Today’s elections are seen as a crucial test of democracy in Macedonia, with its aspirations of joining the European Union. It is one of Europe’s poorest nations, where unemployment is said to be about 35 percent.
Security was stepped up ahead of voting to try to avoid a repeat of inter-community violence that marked a ballot in June last year. Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, leaving the federation peacefully. However civil war was only just avoided ten years later when fighting between government troops and ethnic Albanians erupted. A peace deal was eventually signed, guaranteeing more rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up 25 percent of the population. NATO peacekeepers were deployed to disarm rebels. Skopje has signed up as a candidate for European Union membership and hopes to begin talks with Brussels by the end of this year. But it will not be straightforward. Macedonia joined the United Nations in 1993 as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia but international recognition was held up. Athens objects to the name Macedonia, which is also the name of a region of northern Greece. A Greek trade embargo ended in 1995, but the row rages on, and just last year Greece blocked Macedonia’‘s chances of joining NATO because of the naming dispute. The flag of FYR Macedonia flies at the UN; but diplomats say if it is to take its place at the European Union, the naming dispute must be resolved first.