- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

MALA RECICA, Macedonia The leader of the Albanian rebellion last year has come down from the mountains and formed a political party that is a key contender in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Ali Ahmeti's Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) leads its nearest rival for Albanian votes by a 2-1 margin, but its very success threatens to destabilize the uneasy peace since a cease-fire last year.

"The past is a bitter lesson to us, not to be repeated," said Mr. Ahmeti, sporting a suit in place of the fatigues he wore when his National Liberation Army (NLA) threatened to turn Macedonia into another Balkan battleground.

"We want to open a new page in our history, a page of reconciliation."

But most ethnic Macedonians remain distrustful of Mr. Ahmeti, whose office in a suburb of the main ethnic Albanian city, Tetovo, displays a small statue of an Albanian eagle attacking a Macedonian lion.

The interior ministry has threatened to arrest Mr. Ahmeti for war crimes after the election, and angry crowds recently blocked a convoy bringing him to an election rally in the capital, Skopje.

The U.S. Embassy also refuses to have any contact with Mr. Ahmeti, who is on an American blacklist of outlawed Albanians drawn up last year by President Bush.

The major Macedonian parties are loath to cooperate with him, despite a political tradition that the leading Macedonian and Albanian parties form a ruling coalition.

"No Israeli party would make a coalition with the [Palestine Liberation Organization], and the Republicans or Democrats in America would not cooperate with the political structures of [former Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammed] Omar," said Vladimir Gjorcev, a spokesman for VMRO, one of the ruling Macedonian parties.

But Mr. Ahmeti is enormously popular with ethnic Albanians, who constitute a third of the country's 2 million inhabitants. The war was ended last year by the Ohrid agreement brokered by the United States and the European Union. The pact brought language rights for Albanians and integrated the police.

"In six months, [Mr. Ahmeti] got Albanians more rights than the other Albanian politicians did in 10 years," said Iso Rusi, editor of the Albanian-language newsweekly Lobi. "It was obvious that Albanian political parties died the day the NLA appeared."

Analysts warn it would be a mistake to deny the DUI a role in government if it is the top vote-getter among Albanian parties.

"If they dominate, leaving them out is not very smart. You are marginalizing the winners, who have a record of being able to organize themselves with weapons. Is that very wise?" asked Ed Joseph, head of the Skopje office of the International Crisis Group.

Many Westerners welcome Mr. Ahmeti as an incorruptible leader in a land where many politicians are seen as crooked even by Balkan standards.

Widespread anger at corruption has hurt the VMRO and the Democratic Party of Albanians ruling parties.

The two are widely suspected of involvement in a series of violent campaign incidents. Gunmen attacked a remote police station in northwestern Macedonia yesterday, killing one police officer.

Concerns over cheating have led to an unprecedented monitoring mission. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is sending 800 election monitors, who will be aided by 200 members of local groups.

"We need to be as vigilant after the elections as before," said one Western diplomat, who warned that none of the parties would accept defeat willingly.

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