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Is Macedonia on the Brink of Another Ethnic Conflict?

After six Albanians were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of five ethnic Macedonians in a trial that observers on both sides have suggested wouldn't have held up in any other court, angry Albanians have been protesting in the capital.

Jack Davies

The Macedonian capital of Skopje saw its second angry Albanian demonstration in as many weeks on Friday. A week earlier, on July 4, the city’s Albanian minority rioted against the outcome of a politically charged murder trial, dubbed the “Monster Case.” So, come the weekend, everyone was expecting another round of hurled concrete, baton swings, and burned trash cans.

Macedonia is a divided country. Slightly less than two thirds of the population are ethnically Macedonian. The second-largest ethnic grouping, accounting for just over a quarter of the population, is Albanian.

In 2001, tensions between the two groups escalated into an armed conflict between government security forces and the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA). The conflict was short-lived and brought to a close with the Ohrid Agreement, a peace treaty that saw NLA commanders rebranded as legitimate politicians and enhanced social and political rights being granted to Macedonia’s Albanian citizens.

While armed hostilities ended nearly 13 years ago, relations between the different groups are still not all that friendly. Albanians still feel disadvantaged, neglected, and that their rights are unequally applied.

The “Monster Case” has become the latest shitty banner for disaffected Albanians in Macedonia to rally around. The case saw seven Albanians tried for the execution-style murder of five ethnic Macedonians. The prosecution framed the murders as acts of Islamic terrorism, designed to destabilize the country.

On Monday, June 30, the court found six of the seven guilty, sentencing them to life imprisonment. The verdict enraged the Albanian community, who saw the trial as a mockery. Commentators from both sides of the ethnic divide have observed that the evidence against most (some say all) of the defendants would not have held up in any other court.

"The NLA is not DUI. The NLA is with the people." Essentially, what they're saying is, "Even if the DUI's leadership is made up of former NLA members, you no longer represent us. The NLA represented us."

The Albanian community was even more pissed off by the support lent to the case’s outcome by senior Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) politicians. The DUI was formed from the ashes of the NLA, and since 2008 has been in a ruling coalition with the Macedonian nationalist VMRO DPMNE. For many Albanians this is seen as a betrayal, which is manifested in endless neglect of Albanian interests in the party’s governance. Support for the conviction of the six Monster Case defendants was seen as typifying the sellout.

So, on Friday, July 4, the city exploded. Thousands marched the short distance from a mosque in the central, largely Albanian neighborhood of Bit Pazar to the Mavrovka shopping center. They were met by dozens of armored vehicles and row upon row of body-armor-clad, riot-shield-bearing, faceless-under-visor riot cops.

Fighting soon broke out between crowd and cops. Tear gas and rubber bullets were deployed. Protesters responded by hurling crates of beer bottles and chunks of concrete. The police pushed the protesters back into the narrow alleyways of central Skopje’s Albanian neighborhoods. Every street was bitterly fought for until the protesters had been spread so thin throughout the labyrinth of side streets that all momentum was lost.

Macedonian-language media was joined by DUI and VMRO politicians in denouncing the violence. However, DUI’s leadership acknowledged that a repeat of that violence would be even more damaging than making concessions to its actors. So, while the protesters planned another Friday of protest, DUI officials began denouncing the trial and its verdict, while calling on protesters to refrain from further violence.

Meanwhile, ethnic-Macedonian soccer fan groups, known for being militant supporters of VMRO, planned a counterprotest. Many feared the Macedonian protesters would clash with their Albanian counterparts.

So it was that last Friday, July 11, the Skopje city center was once again full of police and armored vehicles.

Lunchtime prayers ended, and thousands of Albanian men gathered once more outside the mosque in Bit Pazar. Many concealed their faces. Those whose faces weren’t hidden displayed bitter anger. Red and black flags bearing the Albanian eagle were waved high alongside banners bemoaning the DUI and the Monster Case. As they marched forward, it looked certain that things would kick off.

After less than half a mile, police and protesters were toe to toe. More precisely, nose to riot shield. Angry nationalist slogans were screamed, and chunks of concrete were sent hurtling over police lines and into the gathered press pack, which found itself scrambling for cover between photographs.

Unlike the week before, however, the legions of police with their Panzer division of riot-suppression vehicles remained remarkably calm. Behind the scenes, officers dashed back and forth with preparatory fire extinguishers; but at the front lines, cops maintained poker faces.

Then, after an hour or so had passed and sufficient anger had been displayed, the protesters started marching back the way they came, with only a handful of testosterone-pumped adolescent stragglers lingering to throw a few last taunts at the police and assemblage of journalists. Strangely, the Macedonian counterprotest had failed to materialize also.

Just 30 minutes later and no one would have been able to guess Skopje had been on the brink of chaos.

A tight lid, manifested in the detention of political prisoners, is kept on dissidence in Macedonia for an important reason. This is the second instance in as many months of ethnic issues boiling over into violent action. The first, in May, saw Macedonians destroying Muslim and Albanian property following the fatal stabbing of a young Macedonian. During the 2001 conflict it seemed at times as though the only solution would be federalization, effectively splitting the country into two nations. Now, as tensions rise to the surface again, there are commentators that fear federalization—or worse, war—might be the ultimate outcome.

If that happened, the repercussions could spread beyond just Macedonia, across the Balkans. If Macedonia’s Albanians are allowed to form their own state, why not the Serbs in northern Kosovo, or Bosnia’s Republika Srpbska?

As with Macedonia, there has never been a proper resolution to these divided countries that emerged following the disintegration of Yugoslavia. And just as Yugoslavia began to fall apart following seemingly innocuous secessions, there is a fear that boundary changes in Macedonia could trigger serious unrest across the Balkans.

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