Ethnic tensions have resurfaced in Macedonia over the past few months following violent incidents in March and the murder in April of five ethnic Macedonians. The unrest undermines the political and economic gains made by the Former Yugoslav Republic in recent years and threatens to thwart its ambitions of joining the EU.
Macedonia has received praise from the EU for becoming more financially and politically stable since it became independent 20 years ago. The country’s candidacy for membership to the EU was registered in 2005 and its conservative ruling party, the VMRO-DPMNE, has made the country’s accession a priority. On March 15, Macedonia came closer to that goal when it began preliminary talks with the EU aimed at reducing the length of negotiations for full membership.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said the talks focussed on maintaining the pace of reforms the country must implement in order to satisfy the EU. The areas that must continue to be reformed include public administration, the rule of law, media freedom, election processes, and the economy. That positive move signals an end to a previous stalemate in talks caused by Greece’s ongoing objection to Macedonia’s accession to the EU over the name of the country, which Athens says implies a claim to Greek territory also called Macedonia.
But around the same time as that positive shift, tensions between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians flared up. The unrest began in early March, when an off-duty Macedonian policeman killed two ethnic Albanians in a dispute over a parking space in the city of Gostivar. Those killings set off several days of rioting and street fights between youths with iron bars, clubs and knives in the capital, Skopje, and the Albanian-dominated north-western town of Tetovo. The first attack occurred in a majority Macedonian suburb of the capital when a group of masked, hooded youths armed with baseball bats got on a public bus and injured five passengers. Within a week, dozens had been injured in similar attacks perpetrated by both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians.
Around a quarter of Macedonia’s two-million population are ethnic Albanian. Relations between the two groups are still fraught following an armed conflict in 2001 between security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels who were seeking greater autonomy. The conflict, which lasted for two months and killed around 80 people, ended when international envoys brokered a peace agreement that encouraged ethnic Albanians to become more integrated in Macedonian politics, but decentralised power, reorganising some municipalities along ethnic lines.
Biljana Vankovska, a political scientist at Skopje University, told the New York Times: “The ethnic communities live more separated than ever. The [2001 peace agreement] institutionalised ethnicity to such a degree that there is no room left for any integration or common action among groups.”
Calling for a halt to the riots in March, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov tried to lay the past to rest by saying that the country has “turned a new page”, vowing that “all those who use violence…will be punished.”
Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and the US embassy in Skopje also condemned the acts, but the situation worsened. On April 12, five ethnic Macedonian fishermen – four in their 20s and one in his 40s – were shot dead, execution-style, by more than one gunman near a lake outside Skopje. Officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the US Embassy in Skopje and President Ivanov tried to warn locals against assuming the ethnicity of the killers, but many believed they were Albanian. The following day, angry Macedonians blocked several streets in the area, broke the windows of a TV channel’s vehicle and threw rocks at passing buses.
Extra police were then placed on duty in and around Skopje and, on April 16, several hundred youths protested in the city’s main square and in front of parliament, chanting nationalist and anti-Albanian slogans. At the rally, ethnic Macedonian youths threw stones at police and attempted to march across a bridge to a mainly Albanian area of the capital.
The momentum of the unrest may gather pace if there are more fatalities on either side, making it difficult for the EU to see Macedonia as a stable partner. It also comes at an awkward time for Macedonia’s bid to become part of NATO. The country hopes to be asked to join the bloc at the NATO summit meeting in Chicago on May 20. However, that is unlikely to happen regardless of the recent violence as Greece’s objection over Macedonia’s name hasn’t been met when it comes to the NATO bid.
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