Saturday, March 12, 2005

Macedonia Moving

It might not be the biggest global story at the moment, but the first round of the local elections in Macedonia this Sunday are not without interest.

I was there when the country descended into fighting that brought to the brink of large-scale civil war in 2oo1. It was essentially a spill-over from Kosovo - most of the key rebel fighters had crossed the mountains from there in order to launch the attack on Kosovo - but still reflected some of the divisions in Macedonian society.

After heavy political intervention by the EU and the US, a political deal was brokered in Ohrid, and the country set on a new path with greater rights for its Albanian minority, consisting of somewhat more than a fifth of the total population.

The Ohrid Agreement has been under threat a number of time since then, but it has held. Now, a major reform of local administration has been done, including some highly controversial redrawing of municipal boundaries, and the elections now are to elect new local leaders to these partly new local administrations.

On a brief visit to Skopje, the political athmosphere was unsually calm. In Skopje, the battle will be within the Macedonian majority there, while in Tetovo, which is the key Albanian city, there will be fought a major electoral battle between two Albanian parties. The war leader from 2oo1, subsequently part of the government that implements the Ohrid Agreement, might well fail to unseat the dominance of the party that dominated the Tetovo region prior to the rebellion.

We'll see. Either way, there is no reason to expect major drama. And it's really the absence of major drama that is the big unreported story coming out of Macedonia. War makes headlines - peace really doesn't, not even in places that have been on the verge of major war.

I was there for a major conference on economic development that brought most of the leaders of the region together. With growth rates of 4-5% and with foreign investment starting to increase there is a reasonable story to tell about the region.

But much more needs to be done, and that was the subject of the meeting. And at the centre of the discussions were the prospect for closer relations to, eventually leading to membership of, the European Union. That is seen as the safest way to both peace and prosperity for the region.

The silent success of the Ohrid Agreement has showed the peace possibilities - and the economic integration will over time show the prosperity potential.