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Macedonia's EU Future At Stake In March Elections

SKOPJE (Reuters) -- Macedonia could face years of delay in the process of joining the European Union if its next elections are not up to international standards, an EU envoy has said.

Violence that erupted between rival ethnic-Albanian parties during last year's vote left one person dead and nine wounded.

Presidential and parliamentary elections set for March 22 are a key test of the Balkan country's political maturity.

"If these elections do not reflect completely the standards at the international level, I'm afraid this will be a major setback for the country and will delay the journey to EU accession," Erwan Fouere, an envoy of the European Union and its executive commission, told Reuters.

Macedonia, an ex-Yugoslav republic bordering Greece and with an ethnic mix of Macedonians and a large minority of Albanians, applied for EU membership in 2004 but has failed to meet the necessary criteria and get a date to open accession talks with Brussels.

Fouere said a failed voting process would delay integration into the bloc until subsequent elections, scheduled for 2012.

But he said that if the March elections proceeded smoothly, and the country pledged commitment to reforms, "then certainly the commission will have enough argument to make a recommendation [to open the talks]."

EU Watches Polls, Reforms, Name Row

The EU will offer training for Macedonian policemen before voting and has urged local leaders to ensure security and a positive atmosphere for voters.

"One has to face reality and that's why it is so important for the country and its leaders to...ensure the best possible elections," Fouere said.

Macedonia also has yet to resolve a long-standing name dispute with its southern neighbor and EU member Greece before it can start membership talks.

Macedonia, which split from Yugoslavia in 1991, has the same name as Greece's northernmost province. Athens says Skopje must use a compound name such as "Northern Macedonia" and blocked Macedonia's bid to join NATO at a summit last April.

" dispute is an issue that remains. This is a separate issue from the reforms and the [European] Commission assessment is done on the basis on the reforms," Fouere said.

He said the EU had made it clear the row with Greece must be resolved to keep Skopje's bid on track.

Greece has threatened to block Macedonia's EU bid as well, unless a compromise was reached, while the EU has urged both sides to continue negotiations mediated by the United Nations.