Fews answers from James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe, London School of Economics and Political Science.
1. In your opinion, what is going on in Macedonia, is it a political crisis, ethnic crisis, mix or both, or maybe something even worse (heading towards full scale conflict, perhaps) ?
What we are seeing is a political crisis. Over recent years there have been growing concerns about the autocratic turn taken by Prime Minister Gruevski. This has even prompted the EU to suggest that the long standing recommendation to start formal accession talks with Macedonia, which has been an EU candidate since 2005, could be rescinded. Meanwhile, worries about the country have grown significantly over the past few months. Since February, the opposition has been releasing tapped conversations that appear to show that the government has been involved in a stunning array of serious misdeed and political skullduggery, including voter fraud, manipulating the justice system and even covering up a murder. As a result, there has seen rising public opposition to the regime, culminating in serious demonstrations this past week.
It is against this backdrop that we have now seen serious clashes between police and what are being described as ‘terrorists’ in the city of Kumanovo, close to the border of Serbia and Kosovo. To many observers, the timing just seems too suspicious. Questions are being asked as to whether the government has somehow orchestrated this in order to divert attention away from the growing scandal. This may certainly sound implausible to outsiders. The problem is that such views cannot be easily dismissed as Balkan conspiracy theorising. Given the evidence of serious wrongdoings by the government, many people believe that the administration is more than capable of staging a terrorist attack in order to stay in power. This in itself is an indication of just how grim the political situation in Macedonia is.
Crucially, it is important to stress that these claims do not mean that the country is not in fact facing some sort of armed insurgency. It is more than possible that a separatist group is indeed trying to take advantage of the political instability in the country. We just don’t know as yet. However, one must be wary about promoting the idea that this means that the country is teetering on the verge of serious renewed ethnic conflict, as it did in 2001. For a start, leaders of the Albanian community have been quick to stress that there will be no return to fighting. And to my mind there does seem a genuine will to avoid bloodshed. Also, the recent anti-government protests have seen the country’s various communities come out onto the streets to demonstrate together. (I also saw at first hand how a protest at the university earlier this year crossed ethnic boundaries.) Nevertheless, the situation is fraught with danger. Until the political situation is resolved, there is always the risk, however small, that it could take a turn for the worse and develop a violent ethnic dimension. This is why it needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
2. What could/should the EU do?
The European Union needs to take a much firmer role than it has done to date. At the moment, there is a political mediation process conducted by three MEPs. However, this is simply not enough. There needs to be much higher level intervention. Obviously, the EU faces a number of very serious challenges at the moment, such as Russia and Ukraine and the horrific situation in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it is imperative that senior officials, as well as leaders from the member states, recognise the dangers of the current crisis in Macedonia and respond urgently to resolve the situation. What would this mean in real terms? The current thinking is that some form of interim transitional government is needed in advance of fresh elections (properly monitored, of course). Beyond that, the EU will need to take steps to rebuild and consolidate democracy in the country. The best way to do this will be to open accession talks. However, for this to happen Greece will need to lift its veto. One sincerely hopes that this will happen. This is not to say that Athens must abandon its position that a solution to the name issue needs to be found. Rather, it is about the Greek Government behaving in a responsible manner and recognising that the political stability of its northern neighbour is far more important to its interests than ongoing turmoil and possibly conflict.