New spark to the Balkan tinderbox

Escalation of the political situation in Macedonia

, by Marie Jelenka Kirchner

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New spark to the Balkan tinderbox

Macedonia has found itself in a government crisis for the last months, failing to have found a government,creating a deadlocked situation. Yesterday evening the situation escalated when hundreds of nationalist protesters entered the parliament building by force.

After an eventful year in Macedonian politics, elections finally took place in December 2016, giving 51 seats to the formerly ruling, nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE and 49 seats to the social-democratic party SDSM. In order to form a government, either of these parties had to form a coalition with one or more Albanian parties also present among the elected members of parliament.

Due to their ideology, VMRO-DPMNE failed to form a coalition with an Albanian party in January. Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov, who belongs to VMRO-DPMNE but supposed to remain neutral, has since then refused to give the needed mandate to form a government to SDSM. He defends this unconstitutional decision by the protection of Macedonia’s integrity and sovereignty against a foreign threat. With this rhetoric, he uses existing conflict lines between the two main ethnicities in Macedonia, Albanians and Slavic Macedonians, and tightens them in order to hold on to the power of his own party.

The so-called Albanian Platform, which was formed after the elections in December, is used to representing an apparent risk of foreign threats. Representatives of the Macedonian Albanian parties had gathered to demand certain minority rights such as an introduction of Albanian as second official language in the Republic of Macedonia. Such a change would need a constitutional change with a two-third majority in parliament. SDSM does not, together with the Albanian parties, have a two-third majority, yet they still support the claims of the platform and demand more ethnic integrity.

Until a few days ago, supporters of VMRO-DPMNE took the streets of Skopje every afternoon for almost two months, protesting the apparent destruction of their country through an Albanian threat. Claiming that SDSM would support Albanian terrorists and reviving fears from an inter-ethnical conflict in 2001 which had Macedonia at the edge to a civil war, the “Civic Initiative for a Joint Macedonia” fuels a nationalist and racist atmosphere.

Opposition to any progress in the creation of an opposition-led government

The situation escalated when hundreds of protestors did not stop in front of the parliament as usually in the end of their rally on Thursday evening last week, but instead forced their way into the parliament violently. The trigger for this was the election of politician Talaf Xharefi, ethnic Albanian, to become speaker of parliament. Once a speaker of parliament is elected with a simple majority, he or she has the right to give the mandate to form a government to any party and would therefore free the president from this responsibility. This is the first step towards a new, SDSM-led government. Described as an unconstitutional decision by state media and nationalist activists, this event sparked the outbreak of the violence.

Police and present security were outnumbered and barely tried to hold intruders back as they started pushing towards the plenary hall. Media which was present at the time to cover the plenary session caught images of men, some of them covered in black masks, ready to fight, and of MPs trying to climb from the tribunes for their own protection. The offenders quickly targeted the media and opposition politicians, forcing them to hide. Among others, SDSM leader Zoran Zaev was filmed with blood running over his face after he had been beaten up. The police later used flash grenades to force invaders out of the plenary hall.

Critical voices on the handling of the situation

Two things quickly spread over social media accounts of progressive citizens from Macedonia. The police was highly criticized for their inaction during the occupation. “Where is the Police” and “Where is state protection” read many statuses. Furthermore, the role of VMRO-DPMNE in the attack, which has after all sparked this nationalist protest, was and still is questioned. Activists, independent journalists and intellectuals seem to agree on the fact that this was just the last part to prove that the democracy in Macedonia has stopped existing long time ago, more precisely in 2006 when VMRO-DPMNE came into power.

The plenary hall of the parliament was cleared before midnight and the situation in the country was calm the next morning, except for (conspiracy) theories spreading over the internet. Uncertainty dominates, the experiences from the conflict of 2001 are still too fresh and the fear of further escalation is still too big.

The situation in Macedonia was on the agenda of EU foreign ministers meeting in Malta last Friday after EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn commented on the situation of the previous day already, congratulating the newly elected speaker of parliament. The question is how to unlock the situation without sparking more violence in a situation which is facing several sensitive inter- as well as intra-ethical conflict lines in a country which has been overshadowed by corruption, poor economy and state crime for quite a long period.

In a period where the entire Balkan region is shaken by instabilities due to civil protest, Macedonia is yet another fuel to the tinderbox. For weeks international observers have urged patriots and nationalists to calm down their rhetoric to prevent and escalation – the question now remains what to do as the urging – and hoping – has no effect.

About the author : Marie Jelenka Kirchner has a degree in European Studies and is currently intern at the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Skopje. She is facilitator of workshops and coordinates different European youth projects.

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