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Macedonia: Ghost of Ethnic Conflict Returns

January 9, 2013

A mass slaying inflamed fears that Macedonia was slipping backwards in terms of ethnic harmony while the year ended with clashes between government and opposition supporters.

Darko Duridanski, Balkan Insight, 28.12.2012



The year started with the sad news of the death of Macedonia’s first president, Kiro Gligorov, who played the key role in the country’s peaceful separation from the former Yugoslavia. He died on January 1, aged 94, and on his demand was buried without state honours.

Gligorov served two mandates from 1991 to 1999. He led the country through its most difficult times at the beginning of the Nineties and during his time in office Macedonia joined the UN.

He was respected as a calm and wise politician who introduced a policy of so-called “equal distance” from all of Macedonia’s neighbours, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.

On October 3, 1995, he survived an attempted assassination in Skopje. He lost his eye in the bomb blast but continued to serve as president until the end of his mandate.

It started in the village:

On January 14, ethnic conflict was inflamed when participants at the village carnival held each year at Vevcani, near Struga, dressed up as Muslim women veils and mocked the Koran.

The stunt provoked protests from among the mainly Muslim Albanian community of Struga and several churches were set on fire.

The supposedly innocent prank touched off a chain of ethnic incidents that continued throughout the year.

April riots in Skopje | Photo by: AP/Filip Grdanoski

In February, in the mainly Albanian western town of Gostivar, an ethnic Macedonian police officer shot dead two ethnic Albanians in unexplained circumstances.

This provoked more protests and demands for resignation of the Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankulovska.

In the first half of March, gangs of young people attacked people in buses and on the streets of the capital and in other towns, leaving at least 15 injured.

The incidents revived fears of a return to the severe ethnic violence that the country experienced in 2001.

They also prompted some people to launch an initiative, the “March for peace”, on March 17, which drew thousands to the streets of Skopje, calling for ethic tolerance and peace.

Ethnic relations were again put to the test after the bodies of five ethnic Macedonians were discovered on April 12 near an artificial lake on the outskirts of Skopje.

The bodies had been lined up and the men appeared to have been shot dead. The murders fueled already tense ethnic relations, leading to more protests and violence on the streets.

Although the identities of the killers were not known, it was widely suspected that they were ethnic Albanians.

After a nationwide police operation, codenamed “Monster”, six ethnic Albanians were charged, five for terrorism and one as an accessory.

Police said that the suspects were all radical Islamists, which provoked protests from the Albanian community, thousands of whom marched in the streets of Skopje, calling the police operation a show trial.

Dialogue with Brussels:

Following the continued blockade on Macedonia’s bid to advance towards European Union integration, on March 14, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, came to Macedonia to unveil the so-called High Level Accession Dialogue, HLAD.

This new instrument was supposed to speed up reforms that the EU is seeking from Macedonia.

EU Enlargment Commissioner, Stefan Fuele and Macedonian PM, Nikola Gruevski

The HLAD is also intended to encourage Macedonia to keep on the EU track, which neighbouring Greece is blocking over the dispute concerning Macedonia’s name, to which Athens objects.

Macedonia has been a candidate country for EU membership since 2005 and has obtained annual recommendations for a start to negotiations since 2009.

But Greece has continued with its blockade over the name issue. Athens insists that Macedonia’s name implies territorial claims to its own northern province, also called Macedonia.

Economy in trouble:

May brought signs of economic trouble as the government borrowed 250 million euro from Deutche Bank and 100 million euro more from domestic banks.

The opposition and some experts complained that the government was not spending rationally and was risking national bankruptcy.

By September Macedonia was in recession

The first two quarters of 2012 were indeed a blow to the government’s economic strategy, as they finished with negative growth of 1.4 and 0.9 per cent growth respectively.

In September, statistics suggested Macedonia was officially in recession. But December, when data for the third quarter were analyzed, saw a small improvement, with a return to growth of 0.2 per cent.

Foreign investment in the first nine months of 2012 was also disappointingly down, worth only 44 million euro, five times less than in the same period in 2011.

