The Western Balkans are once again headline news after the killing of eight policemen and 14 gunmen following a day-long gun battle in the Former Yuogoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Native Albanians from Kosovo are believed to be behind the violence in the ethnically mixed town of Kumanovo, which has reignited fears that ethnic tensions could destabilise the country.
The country now appears to be grappling with its deepest political crisis since gaining independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Albanians account for roughly a quarter of the population.
Capital: Skopje (population: 700,000)
Head of state: Gjorge Ivanov (President since 2009, independent politician, supports VMRO); Nikola Gruevski (Prime Minister)
The tensions have been exacerbated by a number of factors. Here’s a brief background to the country’s recent political history.
To the brink and back
Though the country was largely spared the inter-ethnic violence that was meted out elsewhere during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the country came to the brink of civil war ten years later.
The 2001 insurgency began when the Albanian National Liberation Army attacked the country’s security forces, demanding greater rights and autonomy for the Albanian minority. By 1999 the country counted 234,500 Albanian refugees from Kosovo according to UNHCR estimates. This came as a result of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo as FYROM opened its borders to thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees. This placed a strain on the country’s economy, GDP shrank by 10 percent in 1999 alone.
In the run-up to the conflict in 2000, armed groups of Albanians opened fire on Macedonian police and security forces on the border with Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The conflict then officially began in January 2001, when a group of armed Albanians attacked a police station in the village of Tearce. Following seven months of fighting, the EU and NATO managed to support the president to secure a peace deal. The terms of the resulting Ohrid agreement meant that Albanian fighters laid down their arms in return for greater ethnic-Albanian recognition within the state.
Since then, the country has been governed in a delicate power-sharing arrangement between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.
However, a 2011 report from the International Crisis Group cites fears that progress was slowing due to “rising ethnic Macedonian nationalism, domination of all main state institutions by the prime minister and his party, decline in media and judicial independence, growing school segregation and too slow decentralisation have started to undermine the multi-ethnic civil state the country can still become.”
They issued a stark warning saying:
“Decisions made now will have substantial effect on inter-ethnic and inter-party relations and be decisive in determining if by 2014 the country is moving towards the EU or gradual breakup.”
EU ambitions on hold
In recognition of FYROM’s progress in returning from the brink of war, the EU agreed to accept the country’s candidacy for membership of the bloc in 2005. Though it was merely the beginning of the long process of accession, a milestone was reached in 2009 when citizens won the right to travel in the Schengen-zone visa-free.
However, the country’s name remains a contentious issue with EU member Greece. International recognition of FYROM was delayed over Greece’s objections that the name Macedonia implied territorial ambitions towards the Hellenic Republic’s northern region of the same name.
The name dispute has also locked FYROM out of NATO . In 2008 NATO allowed Croatia and neighbouring Albania to join the alliance, but Greece blocked the invitation to FYROM.
In recent months the government has been put under increasing scrutiny over allegations of wire-tapping thousands of citizens.
The opposition Social Democrats have accused the government of the illegal surveillance of more than 20,000 people. The list of those allegedly spied on includes journalists, prosecutors, judges, mayors and ministers. The opposition leader Zoran Zaev has even gone so far as to accuse Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of orchestrating the ethnic tensions in order to distract from the growing economic and political crisis in the country. At a press conference on February 25, 2015, Zaev played six audio recordings to demonstrate the scale of the government’s illegal surveillance. The prime minister responded by accusing Zaev of being used by a foreign intelligence service. Zaev was charged with plotting to bring down the government in May. If found guilty he could face up to five years in jail.
Reporters Without Borders has also condemned the illegal wiretapping of journalists.
“This large-scale spying on journalists constitutes a massive assault on media freedom, threatening every aspect of the rule of law,” said Christian Mihr, executive director of Reporters Without Borders Germany. He added, “if the government’s professed desire to join the European Union means anything, those responsible for this massive assault on the fundamental rights of Macedonian journalists and all citizens must be identified and brought to justice without delay.”
Political tensions have been mounting since a disputed election in August 2014 when Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE party defeated Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) for a fourth time in a row. Zaev claimed the elections to be fraudulent and accused Gruevski of running a dictatorship. The SDSM has boycotted parliament ever since.
Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Chris Deliso, the Macedonia-based director of independent news website Balkanalysis.com, said about the wire-tapping allegations in February: “Presently, we can only speculate about the veracity of any allegations – we simply don’t know the facts, and all the protagonists in this drama modify, add to or even contradict their claims on a daily basis. While the foreign media tends to emphasise an alleged ethnic divide in Macedonia, there are no real ‘ethnic tensions’ – people have lived and will continue together in peace.”
However, in April 2015 EU envoys blamed the Gruevski government of leading the country towards disaster and urged those in power as well as the opposition to agree to a roadmap which would steer it away from “exploding.”