21th April 2019
By Francisca and Alex Parkyn-Smith
Francisca’s account from Skopje: Observing in the North-Macedonian capital of kitsch
It was a sunny Wednesday in Skopje when we all met in Peter’s cosy Shanti hostel. A group of 18 people was about to explore the capital city, the culture, the history, and politics of North-Macedonia, a country that just two months ago changed its name after a long-lasting political conflict with Greece. That Sunday, the first round of the presidential elections was going to take place and the group would observe the setup and voting at polling stations across Skopje, in order to contribute to a report on the conduct and legitimacy of the election.
The days before the election we visited embassies, heard the stories of civil rights activists and got all the ins and outs about the country. In the meantime we got to know the city, the best cafes, food and each other. The city center impressed every single one of us. Walking through it felt like visiting an attraction park full of enormous kitsch statues and classical buildings. It felt even more awkward after we heard the story behind this project. Rebuilding the city center was the controversial political nation-building project led by the government that tried to impose a new revisionist narrative of the Macedonian history, promoting Macedonian identity, with unbroken chronological continuity; from antiquity, through the middle ages, to modern times. Controversial for financial and aesthetic reasons. The costs were initially set at 80 million euros but reaching over 628 million in just five years. And that in such a small country with an unemployment rate of over more than 28%.…
We did not know with whom or where we would be observing until the night before election day - but we were in for a surprise. Luckily, Alex and I were sent to Skopje’s most diverse voting municipality: Suto Orizari. This neighborhood has the largest Roma and Albanian population and was created ex-nihilo after the 1963 Skopje earthquake to relocate Romas who had lost their homes. Šuto Orizari remains the only municipality in North Macedonia with a Romani majority. In 2002, they represented almost 80% of the population, which also included a small number of Albanians and ethnic Macedonians. Šuto Orizari is the only local administrative unit in the world to have adopted Romani as an official language.
Alex’s account from Skopje: “The European Union is here”
The Dutch ambassador smiled as he looked around the group of international observers. “A very international group! You have observers from America, observers from the EU, and an observer who isn’t sure if they're in the EU are not". As a British citizen living through a time of introverted politics in Britain, it is particularly important to avoid a blinkered approach to the discussion of European Union membership. The Election observation in North Macedonia presented a way for me to engage in a different, but no less important debate, on what it means to be European.
For the newly named North Macedonia, membership of the European Union is also high on the political agenda. With the geopolitical territory now known as North Macedonia having experienced dramatic and ongoing societal change for thousands of years, these presidential elections represent an important marker of what it means to be European, what it means to be Macedonian, and what it means to represent one’s own country.
Along with my observation partner Francisca, I encountered an awkward moment during our observation of the presidential election. We had been up since 5 AM, watching the opening of a polling station, then observing a couple of hours of slow-paced early morning voting in Šuto Orizari. Walking up a steep hill, to a school with a few polling stations, we saw plastic tables with parasols dotted at street corners. A group of men in leather jackets sat around the table with election leaflets spread across the surface, and a pad of paper with family names scrawled across it. Curious to know what was happening, and on the lookout for the correct observance of the electoral code and any voting irregularities, we approached the table - "the European Union is here" – everything went quiet. It appeared that there were multiple infractions of the electoral code, which banned campaigning in the 24 hours before an election, and an unexplained logging of which families had voted which was also not allowed and something that we had been warned might be indicative of voter manipulation.
It was a tense encounter as we were keen to avoid conflict and potentially uncovering malpractice could have led to further ramifications for the individuals. Our local translator Sanya handled the situation with confidence and avoided any confrontation.
We asked the men what they were doing? "Having a drink, enjoying the sun". It was clear that they were aware that what they were doing may have been considered an infraction and were hiding what they were doing. As independent observers we concluded the conversation, recorded what we saw and reported it back to our project coordinators.
What was interesting was that they had described us as “the European Union”. As international observers we were seen to be representatives of an international community in the local context. Being seen as emblematic of the European Union made me reflect on what ideas are associated with a particular political institution and how as an election observer you are perceived by local communities. It is in these everyday interactions, that the abstract institutions and notions of Europe are manifested. They play out in the lives of locals; with their families, their plans and hopes for the future of their country.