPMB, who rebelled against Serb police intimidation before reaching a NATO-brokered peace deal with Belgrade one year ago have established an Initiative Council as a first step toward forming a new party.
Co-founder Jonuz Musliu said the council will soon be filing a request with Serb authorities to register the new party, which is to be named the Movement for Democratic Progress, or LPD.