Political Deadlock And Increasing Ethnic Tensions In Macedonia

Macedonia is currently facing an ongoing political deadlock in the context of a growing nationalist movement and declining democratic principles. There are fears that there may be an inflammation of ethnic divisions in order to achieve political gains.

On Thursday, April 27th, a group of nationalist protesters stormed Macedonia’s parliament resulting in over 100 people being injured. The group, supporters of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party, waved Macedonian flags and sang the national anthem whilst hurling chairs and preventing parliamentarians from leaving. Of the injured, twenty-two were police, and three were politicians, with opposition leader Zoran Zaev seen bleeding from the forehead.  The violence broke out in response to a vote by the coalition between Social Democrats (SDSM) and parties representing ethnic Albanians which voted Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian, as parliament speaker. The disruption lasted several hours and culminated in police firing flash grenades and removing protesters from the building.

The clashes came in the wake of political instability and rising ethnic tensions in Macedonia over the past two years. Until elections in December last year, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party had been in power for a decade. Allegations of corruption were made against the ruling party when Zaev leaked wiretapped recordings in 2015. They implicated public officials and the prime minister at the time, VMRO-DPMNE’s leader Nikola Gruevski. This sparked protests in Skopje and other cities, known as “The Colourful Revolution,” and Gruevski’s resignation. With help from the EU, a deal was brokered to hold elections in December 2016.

At the election, the VMRO-DPMNE party secured 51 seats in the 120 seat parliament, two more than SDSM, but failed to reach a deal with Albanian parties to form government. SDSM subsequently reached a deal with the Albanian parties but was prevented from forming government by President Gjorge Ivanov. He claimed that allowing SDSM to hold power would infringe on Macedonian sovereignty. Thus, the country has been left without a governing leadership for the past four months. VMRO-DPMNE supporters have been staging daily protests since the alliance between SDSM and the Albanian parties as they fear increasing control of political power by the ethnic Albanian minority.

Since the outbreak of the recent political turmoil, there has been concerns that political elites are inflaming ethnic tensions in order to gain political advantage. Macedonia was applauded for avoiding an outbreak of an all-out ethnic civil war which plagued its neighbours in the 1990s. Following an insurrection by the Albanian minority in 2001, which currently make up a quarter of the population, the Ohrid Peace Agreement established minority rights for Albanians in the constitution, with help from the international community.  Whilst it quelled the violence, tensions have sporadically flared up since.

The coalition between SDSM and the three Albanian parties was formed through an agreement to recognise Albanian as an official language. Currently, Albanian is recognised as an official language only in regions where there is a 20% Albanian majority. The coalition deal has sparked backlash from supporters of VMRO-DPMNE, who consider it a coup and increasingly fear the encroachment of Albanian influence and call for the preservation of their Macedonian identity.

Reaction to these recent events has been mixed. Zaev claimed that the disruption was an “attempted murder” whilst Gruevski accused SDSM of a “greed to seize power” being the “direct cause which led to this adverse situation.” A joint statement by the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the EU commissioner Johannes Hahn condemned the violent attack of the members of parliament and called for “calm and restraint.” NATO secretary-general Jens Stolenberg stated that “violence has no place in any parliament.” In contrast, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the opposition “tried to seize power in the country by force” and that Xhaferi’s election aimed to remove “the legitimate government from power.” Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto further claimed that “Macedonia’s example clearly shows the dangers of external intervention in the life of a country.” Such views highlight the difficulties being faced for the country to move forward.

So far, the international community has remained uninvolved over the past few months. An EU envoy most recently visiting the country in March, to promote discussions between political leaders, was met with thousands of protesters taking to the streets in opposition to foreign involvement.  Little was achieved from the discussions as the problem has persisted. It begs the question as to what must be done to ensure the situation does not spiral into further acts of violence.

The solution going forward is uncertain and direct foreign intervention into the situation may exacerbate rather than alleviate tensions. Macedonia has been steadily declining in democratic freedoms since the election of the VMRO-DPMNE party in 2006. The wiretaps leak revealed corrupt practices and growing control of the ruling party over the independent institutions. This was highlighted during the protests with the lack of police presence and the building left unguarded. Declining media freedoms have also been identified by Freedom House’s ‘Reporters Without Borders 2017 Press Freedom Index’ as it was ranked 111 out of 180 countries in 2016, contrasting to its rank at 42nd in 2008. Despite his resignation, former Prime Minister Gruevski is believed to still retain a heavy influence over the police and intelligence services. In light of this growing move to autocracy, more must be done to promote the strengthening of democratic structures in the country.

In the short-term, support for democratic processes and continued open dialogue may contribute to relieving hostilities. In the long-term, EU leaders must continue to reinforce incentives for accession in order to further enhance democratic functions in the country. Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005 but has faced difficulties with joining due to insufficient political structures and opposition from Greece. The rising nationalist sentiment both in Macedonia and the region reflect the disillusionment with accession by Macedonians. In a 2015 poll, only 60-70% saw it as a good thing for the country, a decrease from the prior strong desire to join only a few years ago. The EU must continue to engage with both political parties to reinforce the need to preserve democratic practices, whether that may involve recognising the coalition wishing to form government or holding re-elections monitored by the EU. By continuing to promote the benefits that may be gained from accession, and strengthening democratic structures, this may help avoid further clashes.

Problems could arise if the EU fails to engage with those stirring up ethnic tensions. Speaking to Reuters, Pieter Feith, the former EU peace envoy who helped broker the peace deal in 2001, warned against further escalation by the nationalists. He claimed they are “playing with fire” and said that the EU must face up to whether they will continue the “charade” or “draw a line and say that the accession process has ended or is about to end.” Unity must be maintained to avoid any resort to arms by ethnic groups. Minority rights must continue to be upheld in the reinforcement of democracy whilst avoiding any overstep by the international community which could provoke conflict.

Macedonia’s ongoing political crisis must be resolved without the use of force. Growing nationalist rhetoric inflaming ethnic divides needs to be alleviated to prevent an eruption of violent conflict. The progress made through the 2001 Ohrid Agreement must continue to be upheld, with minority rights being ensured whilst reducing fears of a supposed Albanian political usurpation. With uncertainty surrounding how the country will move forward, the international community should continue to support its participation and maintenance of democratic institutions.