29 Mar 11

New Macedonian Party Faces Daunting Odds

The formation of a new ethnic Albanian party, led by the charismatic Rufi Osmani, may come too late to pose a real threat to the established players in the upcoming early elections, local observers say.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Osmani has little time to prepare for the polls that may come as early as June | Photo by: Gostivar municipality

Osmani, who is currently mayor of the western town of Gostivar, formed his National Democratic Rebirth party on Sunday in Skopje after 14 years of refusing to join any other political grouping.

He is well-respected within the Albanian community, largely because he served a jail sentence in the 1990s over his refusal to remove the Albanian national flag from the Gostivar municipal building during his first term as mayor.

“Osmani has undisputed political credibility among Albanians,” Slagjan Penev, the head of the local think tank Center for Strategic Research-Forum told Balkan Insight. “But he is too late with the formation of his party”.

Penev argues that Osmani does not have enough time to promote his party and win over a considerable chunk of voters from the well-established Albanian parties before the early elections, which may be held as early as June.

“His biggest handicap is the closeness of the election date,” political science professor Albert Musliu says, adding that Osmani's new party does not have a formidable infrastructure that can fight alongside the other parties.

However, in the latest opinion poll commissioned by Macedonia’s most widely circulated daily, Dnevnik, Osmani is mentioned as a “possible surprise” on the political scene.

A staggering 52 per cent of the Albanian poll respondents gave a fully positive opinion of Osmani, a figure much higher than any other ethnic Albanian politician.

Imer Selmani, the head of the opposition New Democracy is second with 31 per cent, while the head of the junior ruling Democratic Union for Integration, Ali Ahmeti, has 30.

Osmani first hit national headlines in 1997, when he refused to remove the Albanian flag from municipal buildings.

During his first term as Gostivar mayor Osmani, together with another mayor in the region, ignored an order of Macedonia's constitutional court to remove the Albanian flags that they had placed on local municipality buildings.

Police intervened, and the ethnic Albanians that had gathered to protect the flags were beaten. Osmani was given a 12-year jail sentence but served only 20 months before he was given amnesty in 1999.

This unrest was a prelude to the 2001 ethnic Albanian rebellion against Macedonian government forces, a conflict that ended the same year with the signing of the Ohrid Peace Accord. The peace agreement gave the 25-per cent Albanian minority greater rights, including permission to use their language and flag in areas where they account for the majority.

After leaving prison, Osmani denounced politics and continued his career as university professor. In 2009 he was re-elected mayor of Gostivar as an independent candidate.

The same year Osmani raised significant controversy after saying in an interview that the Ohrid Peace Accord needed revision because it had proven unfunctional.

His party argues that the Albanian rights in the country are rapidly deteriorating, and has urged for the speedy integration of the country into NATO and the EU.

Addressing the name dispute with Greece, which holds back Macedonia’s membership bids for these two organisations, Osmani has suggested using the so-called Croatia-Slovenia model of international arbitration, which helped the two countries resolve their longstanding border dispute.

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