By Kole Casule
SKOPJE, March 24 (Reuters) - Macedonia held a trouble-free municipal election on Sunday despite recent ethnic and political unrest, in a boost for the Balkan country's hopes to start European Union entry talks later this year.
In the past decade, various ballots in Macedonia have been marred by accusations of fraud and sporadic violence, mostly clashes between majority Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.
"We've probably had the best and cleanest elections so far. We should all be proud because Macedonia showed its place is in the European Union," Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska told reporters in Skopje after the voting ended.
Sunday's vote was closely watched by 400 international observers, as the West was keen to avoid any fresh instability in the impoverished country of 2 million people.
Early results will be announced during the night, while official results will be available some time next week.
Macedonia's bid to join the EU and NATO has been held hostage for years by a long-running dispute with neighbouring Greece over the country's name, which Greece wants changed because it is also the name of a northern Greek province.
However, mindful of the threat of instability, the EU has signalled it might agree to open accession talks with Macedonia this year even without a solution to the name dispute.
But the country's hopes of starting the talks soon hit a snag when the main opposition party staged a two-month boycott of parliament, in protest at having been thrown out of the assembly by security during a brawl in late December.
Under international pressure, the Social Democratic party agreed on March 1 to return to parliament and run in the municipal election.
Only several day later, the appointment of a former Albanian guerrilla fighter as defence minister in the conservative government brought hundreds of angry Macedonians to the streets.
Their protests triggered a more violent response from the Albanians, who clashed with the riot police and more than 20 people were injured. Several hundred Albanians torched a bus and several cars and attacked shops in the capital Skopje.
Macedonia, one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, narrowly avoided a civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought government security forces, demanding more rights for the Albanian minority.
The West brokered a deal whereby the guerrillas disarmed and entered politics but relations remain tense, exacerbated by Macedonia's slow progress towards EU membership.
(Reporting by Kole Casule; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Stephen Powell)