Macedonia eyes EU progress after calm presidential vote

7th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

In Brussels, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn also praised Macedonia for the conduct of the vote and said the Balkans state could soon fulfil the criteria to start EU membership talks.

Skopje -- Macedonia had high hopes Monday of advancing its EU and NATO aspirations after conservative George Ivanov was elected president in a vote that won crucial praise from foreign observers.

Ivanov of the governing VMRO-DPMNE party won the runoff with more than 63 percent of the vote, almost double that of his rival Ljubomir Frckoski, the election commission reported.

Sunday's vote won qualified praise from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe which said it met "most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections."

The elections watchdog, which had sent observers for the runoff, added, however, that "some of the issues identified in the first round, including credible reports of intimidation, were of increased concern."

In Brussels, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn also praised Macedonia for the conduct of the vote and said the Balkans state could soon fulfil the criteria to start EU membership talks.

"Now that the elections have been completed, it is time to step up reform efforts in order to meet the benchmarks which have been set," said Rehn, noting judicial and civil service reform and the fight against corruption.

"I am convinced that, if the necessary efforts are made, the benchmarks could be fulfilled in time for this autumn's progress report. A recommendation on the start of accession negotiations will depend on the results achieved."

In his first address after Sunday's vote, Ivanov put resolving an 18-year dispute with southern neighbour Greece over his Balkan country's name at the top of his priorities once he takes office.

"We showed that we can conduct a European election, peaceful, democratic, and without any violence.... These are three crucial priorities: the European Union, NATO and solving the name issue," he said on national television.

Conceding defeat, Frckoski praised voters and party supporters for keeping the election free of the violence that marred parliamentary elections last year.

"We had a calm and peaceful election. I use this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Ivanov," Frckoski told party supporters.

The turnout at the polls at 42.61 percent, scraping over a threshold of 40 percent and thus averting the need for the vote to be held again from scratch within six months.

Many of the ethnic Albanians who account for around 25 percent of Macedonia's 2.2 million population appeared to have stayed away from the ballot box after their candidate was eliminated in the March 22 first round.

A political scientist who once served as a visiting professor in Greece, Ivanov, 48, is known for his diligence, but has been criticised in some quarters for his lack of political experience.

He will assume a five-year mandate with largely ceremonial duties, but the president is officially the supreme commander of the army with decision-making authority in foreign policy.

Macedonia narrowly averted a civil war in 2001, when a conflict between state security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists ended with a peace accord giving the ethnic minority more rights and control over local affairs.

Its attempts to enter NATO have been blocked by Greece over a name dispute.

Skopje was formally admitted to the United Nations as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" or FYROM after it declared independence in 1991.

Athens refuses to recognise its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, because it is the same as that of Greece's northern province, and Athens says it fears claims to a greater Macedonia.

United Nations-led negotiations on the issue have proved fruitless so far and in December Macedonia decided to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The presidential polls were held in conjunction with municipal elections that were also dominated by the VMRO-DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.


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