Friday, June 06, 2008

What professionals drink in Skopje

Just returned from yet another OSCE/ODIHR mission, this time to Macedonia (or if you're Greek or in the UN, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

And despite the drama of my Ukrainian mission in Odessa in 2004, this was surely the most tense and explosive of any deployment I've ever had.

Macedonia has an unenviable mix of ethnicities that seem to have two (no, three; no, seventeen) widely divergent agendas. This was displayed graphically on election day (June 1). But the country's modern, post-Yugoslav history has been riddled with crises that devolve from the constant state of conflict--sometimes violent, often smolderingly bitter--that curses Macedonia. I don't see a way out.

In November, an armed group sneaked into Macedonia from neighboring Kosovo - one of the group having mysteriously escaped from a Kosovo prison. After a pitched battle, eight of them were dead, and the Macedonian government had achieved a small and temporary victory.

It's been like that since "the conflict" (as Macedonians call it) in 2001, the not-quite-civil war that was mercifully brief and spared the country the fate of, let's say, Serbia or Croatia.

Today, the two major Albanian political parties are at each other's throats (which I witnessed graphically in the last polling station I observed). One party's leader was the target of an alleged assassination attempt a couple of weeks ago.

Now, however, he may be on the verge of joining the coalition government that must emerge from the election, despite the landslide given to the majority ethnic Macedonian party. That's the Balkans.

Here's a shot of a neighborhood rally for this guy's party - the DUI:

Oh, and my final polling station? Sheer chaos, with DUI and DPA election board members and observers screaming, shouting, pushing, shoving - a couple of hundred partisans surrounding the polling station in the dark. Fistfights outside. Thirty or so cops, including the special "Alpha team" members, who probably deterred gunfire, which I expected at any minute.

You see, the problem was that there were 579 signatures on the voter list - 579 people had officially voted in this Albanian village in the foothills north of Skopje. But darn it, they inconveniently had between 687 and 712 ballots counted, depending on who was counting.

Quite a row ensued. What to do? Recount? Throw out the ballots without official seals? At one point, the station chairman announced, "Look, we're all Albanians here! This is how we are! Let's take the extra ballots and split the difference, 50-50!"

An elegant solution, and it might have worked. (Blatantly illegal, of course, but no one in the room cared that the OSCE was watching. We might as well have been invisible.)

But no. More shouting, more scuffling. People streaming in and out of the polling station. Finally, someone makes a call on a mobile phone, and shortly thereafter a very emotional young man enters, upends the table on which the ballots are stacked, then he throws them everywhere, shouting indignantly.

When the dust settled, almost everyone was gone, and the chairman said, "OK, that's it. We're closed." I wanted to stay to witness the aftermath, but my partner (a Romanian woman who evidently does not share my innate curiosity) insisted on leaving. Immediately.

A cop told us later that he approached a man with a bulge in his shirt as he drove away from the village, thinking he was hiding a gun. No. It was a shirtfull of ballots.

Two of my OSCE colleagues meanwhile had been caught in a machine gun battle that left one Macedonian man dead and eight wounded. Other observers had to be rescued from very tense situations. And I heard what sounded like gunfire later that night while at the Metropolitan Election Commission. But it could have been a Lada backfiring. Maybe.

Here is a shot I took at the polling station aftermath. Note the hundreds of ballots on the floor.

The OSCE is asking for observers to return for the new election in polling stations that had to be closed that night, including mine. But I've got to study for the class I'm teaching this summer. Too bad - I liked that Skopsko beer.