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Macedonia on the brink

It’s quiet again in Skopje after violent Albanian protests in early July—deceptively so.

Reconstructing history: "Skopje 2014" turned the capital into a building site of nationalist triumphalism. Flickr / Stelios Zacharias. Some rights reserved.

Once more a crisis in Macedonia appears to have been averted. After violent protests and the threat of counter-protest in early July, calm has returned to the country.

Few countries of the Balkans have been the subject of more gloomy forecasts over the past two decades than Macedonia. During the 1990s, the outbreak of violence seemed nearly inevitable to many astute observers and a more serious descent into ethnic violence was only narrowly avoided in 2001. Even during the clashes then, the number of victims was well below those of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo—in fact, it was close to the average number of people dying annually in car accidents (145 in 2013).

Since the conclusion, with the help of EU and NATO mediation, of the Ohrid Framework Agreement which ended the conflict in August 2001, Macedonia has remained largely peaceful. There have however been multiple tests of the fragile peace, including a referendum organised by Macedonian-nationalist groups in 2004 against municipal decentralisation; the exclusion of the largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI), from government by the conservative Macedonian International Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party of Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) between 2006 and 2008, and interethnic incidents which quickly threatened to escalate.

Teetering on the edge

Thus, Macedonia has been often seemed to be teetering on the edge—once more in recent weeks. On 30 June, a Skopje court issued its judgment against seven defendants for the murder of five Macedonians in 2012: six received life-sentence, two were convicted in absentia (serving prison in Kosovo) and one was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The five men had been killed at the Smilkovci lake, close to Skopje, against a backdrop of interethnic incidents in early 2012. The assassination-style murders—apparently first of the four young men, followed by the killing of the older man, presumed to have witnessed the episode—shocked Macedonia and triggered a wave of anti-Albanian protests and riots. The Macedonian police operation, ‘Monster’, which led to the arrest of the six put on trial last year had triggered violent Albanian counter-protests in 2012.

The prosecution blamed a radical-Islamic orientation for the murders, although religious and Albanian-nationalist motives blur into one another.  But its case was mostly circumstantial and it could not establish clear evidence of the alleged fundamentalism of the accused or indeed their guilt, relying strongly on the statement of a protected witness. 

After the sentencing thousands of Albanians took to the streets protesting against the verdict. The protests turned violent amid calls for Greater Albania and Islamist slogans, echoing the 2012 protests. An envisaged counter-demonstration by Macedonians failed to materialise and later a second Albanian demonstration passed off peacefully.  

As neither the DUI, the Albanian party in government, nor the main Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), supported the protests, they quickly petered out.  The DUI did, however, raise doubts over the fairness of the trial and demanded a retrial. Although the protests did not escalate, the underlying tensions remain unaddressed and have the potential for future street protests and violence.

Strange bedfellows

There are some parallels to the environment in which the violence in 2001 broke out. The VMRO-DPMNE had won the 1998 elections and, torn between a moderate conservative platform and extreme nationalism, formed a coalition with the DPA. They were strange bedfellows but their coalescence reaffirmed the Macedonian tradition of grand coalitions including a party of the Macedonian majority and an Albanian party. This co-operation in government did not however translate into increased inclusion of Albanians in public institutions and the state remained largely mono-ethnic.

Today again, the conservative-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE is in government and in coalition with the dominant Albanian party, now the DUI successor to the rebels of 2001. But the Macedonian state is no longer unrepresentative of its minority population: Albanians have come to make up a significant share of civil servants, including police officers. In 2011 an Albanian became minister of defence, breaking a long taboo reserving critical ministries—such as the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence—for Slav Macedonians.  A conflict between Albanians and the Macedonian state no longer pits the Macedonian majority against Albanians by default. 

But a strong system of patronage means that jobs are only available to party members or loyalists, whether drawn from the majority or minority populations. In addition, thousands of Albanians have been hired to fill quotas but lack a workplace. They thus receive state salaries while staying at home. This means that the state is less representative of its diversity than numbers might suggest and many Albanians (and Macedonians) see it as representing particular parties, not the public at large. Just like in 2001, a grand coalition between Macedonians and Albanians is not seen as delivering tangible benefits for all.

Many of the Macedonian majority feel excluded and marginalised—especially if they do not support the governing party—but for Albanians this more readily translates into a general reservation about the state.  In sharp contrast with 2001, alienated young Albanians have no clear political group to represent them and even the diffuse nationalist and religious messages at the protests differs from earlier phases of contention when nationalism dominated.  

Context changed

Furthermore, the regional context has changed. In 2001 the political and security situation in Kosovo had not stabilised and the Albanians in Macedonia could count on support from clandestine groups in Kosovo , while they co-operated with the National Liberation Army in southern Serbia, which similarly sought to bring Albanian-dominated municipalities under its control. Now Albanian elites in Macedonia and Kosovo have opposed the protests and are generally weary of the more radical slogans.

Some of the differences between 2001 and today are however discouraging. Although Ohrid improved Albanian representation in the state and enhanced minority rights, it did not foster intercommunal dialogue. In fact, some of the group rights, especially in education, have served to legtimise further segregation. In parallel, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE has engaged in an aggressive nation-building campaign, which imposes a vision of the country dominated by the ruling party with a skewed monocultural slant.

The most visible sign is the project “Skopje 2014”, (which has transformed the face of the latter from a drab post-communist capital to a place celebrating a fictitious line of national continuity to the ancient Macedonians, littered with statues of not just Alexander the Great and his parents but also dozens of national heroes (many unknown to all but a few historians) from different eras. Dozens of buildings have been constructed or rebuilt to evoke historical episodes of Macedonian national expression, drawing on imaginary links to the medieval while—for all their eclecticism—deliberately excluding any reference to the Albanian or Muslim heritage of Skopje. The centre is now surrounded by buildings which shield it from the old Ottoman centre, the Čaršija, and the predominantly Albanian parts of the city.

The main opposition to the project came from civil-society activists, such as architecture students. But that opposition acquired an ethnic dimension when the government sought to reconstruct a medieval church within the premises of the Ottoman fortifications of Kale, located in the predominantly Albanian section of Skopje.

The symbolic exclusion of Albanians and those Macedonians who do not share the historical (mis-)understanding of the urban-planning project reflects the larger problem of Macedonia. The ruling party has dominated the state since 2006 and used its influence to dominate public space and marginalise political opponents. Through patronage and illiberal politics, it controls most of the press and the public sector and has repeatedly triggered early elections to secure its dominance. As such, democracy in Macedonia has weakened considerably in recent years. The strong ethnic segregation and its reflection in politics have rendered opposition more difficult to articulate and the government less vulnerable to challenge.

But the July protests point to an underlying grievance, aggravated by high unemployment and few prospects for young Albanians (and Macedonians) outside the party structures. Authoritarian tendencies, ethnonationalist state-building and segregation of the two largest communities make for a combustible mix. Even if the protests have died down, Macedonia is probably the only country of the former Yugoslavia where ethnic violence remains a real risk. 


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