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Political Crisis in Macedonia Raises Fear of Ethnic Violence as Protests Flood Capital

The country's political leaders have failed to arrive at a solution to put an end to Macedonia’s unrest, one day after tens of thousands took to the streets calling for the prime minister to resign.
Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Macedonia's political leaders failed to make headway on Monday during talks aimed at resolving the current political crisis in the small Balkan country. Despite an earlier joint pledge to respect the "values of democracy" and the "right to peaceful protests," ruling party and opposition leaders failed to compromise on a solution to end the unrest.

Protesters swarmed the streets of the Macedonian capital Skopje on Sunday, calling for Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to vacate office amid allegations that his government secretly recorded the telephone conversations of some 20,000 Macedonians — including politicians, religious leaders, and journalists.


Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democrats — Macedonia's largest opposition party — has been disclosing recordings since February from what his party claims are many thousands of wiretapped conversations that have leaked from within the government.

Gruevski, a nationalist conservative politician who has served as prime minister for nearly nine years and was reelected in April 2014, has accused Zaev of being aspyfor a foreign intelligence agency that is intent on destabilizing his administration.

The recordings have raised allegations about voter fraud and obstruction on the part of the government in last year's election, and indicate that officials might also have attempted to cover up details regarding the murder of a young man who was beaten to death by police in 2011.

Many of those who demonstrated on Sunday continued to march in the capital on Monday. Zaev has urged protesters tocampoutside the government headquarters until Gruevski resigns. Three ministers in his government — Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, intelligence chief Saso Mijalkov, and Transport Minister Mile Janakieski — have already left office.

Related: Leaked Tapes, Shootout, and Protests Prompt Senior Macedonian Officials to Resign

Aerial view of Sunday's demonstration

In a counter-protest that was organized a little over a mile away from the opposition crowd, pro-government demonstrators converged on parliament to show their support for Gruevski.


Many fear the political unrest will revive enduring ethnic tensions between the Balkan nation's Macedonian majority and its Albanian minority, which makes up about one quarter of the country's 2.1 million population.

"This is a political confrontation, but Macedonia is prey to two types of conflict: political and ethnic," Jacques Rupnik, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po, told VICE News.

Rupnik explained that while the current unrest might raise fears of renewed ethnic conflict in the region, such a conflict was "avoidable, because the European Union has shown that it can react rapidly when tensions rise."

Tents pitched by anti-government protesters in centre of Skopje resemble a summer camp, says — BBC Outside Source (@BBCOS)May 18, 2015

In 2001 the country narrowly avoided civil war after an uprising by Macedonia's National Liberation Army — also known as Macedonian UÇK — whose objectives were to restore greater rights to the country's Albanian minority.

The conflict, which saw insurgents clash with government forces for more than six months, ended with the signing of the EU-brokered Orhid peace deal, which promised more rights for Albanians.

The current unrest comes just a few weeks after a deadly shootout between the police and ethnic Albanian gunmen in the northern town of Kumanovo, in which some 22 people — including 8 police officers and 14 members of an armed group — were killed and a further 37 officers were injured. Officials described the shootout as a "counterterrorism operation." The government declared two days of national mourning after the incident.


Authorities blamed the clash on ethnic Albanians — according to officials, eighteen of the men arrested and charged in the aftermath of the incident were ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo. The men have been charged with "terrorism" and "endangering the constitutional order and security" of Macedonia.

Footage taken during the operation in the town of Kumanovo from May 9 to May 10.

Law enforcement blew up 67 homes in the town, according to Swiss dailyLe Temps.

The opposition has accused the government of fomenting ethnic discord, claiming that it had known about the rebels for a while and only decided to stage a violent intervention in order to rally Macedonian public opinion around the threat of Albanian nationalism.

Rupnik said that "the government could be sorely tempted to exacerbate ethnic tensions" in the region by "playing on people's fears and encouraging this vision of the citadel being besieged" by Albanians.

"The ghost of Greater Albania won't go away," he concluded, highlighting an earlier statement by Gruevski in which he said, "There are two ways to unite Albanians — via the European Union, or via the 'old method,' which harks back to the country's ethnic wars."

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin