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North Macedonia elects first ethnic Albanian prime minister

Former Parliamentary Speaker Talat Xhaferi (left, pictured here with President Stevo Pendarovski) was elected caretaker prime minister on Sunday

Former Parliamentary Speaker Talat Xhaferi (left, pictured here with President Stevo Pendarovski) was elected caretaker prime minister on Sunday

Talat Xhaferi has become the first ethnic Albanian elected to lead the government of North Macedonia, in what local analysts and politicians have described as an "historic moment" for the Balkan country.

A tiny majority of 65 lawmakers in the country's 120-seat parliament in Skopje elected Xhaferi, a member of the Democratic Union for Integration — the largest ethnic Albanian party in the country — as leader of the caretaker government until the parliamentary election, which is scheduled to take place on May 8.

The "top priority of the government," Xhaferi told lawmakers after the vote on Sunday, will be "the preparation and organization of free, fair and democratic elections in a direct, open and legal procedure."

Caretaker government to ensure free and fair election

The concept of caretaker governments was introduced in North Macedonia in 2015 as a way of preventing ruling parties from influencing the electoral process.

The agreement that led to its introduction stipulates that the opposition is given the leading positions in the Internal Affairs and Finance ministries, which are considered crucial in the electoral process, in the last 100 days before a parliamentary election.

Xhaferi's election to the post is the result of the coalition deal between the ruling Social Democrats and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) in 2020. At the time, the DUI's main condition for entering a coalition with the Social Democrats was the election of an ethnic Albanian as caretaker prime minister.

Opposition critical of Xhaferi's appointment

Even though the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, expected to win the May election according to the latest polls, will have two ministers and three deputies in the new cabinet, its deputies abstained from voting for the Xhaferi-led government.

Former Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki of VMRO-DPMNE accused the ruling Social Democrats of betrayal after Xhaferi was elected.

"The Social Democrats … the faithful servants of the corrupt DUI, due to corrupt interests, today made the Macedonian people tenants in their own country," Milososki said during the parliamentary session on Sunday.

From rebel commander to prime minister

Around a quarter of North Macedonia's 1.8 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. After the country declared independence from what was then Yugoslavia in 1991, the Albanian minority complained of discrimination, limited opportunities and a perceived domination of the ethnic Macedonian majority.

In 2001, the tension escalated into a six-month armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces. Although he had served as an officer in the Macedonian army until that point, Xhaferi left the army and became one of the rebel commanders.

'Historic day'

Representatives of the ethnic Albanian community had been elected or appointed to senior positions in the state even before the 2001 conflict, but this is the first time an ethnic Albanian will lead the government.

"This day is historic both for Albanians and Macedonians, as well as for everyone else because we are becoming an equal state and society and [we're] overcoming all prejudices," Ali Ahmeti, the former Albanian guerrilla leader and president of the DUI, posted on Facebook.

Although Xhaferi served as defense minister from 2013 to 2014 and has been speaker of parliament for the past six years, his election to the highest governmental post in the land has riled nationalists in North Macedonia. They see his appointment as one concession too many to the ethnic Albanians.

'National betrayal'

"The appointment of Xhaferi as the prime minister of the technical government is the latest national betrayal […]," the Left (Levica) party, which cultivates close ties with Russia, said in a statement on Sunday.

"The Macedonian people have been betrayed and trampled on again by the election of the deserter Xhaferi," the statement added, alluding to the fact that Xhaferi switched sides during the 2001 interethnic conflict.

But for ethnic Albanian journalist and political analyst Xhelal Neziri, the election of an ethnic Albanian as prime minister is a kind of "Obama moment" in North Macedonia.

"The symbolism is strong that there are no prohibited positions for any citizen of this country, regardless of ethnicity," he told DW.

"As with [the election of] Barack Obama in the US or Rishi Sunak in the UK, a moment like this speaks of the democratic maturity of the majority ethnic community, which puts democratic values before exclusive ones, which are synonymous with discrimination," he said.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan