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Europe

President's Death Throws Pall Over Macedonia's EU Drive

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski died in a plane crash over Bosnia on Thursday. His death has led Skopje to put on hold its EU membership application scheduled to be presented on Thursday.

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Boris Trajkovski was strongly in favor of joining the EU.

47-year-old Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski was killed on Thursday morning when a plane carrying him to an international investment conference in the western Bosnian city of Mostar crashed in a mountainous part of southern Bosnia. Police officials have said there was heavy rain and fog at the time of the crash. There were no survivors.

Trajkovski, elected president in 1999, studied theology in the U.S. A strong pro-EU proponent, he was viewed in the West as a young leader with an international outlook and considerable diplomatic skills.

Trajkovski was respected in Macedonia for his neutral stance in the former Yugoslav republic, which has seen tensions between Macedonians and the country's ethnic Albanian minority. He presided over a NATO-brokered peace deal in 2001 that ended months of armed clashes.

Sights trained on Europe

Trajkovski's sudden death led to the cancellation of a delegation led by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, scheduled to submit a formal European Union membership application on Thursday to Irish President Bertie Ahern, who currently heads the EU's six-month rotating presidency.

Ahern described Trajkovski as having "contributed hugely to reconciliation in Macedonia" and a strong supporter of Macedonia's ambition to become an EU member. "Today should have been one of celebration for him," Ahern said in a statement.

Mazedonien Flagge

Macedonian flag

The tiny Balkan country of 2 million is largely in favor of joining the EU, with some 87 percent of Macedonians as well as most political parties supporting the membership bid. Crvenkovski's government, which has already passed a raft of reforms to improve the situation of its ethnic Albanian minority, also launched an intense diplomatic offensive in recent months aimed at preparing the ground for eventual membership.

Mixed reaction from Brussels

High-ranking Macedonian delegations have been visiting Berlin, Paris and Brussels. But so far, the reception has been mixed. While Paris has clearly expressed support for the membership bid, Berlin has been more muted. The reaction from Brussels has been split.

Macedonia has long been cited by the EU as a model of inter-ethnic harmony in the Balkans, which has been plagued by ethnic tensions since the war in the 1990s following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, this month praised the country for its "impressive" recovery.

But many EU officials still have reservations over the country's progress. While it's generally agreed that Macedonia, which along with Croatia signed the EU's Stabilization and Association Agreement in April 2001 as the first step towards membership, should have a European perspective, some believe the timing may not be right.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Günther Verheugen said in an interview with Deutsche Welle that Europe needed time -- considering it was about to take in 10 new members in May as well as preparing for the planned membership for Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

German European Parliament member Doris Pack was more frank. She said Macedonia's application came at a time when "many things in the EU were up for a fundamental change." Pack told the Deutsche Welle that nobody would really get involved in the Macedonian question and added it would be better if the government in Skopje waited until next year and focused on fulfilling their reform commitments.

Improvement needed on all fronts

The general view in the EU is that Macedonia still has a long way to go before it's called for accession talks.

Mazedonien Ohrid See

Lake Ohrid

As a first step, Skopje needs to fully implement the Lake Ohrid peace deal signed in Aug. 2001. The EU-sponsored agreement ended a seven-month guerrilla uprising by enhancing the legal and political status of ethnic Albanians while preserving the unitary character of the state.

EU officials have also pinpointed the country's appalling corruption levels, organized crime, drugs trade, money-laundering and an inefficient justice system as further problem areas. In addition, Macedonia is one of Europe's poorest countries with an unemployment rate of about 40 percent and foreign investment in 2003 totaling only some €50 million ($63 million).

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