A political crisis has led to ethnic tensions and street violence in Macedonia, while leaders who could combat prejudice and nationalism have been fanning the flames instead.
Fear and insecurity are on the rise in Macedonia. Again. Less than three weeks before local elections in the country, ethnic violence erupted. Again.
After a two-month-long political crisis, a deal to ensure that all sides participate in the elections was reached under huge diplomatic pressure from the EU. But the deal was preceded by a series of events that illustrated that the country’s democracy has fallen seriously ill.
The crisis started when opposition MPs and journalists were thrown out of the parliament’s plenary hall and the ruling party voted on the 2013 budget on its own on December 24 last year. People were beaten by riot police in front of parliament.
Opposition leader Branko Crvenkovski, a former president, was one of those hit by their truncheons. Another group went out onto the streets protesting against the protesters. People versus people images have become rather frequent here in the past several years.
The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party has taken control of the media, spewing out hate speech, promoting nationalistic and masculine supremacy, and putting the blame for all that’s wrong on the shoulders of the opposition and particularly its leader Crvenkovski.
Ethnic Macedonian opposition parties refused to participate in parliament sessions after the events on December 24 and called for a boycott of this month’s local elections. ‘People’s parliament’ sessions were held on the streets throughout the country.
The deal that was struck by the EU mediators included the return of the opposition to parliament, participation in the local elections, the formation of a commission on the December 24 events, and talks about early parliamentary elections.
The last clause was set out in a vague diplomatic language, which enabled both sides to claim political victory, with the ruling party saying that early elections were not scheduled and the opposition stating that they will be held on September 28. Politics as usual in Macedonia…
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski went for a mini government reshuffle, appointing former ethnic Albanian commander Talat Xhaferi as defence minister, which sparked a vociferous reaction from nationalists who insisted that a former officer with the rebel National Liberation Army, NLA, cannot be the country’s defence chief.
Almost 12 years after the ethnically-driven six-month war in Macedonia and the Ohrid peace accord which included an amnesty for NLA fighters; after Xhaferi working as a deputy defence minister right after the war and becoming a longtime member of parliament, his latest appointment was a huge problem.
It was expected. The country’s leadership has practiced highly nationalistic politics for a number of years now, boosting militant nationalism through its policies. Hundreds of millions of euro have been thrown into projects and propaganda that nurtured national chauvinism and discrimination. Unquestionably, there could have been no other reaction.
A group of about hundred hooligans, ethnic Macedonians, protested violently against Xhaferi’s appointment a week ago, on March 1. After clashing with riot police, they went on the rampage in the streets, attacking ethnic Albanians, including women and children.
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele was probably still in the air when this unrest broke out, flying back from Macedonia after brokering the compromise deal between the opposition and the ruling party.
The response came on Saturday. A couple of thousand ethnic Albanians, including their own hooligans, protested violently. More violence and more riot police... and more victims of violence. No lives have been claimed yet, fortunately.
A friend and colleague from a peace organisation called me last night, eager to explain that the counter-protests by the Albanians last week were not to defend the new defence minister’s position, but “to protest against the rampage of the ethnic Macedonian fascists”, as he said.
I had no other answer but to invite him to think of non-violent answers to violence. He promised he would, but said that the bitterness and revulsion was overwhelming. The number of reports of violence and intimidation against ethnic Macedonians is also growing.
In this context of this country, political crisis inevitably leads to ethnic tension, completing the picture of a turbulent society in which the political parties have hijacked institutions and diminished democracy. Human rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech and the media, are severely violated on a daily basis.
Nowadays, a political opponent, instead of being an interlocutor, has become a fierce and implacable enemy, more than ever before.
How come inter-ethnic relations always suffer always the most? Well, inter-ethnic relations have been seriously damaged for years. Moreover, this has been done in a systematic way by those who could have prevented it.
Problems arising from dissatisfaction with inefficient policies are usually dealt with by instigating hatred and tensions mainly between the two largest communities in the country, the Macedonians and Albanians.
It’s Thursday morning, 9.30am. My office is already buzzing like a hive with my wonderful colleagues. In a few hours, we will be on Macedonia Street, at the monument to Mother Theresa, taking part in an event called Press4Peace, led by my organisation and about 15 others.
This will happen ahead of the next protests which are expected by ethnic Albanians after Friday prayers. We have learned of plans by ethnic Macedonian groups to take to the streets, too, on Saturday. The madness is far from at its end. Tragedy hangs in the air, while the elites sharpen their claws to take their dirty, bloody winnings.
Xhabir Deralla is a human rights activist and the chairperson of the Civil Centre for Freedom in Skopje.