Political Tensions Risk Stoking Ethnic Tensions in Macedonia

BY WILL HAMMER 

On May 6, Zoran Zaev, the leader of Macedonia’s Social Democratic Union (SDSM), finally received a mandate to form a new government from President Gjorge Ivanov after a six month power struggle with the former ruling VMRO DPMNE party. However, if the last two years of political turmoil indicative of anything, the incoming government and the country at large may yet face stiff resistance from the VMRO and its supporters.

The political crisis in Macedonia began when a massive wiretapping operation, targeting thousands of Macedonian journalists, activists, and politicians, was uncovered by the opposition in late 2015. Evidence pointed to then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and other VMRO officials as being the scheme’s culprits. Gruevski was forced to resign, but the VMRO remained in power and fought to obstruct any investigation by the opposition and a special prosecutor appointed by the EU. Protests and demonstrations filled the streets of Skopje throughout 2016 by both VMRO and SDSM supporters as the crisis continued to unfold. In December, elections were held, but resulted in a virtual tie, prolonging the gridlock up until last month, when Zaev finally received a mandate.

Without the cloak of power to shield them from the looming special prosecutor, Gruevski and other members of the former government find themselves further backed into the corner. Already, the VMRO has shown its willingness to resort to ethnic politics in order to energize supporters against its opponents. In April, VMRO supporters stormed the parliament and assaulted Zaev and several Albanian opposition MPs. Now, with their options shrinking ever further, nationalist ploys, violence, and intimidation may become even more appealing paths for Gruevski and his allies  who wish to stave off near-certain prosecution. Until recently, ethnic issues have remained only on the periphery of Macedonia’s political crisis. But given the country’s past experiences with ethnic strife, stirring up old tensions between Macedonians and Albanians for the purpose of political gain could place country’s stability at risk.

Albanian Kingmakers

In general, the state of relations between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians (who make up roughly a quarter of the population) has been stable despite occasional flare ups of violence. Since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Albanians have been represented in the government and other state institutions. Nonetheless, there are still feelings of  marginalization, especially regarding education and language rights.

Before December’s electoral tie, ethnic politics played little role in Macedonia’s political crisis. However, in order to reach the required 61 out of 120 seats needed to form a government, a new coalition depended on 18 seats won by members of the three major Albanian parties. The previously opposed parties, recognizing an opportunity to facilitate gains for the Albanian community, united behind a new “Albanian Platform” in January. In April, the Albanian bloc decided to align with the SDSM coalition. In response, VMRO officials began stoking ethnic fears, denouncing the new coalition as a greater-Albanian conspiracy. Gruevski himself called on Macedonians to “defend the country” against “foreign interests”. While such rhetoric has a track record for political success in Macedonia, it should also be viewed with concern; especially in a country which only narrowly avoided a full blown ethnic conflict just twenty years earlier.

The Brink of War

While Albanian and Slavic communities in Macedonia have never reached the same level of acrimony as in neighboring Kosovo, tensions have still come close to boiling over into full scale conflict. In 1999, ethnic relations eroded dramatically in Macedonia as a result of the Kosovo war, which was fought between Albanian separatists and government of Slobodan Milosevic. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Macedonia, causing fear and mistrust to grow between Albanians and Macedonians. In late 2000, an Albanian guerrilla group calling itself the National Liberation Army (NLA) began conducting attacks against Macedonian security forces. Through mid 2001, fighting intensified as the military attempted to dislodge the NLA from the handful of Albanian majority municipalities where they were entrenched.

NATO mediated peace talks successfully stemmed the conflict, with the signing of the Ohrid Agreement in August of 2001. The treaty provided for increased minority rights and the disarmament of the NLA. To the credit of the Macedonian government and the international community, the majority of the agreement was implemented successfully.  The Albanian community received extended cultural and education privileges, and an Albanian language university was formally established. In the end, the rapid response of both international and local actors along with Macedonia’s capable political institutions prevented the 2001 insurgency from spiraling into an even broader conflict.

However, ethnic clashes have continued to occur on an occasional basis. A gun battle in Kumanovo between police and Albanian guerrillas left 18 dead in May 2015, and in 2012, a wave of nationalistic unrest swept the country after eight Albanians were convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Such incidents serve as a reminder of the underlying danger that these divides still pose to the country’s security – particularly during times of uncertainty and instability.

Looking Ahead

Ethnic tension is only one of the many issues that the new government will have to contend with during the potentially turbulent transition ahead. Indeed, the most immediate focus will be dismantling corrupt power systems and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions and rule of law. While future challenges cannot be entirely foreseen, local analysts and activists do not seem to anticipate a repeat of 2001 in the near future. Many hope that, as in the past, Macedonian society will ultimately avoid falling for the obfuscation and obstruction of nationalist politics. At the same time, given the country’s history of flare ups of ethnic violence, it is an issue which should be carefully minded until the dust of the current crisis finally settles.

The EU has warned Macedonian politicians “not to play with fire” in regards to exploiting ethnic divisions and nationalist ideology amidst the current crisis. Nonetheless, nationalistic appeals have already shown themselves to be an effective tool for the VMRO to rally hardcore supporters. As political power diminishes, the ability to manipulate the mob using ethnic politics could prove to be among the VMRO’s last lines of protection from the prosecution of its leaders. However, since the formation of the new government in May, such rhetoric has not been heard from the new opposition. Still, as the prosecution of Gruevski and his compatriots moves forward, Macedonians should be wary of the lengths at which their former leaders will go to preserve their own security by putting the country at risk.

Image source: aljazeera.com

About the Author 

Will Hammer is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.