The government sought an alibi for this in the world economic crisis. But critics said the government was not helping, by spending profligately on expensive projects connected to the capital city’s makeover, known as Skopje 2014.

In January, the Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski opened the triumphal arch, called “Porta Macedonia”. Later, in May, a huge 28-metre-high monument of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, was erected in Skopje.

Dozens of other monuments were also completed, as well as several buildings whose precise cost was unknown. In October, almost all government officials together with the President, Gjorgje Ivanov, took part at the opening of the grandiose new Foreign Ministry.

Lustration and military bill rows:

Political turmoil increased in July when a third version of the country’s troubled Lustration Law was put into effect.

The law was designed to root out and expose former collaborators with the secret police in the Communist era.

But the law had provoked controversy owing to the broad scope of professions being subjected to investigation and the time scale covered by the law.

Macedonian Lustration Commission

Nongovernmental organizations and the opposition continued to claim that the law was unconstitutional and was designed mainly to target opponents of government policies.

August brought new political, and ethnic, tensions after the Defence Minister, Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian, attended a ceremony in the village of Slupcane, laying flowers before a monument to ethnic Albanian guerilla fighters killed in the 2001 conflict.

That expression of respect for former National Liberation Army fighters on the part of a government minister provoked angry comments.

No measures were taken against the minister or the army officials who accompanied him.

However, the governing VMRO-DPMNE in September announced a controversial law offering various perks to members of the armed forces who had taken part in the 2001 conflict.

This provoked a crisis in the government coalition with VMRO-DPMNE’s ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

The DUI, and the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, vowed to do everything to block the law if it wasn’t extended to cover former NLA fighters.

DUI presented 15,000 amendments to the army law

In pursuit of this goal, the DUI presented 15,000 amendments to the law and their MPs blocked the work of the parliamentary commission with filibustering speeches.

By the end of the year the law was still not adopted, prompting some opposition parties to accuse the government partners of whipping up national feelings on both sides of the ethnic fence in order to increase their ratings.

Trouble in the east:

In October, Enlargement Commissioner Fule presented the annual progress report of the European Commission.

This assessed that Macedonia has shown good results in addressing the tasks laid down by the HLAD in the fields of media freedom, rule of law, reform of the public administration, electoral reform and strengthening the free market.

Macedonia was given a fourth consecutive recommendation for a start to negotiations for EU membership.

This time, Fule sounded an optimist note, asking the EU Council to set a date for negotiations on condition that the name issue was solved in the context of the early stages of the negotiations.


But, in December, the EU Council concluded that any decision on opening accession talks would be based on the report of the European Commission, which would not be published until spring 2013.

This time Greece was not the only country blocking Macedonian progress, having been joined by traditionally more friendly Bulgaria.

Macedonian’s eastern neighbour complained that Macedonia was not pursuing good neighbourly relations and was encouraging anti-Bulgarian rhetoric.

The Commission report in 2013 will particularly focus on whether Macedonia has made steps towards reaching a deal with Greece on its name and on improving relations with both Greece and Bulgaria, as well as on internal reforms.

Political crisis:

Another parliamentary crisis marked the end of the year when the main opposition Social Democratic Party, SDSM, proposed more than 1,000 amendments to the budget law. The party said it would use all possible methods to stop adoption of the law.

They specifically opposed a proposal for Macedonia to take out two other fresh loans in 2013 for 250-300 million euro and demanded restraint in building more monuments and other unproductive projects.

Street protests in Skopje | Photo by: Vanco Dzambaski

The budget law saga ended on December 24, when parliament approved it with 65 votes for and four against but without the presence of the opposition.

After the opposition tried to block the session and surrounded the speaker, police threw MPs out of the building. Three opposition MPs were hurt.

Reporters were also kicked out of the building by security.

Outside parliament, pro- and anti-government protesters threw eggs, stones and sticks at each other but were prevented from clashing by strong police cordons.

Opposition Social Democrat leader Branko Crvenkovski later called for acts of civil disobedience, saying that opposition MPs would not go back to parliament.

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