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Macedonia Votes, Hoping To Win EU, NATO Embrace

Billboards of the main candidates in Skopje

Billboards of the main candidates in Skopje

OHRID, Macedonia (Reuters) -- Macedonians elect a new president on April 5 in a vote they hope will show they are worthy of joining the European Union and the NATO alliance.

Once the poorest Yugoslav republic, Macedonia declared independence in 1992 and avoided the bloodshed of the 1990s when Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians fought elsewhere.

The country narrowly avoided full-out war between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in 2001 but violence led to one death and injuries in last year's parliamentary voting.

"That sullied the democratic credentials of this country," said Jose Luis Herrero, head of the local Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"To go forward with the European Union and NATO intentions, they need those democratic credentials. That's why these elections are so key to the county."

Although the prime minister has more power, the president can influence the direction of the country's foreign policy.

Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2005 but has not advanced since then and Greece has blocked its NATO application in a 17-year-old dispute over Macedonia's name.

The second round of voting pits Gjorge Ivanov, 49, who has never run for office before, against veteran politician Ljubomir Frckovski of the main opposition SDSM party.

Large posters of the two men as well as local mayoral candidates decorate streets across the country, but not everyone is swept up in the campaign spirit.

"There is a saying in Macedonian: from two evils, you must choose one," said Metodi Jordanov, 38, a T-shirt maker from the eastern manufacturing town of Stip. "Nothing will change."

Hundreds of OSCE election observers have fanned out across the country to judge the fairness of the vote, and are keeping a close eye on potentially tense towns. Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia's two million people.

Polls show Ivanov, backed by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, ahead, making his party likely to gain control of the parliament and presidency. Outgoing President Branko Crvenkovski is member of the SDSM opposition and has criticised government policy.

The new president can impact economic policy amid the world crisis as he nominates the central banker. Officials say they can also refocus on the economy once the campaign ends.

"The government was not to the full extent free to explain its policies or to undertake some measure because of the total atmosphere, so as to not contribute to all this noise that was present," Finance Minister Trajko Slaveski told Reuters.