Macedonia: a precarious moment

Fatal violence and political crises have recently drawn international attention to Macedonia. The deaths of 22 people in Macedonia on May 10th in a police operation allegedly against ‘terrorist’ Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, and a continuing political crisis sparked by opposition allegations of wire-tapping, cover-ups, political control of the judiciary and electoral officials risk becoming the opening shots in another ethnic conflict in the Balkans. While the outbreak of violence may have come as a shock to many it may also be seen as an anticipated if regrettable result of the behaviour of the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the stalling of the Euro-Atlantic integration process.

Macedonia avoided the widespread ethnic violence in which a number of its neighbours experienced when they achieved their independence after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless inter-ethnic tensions have been a serious issue in the past. Upon independence ethnic Albanians held an unofficial referendum which indicated that roughly three-quarters of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia supported the idea of their own political and territorial autonomous arrangements. Citing this result, ethnic Albanian political parties argued that Macedonia’s constitution needed to be changed to recognise that the ethnic Albanian population was a ‘constituent people’ of Macedonia, to facilitate greater use of the Albanian language, the establishment of an Albanian university, and that ethnic Albanians needed to be included in the administration.

These tensions remained throughout the 1990s, though they did not lead to outright ethnic conflict. However in the aftermath of the conflict in Kosovo, which included the emergence of the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army, a short but relatively intense violent confrontation occurred. Intervention, which facilitated negotiations between ethnic Albanian representatives and the Macedonian government, resulted in the Ohrid peace agreement. This provided for constitutional and administrative changes to the structure of Macedonia intended to deliver increased autonomy to all local communities. While there was initial acceptance of the Ohrid Agreement and a commitment to its implementation, the behaviour of governments under Nikola Gruevski has led to a re-emergence of inter-ethnic strains.

Growing inter-ethnic tensions have resulted from Gruevski’s Skopje 2014 urban development scheme which has rekindled feelings of marginalisation and discrimination within the ethnic Albanian community. The project included the construction of neo-classical buildings, statues and bridges and focused almost entirely on ethnic Macedonian history and heroes. Albanians have argued that this is illustrative of the ethnically exclusive state which Gruevski’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) want to build. Attempts to introduce the teaching of the state language, Macedonian, for pupils from non-majority communities from the first year generated protests in primary schools. The Constitutional Court annulled this decision arguing that it was not in line with the Law on primary education of 2008 which requires that schoolchildren of non-majority communities start learning the state official language as of fourth year. Despite this annulment the attempted increased inter-ethnic tensions and reinforced ethnic Albanian perceptions that the state is exclusionary and biased.

A failure to implement reforms which facilitate the establishment of an independent judiciary and media have also contributed to rising inter-ethnic tensions as they impeded Macedonia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic system. Integration into this system was one of the key priorities which Macedonians and ethnic Albanians had agreed upon. Political influence and inefficiency in the judiciary is a major problem. Progress was made between 2006 and 2014 to clear the backlog of over a million cases and the creation of the establishment of the Academy for Judges and Prosecutors which provides opportunities for professional training and development. The Judicial Council which is responsible for the selection and dismissal of judges now provides for the formal independence of the judiciary. However the EU progress report in 2014 noted that there were growing concern voiced about the selectivity of, and influence over, law enforcement and the judiciary… Questions continue to be raised both inside and outside the country about possible political influence over certain court proceedings. Prime Minister Gruevski openly disagreed with the Constitutional Court, accusing it of being pro-opposition after it invalidated a number of his government’s initiatives. In 2010 in a high profile case the State Lustration Commission removed the President of the Constitutional Court, having found him guilty of collaboration with the old intelligence service of Yugoslavia. Such applications of the lustration policy are always going to effect the opposition Alliance of Social Democrats in Macedonia (SDSM) more as it is the successor of the old League of Communists. Despite the introduction of new media legislation in 2013 there also continues to be problematic government inference in the media. Media outlets are seen to serve business and political elites with which they have connections. The 2014 EU progress report noted that the public broadcaster does not provided unbiased reporting and that the government has been accused of supporting sympathetic media outlets through the use of public funds to purchase advertising. There have also been a large number of libel cases taken by both politician and journalists which have had a chilling effect, despite rarely being upheld.

The EU has cited the failure of Gruevski’s government to convincingly implement reforms addressing these and other concerns as the obstacle to initiating the accession process. However there is another major obstacle to this: a dispute between Greece and Macedonia regarding the latter’s name. Athens claims that, by calling itself ‘Macedonia’, Macedonia appropriates part of the Hellenic heritage and implies a claim against Greece’s northern province. Macedonia’s 2007 decision to re-name the Skopje airport after Alexander the Great also provoke Greek sensitivities over the Hellenic heritage. In 2008 Greece blocked Macedonian membership in NATO and EU accession talks are on hold until the issue is settled. However the 1995 Interim Accord had provided a commitment not to allow the name dispute to become a block to Euro-Atlantic integration so NATO and EU members must accept responsibility for allowing the issue to become an impediment to integration which could help to stabilise Macedonia, a task which is now more urgent than ever.

Dawn Walsh is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security

Image source: Flickr / FOSIM

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