On Thursday, April 27, massive protests broke out in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. Thousands of ethnic Macedonians approached the parliament building before storming in, breaking through police blocks. Authorities have released a statement saying that 77 people were injured, including 22 police officers and 3 lawmakers. Zoran Zaev, the Social Democrat leader, was also shown to have been injured with blood on his face. This image became prominent on social media. Protestors shouted, waved flags, and threw chairs and camera tripods.
In response to this, police made use of flash grenades and violently clashed with the several hundred protesters still outside parliament. Lawmakers and journalists, still stuck inside parliament, were evacuated.
The people were protesting the election of a new parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi. This is after a political deadlock that had blocked the election of a new speaker for three weeks. Talat Xhaferi is ethnically Albanian, thus a controversial selection. Earlier that day, Social Democrat leader, Zoran Zaev, had suggested that a speaker should be elected using non-standard procedures. This idea was shot down by other parties and resulted in a parliament majority voting for former Defence Minister, Talat Xhaferi.
The protesters said they were protesting government corruption and the idea of a ‘Greater Albania,’ which is a concept that was formed in the 1800s and later popularized by Nazi Germany. It was also a prominent aspect of the Macedonian Civil War in 2001. ‘Greater Albania’ refers to the idea of growing today’s Albania to include ethnic Albanians from neighbouring regions. Ethnic Albanians make up 25% of Macedonia’s population. With that said, the relationship between the two ethnic groups has been tense for the past decade following the civil war.
The majority of protestors were those in support of the former Prime Minister, Nikola Grusevski of the conservative party. Despite winning last December’s elections, the party was unable to gain enough votes to allow him to form a government on its own. As a result, he has struggled to form a coalition government, and negotiations broke down after ethnic Albanians called for Albanian to be formally recognized as a second language in Macedonia.
President Gjorge Ivanov summoned leaders for a meeting on Friday, April 28. He made a statement on television, calling for “reasonable and responsible behaviour.” By the morning, the protests had calmed, and only a small group of protestors remained who pitched a tent in a nearby park.
The protests have been met with concern by neighbouring countries. Greece’s Foreign Ministry, for example, has voiced concerns that Macedonia is “sliding into deep political crisis.” Similar concerns were raised by Kosovo’s authorities. The EU have also condemned the protests, with Commissioner Johannes Hahn saying that “Violence has NO place in Parliament.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that the continuing violence would be the same as “shutting the door to the EU.”
In the past, Macedonian officials have refused pressure from outside influences, such as the EU and the United States. When the two were pressuring President Gjorge Ivanov to form a government, he responded by saying, “No one from overseas can solve the problems if we can’t solve them in line with the state interests of the Republic of Macedonia.” The Russian Foreign Ministry has suggested that interference from the EU and US is the key reason for Macedonia internal issues.
The protests in Skopje act as another case of the on-going conflict currently occurring in the Balkans. The election of Talat Xhaferi and the immediate protest indicates that the political discourse in Macedonia is framed by ethnic division. The protests quietened quickly, but history and political uncertainty indicate that this is not an isolated incident. As well, this is highlighted by the worry from external governments and ministries.