SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski conceded defeat today to the nationalist opposition in Macedonia’s parliamentary elections, a vote considered crucial for the tiny Balkan nation’s aspirations of eventual membership in the European Union and NATO.

With 36 percent of the ballots counted, the Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party had 33 percent compared with 24 percent for Buckovski’s ruling Social Democrats, according to the State Electoral Commission.

“I called Nikola Gruevski to congratulate him with his election victory,” Buckovski told his supporters in a televised speech.

Past polls have been marred by irregularities, and President Branko Crvenkovski had urged a free and fair vote in a country struggling to ease tensions between majority Macedonian Slavs and an ethnic Albanian minority.

Parliament recently tightened voting rules and imposed severe penalties for ballot-rigging.

The tense electoral campaign has been marred by violence – including shoot outs and a grenade attack – between supporters of rival ethnic Albanian parties, wounding at least three people.

Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of the population in landlocked Macedonia, which gained independence in 1991 after the break up of Yugoslavia, avoiding the bloodshed that occurred in Croatia and Bosnia.

Some 1.7 million voters chose between 2,700 candidates from 33 parties and coalitions vying for 120 seats in parliament. Some 500 international and 6,200 domestic observers were registered to monitor voting, after the U.S. and EU intervened to end campaign violence.

Macedonia hopes to join NATO in 2008 and the EU in 2012.

During Buckovski’s premiership, the EU accepted Macedonia as membership candidate but has not set a date for accession talks.

The economy remains stagnant and unemployment at a crippling 36 percent.

“I hope for a better future,” said Gafurr Halimi, a 45 year-old unemployed mechanic, who voted in the ethnic Albanian-dominated town of Tetovo. “Things are not good. There should be more reconstruction, more jobs.”

The western town was dotted with blue and red flags of rival parties, slogans and banners

Frustrated by high unemployment, Arben Kamberi, 33, said he hoped for a change in government,

“It’s a very tough situation,” said Kamberi, who has an economics degree but cannot find a job. “University degrees are virtually useless.”

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