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Crisis brewing in Macedonia

Events over the summer in Macedonia revealed just how fragile interethnic relationships remain. The EU and the US must address their responsibilities as guarantors of the country’s peace accord.

With the world’s attention focused on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the catastrophes claiming lives every day in Ukraine and Gaza, Brussels and Washington are paying little attention to the unfolding crisis in Macedonia.

Renewed interethnic tensions were triggered by the recent verdict in the “Monstra case”, which saw six ethnic Albanians sentenced to life imprisonment two years after they were arrested for the alleged murder of five ethnic-Macedonian fishermen. The fishermen had been found dead in April 2012. Shortly thereafter the minister of the interior, Gordana Jankulovska, had launched a large-scale police operation in Albanian-majority areas which culminated in the arrest of the six, whom she described as “terrorists heavily influenced and directed by fundamentalist Islamist ideology”.

The accused were convicted after 46 court hearings, all in closed session, predominantly relying on the unsubstantiated claims of a protected witness. On 4 July 2014, thousands of ethnic Albanians took to the streets in Skopje, the capital, staging the largest and most violent demonstration since the armed conflict which ended in 2001 with an internationally mediated peace accord known as the Ohrid Framework Agreement.

Compounding minority resentment and distrust of Macedonian-run state institutions, police raided tens of Albanians homes in the suburbs, purportedly in pursuit of violent protesters. Ultimately six ethnic Albanians were sentenced for up to three years for participating in demonstrations opposing the Monstra verdict—a punishment most Albanians believed harsher than ethnic Macedonians would have received for similar offences.

While higher courts will be called on to address the questionable aspects of the Monstra trial, the widespread ethnic-Albanian responses—including  peaceful protests held in Albania, Kosovo/a and other diaspora communities in Europe and the United States—are warning signs that interethnic reconciliation in Macedonia is unfinished business.

Over many years, the country has experienced a multitude of rifts that threaten its future as a sustainable, multiethnic democracy. More than any of these sporadic incidents, however, the waves of protests triggered by Monstra demonstrate that the conflict Ohrid was designed to address still festers. 

Ohrid revisited

On 13 August 2001, the leading ethnic-Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political parties, in the presence of western negotiators, signed the Ohrid agreement, which advanced a raft of constitutional and legal initiatives. These were designed to overcome a decade of discrimination against Albanians in the judicial system, pervasive police brutality, minimal Albanian representation in state and local institutions, restrictions on the use of the Albanian language and symbols in public institutions, and widespread poverty.

The West shares some of the blame for Macedonia’s 13-year failure.

Several changes aimed at advancing equality for Albanians have since been adopted. Albanian representation in government and public administration has risen dramatically, from 7% to 29%; municipal boundaries have been redesigned to increase the number of Albanian-majority local-government units; the use of Albanian in state institutions and Albanian-majority municipalities is recognised by law; and Albanian-language education, from elementary to university level, receives state support. 

The three-year deadline for implementation was not however met and reforms have often been slow, half-hearted and marred by continuous setbacks. The use of Albanian in state institutions is still neglected in practice, while display of Albanian national symbols has been found unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. Central government continues to discriminate against majority-Albanian municipalities in budget allocation and grant distribution, often using lack of funds or legal technicalities as an excuse. Meanwhile, Albanian representation in the judiciary, as well as in senior positions in defence, security and special police units, remains minimal, allegedly due to lack of “capable”, professionally-qualified candidates.

Drowning in distrust

The VMRO-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, the ethnic-Macedonian party led by the prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, and the Democratic Union for Integration, the ethnic-Albanian junior partner in the ruling coalition led by the former paramilitary leader, Ali Ahmeti, dominate the country’s political life. Both have played the nationalist card as the quickest way to secure the allegiance of members of their respective communities and consolidate their political support at the expense of their rivals. The VMRO-DPME and DUI have won every local and state-wide election in their respective camps for the past ten years.

The two parties squelch the opposition in both communities, pocket funds for themselves, suppress independent media and operate a corrupt judicial system. Both whip up nationalist rhetoric at home, while maintaining the façade of democracy abroad by holding elections and using language that will appeal to western officials and media. Instead of using the Ohrid agreement to develop a multiethnic society in Macedonia, the VMRO-DPME and DUI have been busy creating a binational oligarchy that is hard to dismantle: they have turned the agreement into an instrument for seizing state resources and expanding their patronage networks. 

On the ethnic-Macedonian side, frustration with Greece for blocking entry to NATO and EU membership talks (Greece insists that recognising the name “Macedonia” would enable the country to exercise territorial claims over its northern province of that name) has made elites insecure. But the name issue may not be the primary source of their malaise: fearful of Albanian disloyalty, ethnic-Macedonian politicians appear to believe that reneging on a commitment to a multiethnic society and inventing a national identity devoid of Albanians and other minorities is the better path.

The VMRO-DPMNE leadership may be content to share the spoils of power with Albanian parties but it excludes any Albanian and non-Macedonian heritage from official identity. This goal is obvious in the controversial “Skopje 2014”, an exclusively Macedonian-nationalist project led by Gruevski, which has turned the city into the kitsch capital of the world—littered with monuments purportedly inspired by ethnic-Macedonian glorious antiquity. This is a national strategy destined for failure. 

Most ethnic Albanians feel unrepresented and the largely unemployed youth may become an easy target for political and religious extremists attempting to fill the leadership vacuum in Macedonia. Growing disillusionment with the failure of Albanian political parties to represent the community, coupled with the painfully slow implementation of Ohrid, is pushing some disenchanted Albanians toward radical options. While it is not yet clear how extensive is the encroachment of radical Islam into Albanian communities, it is gaining a foothold.

As never before, Macedonian politics are dysfunctional, exacerbated by unprecedented struggles within each of the communities. The largest Macedonian opposition party, the LSDM, has boycotted parliament since April and disagrees with the VMRO-DPME on virtually every important issue the country is facing. On the Albanian side, DUI and the DPA, led by Menduh Thaci, are also locked in unprincipled confrontation. Failing to represent a new vision for Albanians in Macedonia, they have alienated their constituents from identification with a state which continues to treat them as second-class citizens. This is stymieing any serious, unified effort to address the important issues concerning the rights of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and to shape a vision for their future. 

The West shares some of the blame for Macedonia’s 13-year failure. Even though the democratic backsliding and nationalist tensions have been widely documented by local and international NGOs, Brussels and Washington seem to have forgotten that the Ohrid agreement was an internationally guaranteed peace plan to transform Macedonia into a functional state in the 21st century. It is fast becoming an illiberal democracy on the verge of falling apart.

The EU and the US must move quickly beyond the rhetoric of preserving stability, at the expense of consolidating democracy and interethnic equality. As guarantors of Ohrid, they must renew their commitment to its full implementation. The EU in particular must link Macedonia’s prospect of membership to genuine improvements in the rule of law, an effective fight against government corruption and an end to the concentration of power in a few hands. 

About the authors

Roland Gjoni is a researcher on ethnic conflict and nationalism.

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, a foreign policy analyst specialising in the Balkan conflict, is the Balkan affairs adviser to the Albanian American Civic League. 


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