A few years ago, I puzzled over Macedonia as I stood in its eclectic capital, Skopje, among an unexplainable number of replicas of Alexander the Great’s statues that dot the city center, I was frightened and dazzled by gunshots and fireworks. Eventually I discovered that this was not a rerun of the country’s 2001 civil war, but an ecstatic celebration of a national hero. That was my first introduction to Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s perspective on heroism, genocide and ethnic conflicts in Macedonia.
In 2013, Gruevski invested a lot of public money in welcoming back Johan Tarculovski, a former police officer convicted by the Hague Tribunal in 2008 for the murder of three ethnic Albanian civilians and the destruction of 12 homes during a police raid on a village near the end of the six-month insurgency in 2001. Though a criminal in the eye of the international community, the prime minister and his conservative government greeted him as a “national hero” and broadcast his glorious return on live television.
Nowadays, another shiver goes through Macedonia’s multiethnic society, after a bizarre violent attack perpetuated by Albanian individuals that claimed the lives of 22 people in the northern town of Kumanovo. As the nationalist government of Gurevski was quick to heap blame on Albanian “terrorists” for the clashes, it almost seemed that the ethnic hate that led to the civil war had been rekindled for a brief moment. The fact that Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov accused western capitals of trying to foment a color revolution in the former Yugoslav republic that would lead to Macedonia’s dismemberment was a chilling nod to the bipolar logic of the cold war.
Indeed, one week after the Kumanovo incident, Lavrov argued that the events in Macedonia are “unfolding against the background of the government’s refusal to join the policy of sanctions against Russia and the vigorous support Skopje gave to the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project.” Turkish Stream is a scheme that Moscow is promoting to replace the South Stream project to bring Russian gas into southeast Europe, a project that was abruptly cancelled in December after EU opposition.
But observers would be misled to accept such a simple interpretation. In reality, we are actually witnessing the failed promises of European integration exacerbated by Russian opportunism.
From war to war
Macedonia is a textbook case of poor international management of a tense political situation with deep historical roots. From the two Balkan wars that prefaced the outburst of the First World War, to the 2001 civil war that was narrowly averted only after Western diplomatic intervention, Macedonia’s recent past is fraught with ethnic-tinged conflict. The European Union recognized the evident risks of having another civil war in its backyard and thus became the guarantor of Macedonia’s security in the 2001 Ohrid Agreement. Since Brussels has tried to reel in Macedonia with its usual bag of carrots and sticks, bilateral ties deepening after signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2001, followed by awarding the country candidate status in 2005. Member states are now Skopje’s main creditors, and Germany is its main trade partner.
However, a long-standing naming dispute with neighboring Greece, which blocked the country’s NATO membership in 2008 and has threatened to follow suit in case Skopje finalizes its negotiations with the EU, has significantly hampered Macedonia’s institutional development. Even if the European Commission issues a yearly report on the country’s progress, the Council, composed of representatives of national governments, has succumbed to Athens’ threats and has throttled the opening of official accession negotiations.
In this context, the regional rivalry between Greece and Macedonia is largely to blame for the multifaceted problems Skopje is now facing.
Under incumbent Prime Minister Gurevski, the country has become the center of Europe’s biggest political scandal, involving the illegal wiretapping of more than 20,000 people, followed by mass anti-government protests in the capital, all unfolding against the backdrop of a resurgent ethnic Albanian movement threatening to attack civilian and state targets. Opposition leader Zoran Zaev exposed the wiretaps which revealed the extent to which the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE has sunk its tendrils into Macedonia’s weak institutions. Electoral and judicial fraud, systemic corruption and government malfeasance have grown to unprecedented levels in the decade Gurevski has been in power.
Gruevski, who only months ago seemed to have a firm grip on power, has also weathered the resignation last week of two key ministers and the intelligence chief as the wiretapping scandal brought close to 100,000 people in the streets to call for the government’s resignation. Gurevski’s supporters held a similar rally the next day, showing once again the deep fractures in Macedonian unity. The deadlock in negotiations held with EU onus in Strasbourg between the ruling party and the opposition bear all the hallmarks of a protracted conflict.
Even if Brussels is currently mediating talks between Gurevski and Zaev, their positions are too different for a solid agreement to be reached. The solution is not the resignation of the government, as the opposition demands, but fast-tracking Macedonia’s EU integration before the conflict spirals out of control. Once Russia stepped in to point fingers at the West and galvanize the already inflamed population, Macedonia’s internal politics have become a matter for EU action. As Franz-Lothar Altmann, an expert on the Balkans at the University of Bucharest warned in the beginning of the conflict: left unchecked, “Macedonia’s democracy, weak as it already is, will end up in a national catastrophe.”