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Voters in North Macedonia Gear Up For Presidential Elections

The campaign itself has been rather low-key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.

And then there were two: North Macedonian presidential runoff candidates Stevo Pendarovski (left) and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova. RFERL

Voters in North Macedonia will choose a new president on May 5 in a runoff vote that will be watched as closely for turnout as it will be for either candidate.

Stevo Pendarovski and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova face off in the balloting after a virtual draw — 42.8 percent to 42.2 percent respectively — in the first round on April 21.

That close outcome has put a spotlight on the Balkan nation’s ethnic Albanian minority, who strongly supported Blerim Reka in the first round, giving him 10.6 percent of the vote.

With Reka out of the runoff race, a lot will depend on whether his supporters even decide to cast ballots, and if so, for whom.

If fewer than 40 percent of the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters show up for the runoff, the election automatically becomes invalid.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term. Pixabay

About one quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, and overall turnout in the first round was just 41.8 percent.

“I am calling on all of our citizens to go to the polls and vote by your own choice, but vote for the future of our country and of our children,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged Macedonians in a video address.

Low-Key Campaign

The campaign itself has been rather low-key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.

While the president has a largely ceremonial role, the position does have some powers to veto legislation and Zaev has warned that the outcome of the runoff could trigger early parliamentary elections.

The race itself between the two academics has been dominated by debate on issues such as integration into Western structures and a struggling economy, plagued by stubbornly high unemployment at more than 20 percent.

Pendarovski, a 55-year-old former political-science professor, has strongly supported the so-called Prespa deal signed with Greece last year to change the country’s name, while Siljanovska-Davkova, the country’s first female candidate and a university professor, has been critical of it, though the opposition has said it will not cancel the accord.

The signing of the historic agreement with Greece changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and ended a decades-long dispute that had blocked the Balkan state’s path to NATO and the historic agreement.

Pro-Western Pendarovski is supported by the ruling Social Democrats. Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, ran as an independent but is now backed by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Macedonia's parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president's duties if turnout is too low. (file photo)
Macedonia’s parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president’s duties if turnout is too low. RFERL

If turnout fails to reach the minimum requirement, constitutional experts say a completely new vote must be called within 40 days.

During the interim period, the head of the National Assembly, Talat Xhaferi, would assume the function of president.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term.

Once a part of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia left Belgrade’s umbrella when it seceded peacefully in 1991.

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But it veered close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy, and subsequent elections have been stormy.

Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and will remain open until 7 p.m. (RFERL)

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Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

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Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)