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Macedonia's election winner promises better ties with Greece

Reuters / April 6, 2009
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SKOPJE, Macedonia - The country's ruling party presidential candidate won a landslide victory yesterday and promised to repair poor ties with neighboring Greece that have hampered its efforts to join NATO and the European Union.

Gjorge Ivanov, 49, who has never run for office before, garnered a commanding majority of total votes against former foreign minister Ljubomir Frckovski of the main opposition SDSM party with well over 90 percent of the votes counted.

Frckovski conceded shortly after midnight.

"Our first task will be to resolve the name issue with our southern neighbor Greece," Ivanov said. "I am sure we can find common interest and compromise."

"I am sure Greece will be cooperative on the issue," he said.

Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2005 but has not advanced since then and Greece has blocked its NATO application in a 17-year-old dispute over Macedonia's name, which it shares with the northern-most Greek province.

Observers and officials said the day was peaceful with only minor irregularities in a vote closely watched to see whether the Balkan state is ready to join the EU and NATO.

"Macedonia has shown its ability to conduct free, fair, and democratic elections," Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said early today.

Once the poorest Yugoslav republic, Macedonia declared independence in 1992 and was spared the bloodshed that was unleashed between Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats.

Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people and the two groups live very separate lives.

The country narrowly avoided war between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in 2001, but violence led to one death and injuries in last year's parliamentary voting.

"That sullied the democratic credentials of this country," said Jose Luis Herrero, head of the local branch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"To go forward with the European Union and NATO intentions, they need those democratic credentials. That's why these elections are so key to the country."

Experts had voiced concern that the turnout might fail to meet a minimum 40 percent threshold, but party officials said the barrier had been passed despite voter apathy.