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Analysis 19 Apr 12

Unsolved Killings Raise Fears of Macedonian Turmoil

The recent murders near Skopje have fuelled concerns that Macedonia is again heading towards all-out ethnic conflict.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska | Photo by: AP/Boris Grdanoski

“We have serious information that could lead to a resolution of the case but it will take time and patience to analyze the data.”

So said Macedonia’s Police Minister Gordana Jankulovska on Wednesday, choosing her words carefully when talking of the murder case that has shocked and divided the country.

The brutal slaying of five men near the capital, Skopje, last Thursday has sharply raised tensions between Macedonians and the large ethnic Albanian minority following unsubstantiated rumors that the killers were Albanians.

Police discovered the bodies of Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski and Kire Trickovski, on the northern outskirts of the capital at a popular fishing destination.

All the victims were aged between 18 and 20. The body of 45-year-old Borce Stevkovski was a short distance away from the rest.

Police calls for restraint following the grisly discovery did not help much - nor did condemnations by political parties from across the ethnic spectrum.

Nor did offers from neighboring Kosovo and Albania of full support for the investigation and condolences to the families of the victims.

On Monday police battled to prevent a mob of Macedonian youngsters from moving across the Vardar River towards an area of the capital mainly populated by Albanians.

The murder took place at Zelezarsko Ezero near Skopje | Photo by: AP/Boris Grdanoski

In this atmosphere of suspicion, the publication by news portals from Kosovo this week of a document signed by the “Liberation Army of the Occupied Albanian Territories”, allegedly based in Mitrovica in Kosovo, has only added to the confusion.

In its message, this organization threatened violence towards Macedonia if it failed to evacuate “occupied and colonized Albanian territories” – meaning mainly Albanian parts of western Macedonia.

However, while attacking the alleged oppression of Albanians in Macedonia, the organization did not assume responsibility for last week’s killings.

On Tuesday, Police Minister Jankulovska gave the press release short shrift. “From our analysis, the organization is known and has come up before with statements not always related to Macedonia but to other neighbouring countries, some of which have not proven exact or true,” she said.

While Macedonians hurry to point accusing fingers in various directions, some observers blame the long-term poor political management of Albanian-Macedonian relations not for the murders themselves but for the ethnic polarization that has taken place since the murders.

But while many blame the politicians for stoking ethnic intolerance, few believe the incidents will spiral up into a repeat of the armed conflict that the country experienced in 2001.

That year Macedonia suffered a nationwide insurgency pitting the security forces against an armed and highly effective ethnic Albanian guerilla force.

The fighting ended with the brokering of the Ohrid Accord, which guaranteed greater rights to Albanians who make up about a quarter of country’s 2.1 million.

Although some see today’s situation as similar to that in 2001, the difference is that “no relevant factor from in Macedonia nor from the international community wants another redefinition of the country”, says Stevo Pendarovski, political advisor to former presidents Boris Trajkovski and Branko Crvenkovski.

Pendarovski believes the 2001 crisis was largely imported from neighboring Kosovo, which saw a bloody war in the late 1990s between the province’s majority Albanian population and the Serb police and military.

Riots in Skopje erupted on Monday | Photo by: AP/Boris Grdanoski

Although the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, paramilitary forces were still at large and weapons flowed freely across porous borders.

But today Kosovo is an independent state, firmly anchored to the US, with an interest in regional stability.

It started in Gostivar:

Strain between the country’s two main communities has been rising since February when an off-duty Macedonian policeman shot dead two young Albanians in the northwestern town of Gostivar.

The murder was immediately portrayed as having an ethnic dimension and Albanians took to the streets of Gostivar in protest.

After that the country experienced its worst inter-ethnic gang violence in years, with gangs of hooligans from both ethnicities attacking people on streets and in buses.

The violence subsided in the second half of March after police arrested some suspects and seized caches of weapons.

Ismet Ramadani, a former Macedonian MP and political analyst, says the country has become increasingly vulnerable to ethnic provocations.

He pins most of the blame on the nationalist government of Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO party.

Since VMRO DPMNE took power in 2006, Macedonia has missed an opportunity to build ethnic cohesion in the spirit of the 2001 agreement, he says.

“The Gruevski government is pursuing a nationalistic and conservative policy, which creates tension and anxieties in a multiethnic society like Macedonia,” he says.

Pendarovski agrees. “All recent international reports on Macedonia have pinpointed the ethnic sphere as worryingly neglected,” he says.

“Our politicians are not able to manage even simple ethnic problems let alone something as complicated as a murder of five men.”

Pendarovski recalls the ugly series of incidents in the Struga area of southwest Macedonia in January after Macedonians in the village of Vevcani crudely mocked the Muslim faith in a carnival.

Riot police in the capital | Photo by: Maja Zlatevska

In revenge, a Macedonian Orthodox church was set on fire and the Macedonian flag was burned.

“The two mayors, one Macedonian and the other Albanian, did not find the time for reconciliation over a cup of coffee,” Pendarovski notes.

“There are no reasons within the system for a new war like in 2001 but there are structural reasons for constant tensions and incidents,” he says.

But, he adds, “With this current tempo of incidents in a year or two we may plunge into a spiral of violence and then find ourselves in need of international help.”

Mysterious plots:

Some experts believe the killings were a deliberate terrorist act aimed at destabilizing the country, though they remain coy about who or which country exactly lies behind the alleged plot.

Former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, now an MP in the ruling coalition, says the murders were “a classic terrorist act that may have dire consequences for the peace and stability of the country, heavier even than the [1995] assassination attempt against President Kiro Gligorov”.

Judging by the still unresolved nature of the case of Gligorov, who narrowly survived a car bomb assassination in October 1995, finding the perpetrators will not be easy.

Biljana Vankovska, professor at Skopje’s Institute for War and Peace Studies, also says Macedonia is a target of plot, namely a “special war” aimed at weakening its international position one month before the Chicago NATO summit on May 20-21.
The summit is seen as a crucial opportunity for the country to advance its case to join the Alliance.

Macedonia failed to get an invitation to join NATO at the 2008 Bucharest summit owing to a Greek blockade related to the unresolved bilateral name dispute.

[Greece insists that use of the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim to the Greek northern province of the same name].

“Those who commissioned the terrorist act have planned a scenario for this special war, predicting that the action will be followed by a reaction,” Vankovska said, not specifying who “those” are.

“The place of the murder, the day, the electrified ethnic relations have caused a spiral of events, something that the planners also successfully predicted,” she added.

Vankovska maintains that Macedonia “keeps falling for this special war, reacting naively, like children”.

International concern:

Meanwhile international worries about Macedonia’s stability are growing.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the country’s EU NATO, OSCE mission heads and the US embassy urged people “to remain calm and refrain from speculation or unfounded allegations, and to show patience for the investigative process to take its course.

“We support the government’s efforts to pursue the investigation and legal procedures in the timeliest manner possible and encourage the co-operation of the public in gathering all available information on these killings,” the statement added.

Frosina Tasevska, professor at Skopje’s Faculty for Security Studies, says time is running out for Macedonia’s irresponsible politicians to pull the country back from the brink.

“Most of the responsibility [for the current tension] lies with the political parties” that should start using their influence to “neutralize the negative emotions” generated over the past few days, she says.

“We need sober heads and much political and civil maturity to stay away from influences who aim to radicalize the inter-ethnic climate,” she adds.

In the meantime, “institutions should be allowed time to give answers about the killers and their motives as soon as possible”.

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Unsolved Killings Raise Fears of Macedonian Turmoil

The recent murders near Skopje have fuelled concerns that Macedonia is again heading towards all-out ethnic conflict.