North Macedonia

Macedonia Update: Gridlocked April

Over the last weeks the amount of flags in the city centres of Skopje and other Macedonian cities has increased excessively. Red-yellow scraps of cloth flutter at street lights, stickers are glued to front doors, from kitchen windows falls the Macedonian sun, the flag waves proudly in the wind at every public building, the city centre of Bitola is lined with flags and in Prilep a red and yellow scarf hangs down the clock tower.

Since over 50 days several thousand people protest daily in Skopje for a joint Macedonia, the Civic Initiative for a Joint Macedonia stands behind those rallies. Their roaring chants, drum beats and aggressive whistles bang through the centre, passed Alexander the Great, over the river Vardar and up to the old fortress which is overlooking the city since centuries.

Young and old people come from every part of the country to the capital to protest for a joint Macedonia. They all are supporters of the nationalist-conservative party VMRO-DPMNE which made up the government since 2006. They hit bad headlines with, among others, horrendous public spending for the disputed architecture project Skopje2014, a wiretapping affair, organized crime and election fraud – this did not receive negative coverage in the public media though which instead outlines their merit for the protection of their own country. Hence, a protest in favour of a “joint” Macedonia unavoidably also means a protest “against the announced formation of a new, opposition-led, coalition government” (Balkan Insight, 11.04.2017) of the Social-Democratic Party “SDSM” with the Albanian Party “DUI”. Apparently, the country has to be protected against the threat of the federalization, splitting and the destruction through the Albanian minority and their domestic (social democratic) and foreign (namely Albanian) “allies”.

Albanian Macedonians vs. Macedonian Macedonians?

The confusing part of this story for foreigners is that in Macedonia not the nationality, but instead the ethnicity is decisive for the national identity. This means that the roughly 25% of Macedonian citizen whose ethnicity and mother tongue is Albanian, but who are still born and raised in Macedonia (and who are therefore often fluent in Macedonian) are considered “Albanians”, after all. “Macedonians” on the other hand are all the other people with a Macedonian passport, descendants of the Slavic people (or, Alexander the Great himself, to be concrete).

To have more equality between the ethnic groups the “Albanian platform” was founded after the elections in December 2016. This platform is by now called “Tirana/Tiranian platform” in the populist vernacular. The Albanian prime minister Edi Rama moderated the dialogue between three of four Macedonian Albanian parties in the Albanian capital, Tirana, in order to work out a catalogue with demands for less discrimination of Albanians by the state. The demands are based on the wording of the “Ohrid Agreement” which was signed by representatives from all political parties in Macedonia after the violent ethnical conflict in 2011. Still, the revival of those demands are  interpreted in Macedonia as if Rama is personally seeking influence on Macedonian politics.

A concrete demand of the Albanian platform is the introduction of Albanian as second official language in Macedonia. This requires a constitutional change and it appears to be a direct threat of the Macedonian identity for many. Statements – with or without context – of Albanian politicians from Macedonia or Albania who question the (modern) Macedonian identity or even speak about a “Great Albania” fuel these fears of losing the own and encourage the unreflecting desire to fight against any progressive change.   

Searching for the Macedonian Identity

Macedonia looks back at a tumultuous past where the small country was mostly entangled (and lost) in something bigger: Yugoslavia, the Osman Empire, the Great Bulgarian Empire. Macedonian Nationalists wistfully look back to the times of Alexander the Great, when their beloved country was powerful and influential. The hero myth which derives from that strives to overwrite the history of the last 2000 years and is manifested through equestrian statues and splendid (illusionistic) architecture in Skopje. Over and over president Ivanov repeats his concern: “We will not give up on Macedonia. The Tirana platform is a direct threat to the independence of Macedonia.” The question is – what is it really that he tries to hold on to?

He and his supporters present the Social Democrats (who support the demands of the Albanian platform) as traitors. As “criminal” stands especially Zoran Zaev, head of SDSM, in the pillory. Zaev is with big parts responsible for the focus on inter-ethnic dialogue of his party, seizing the opportunity for change after the elections. During the election campaign SDSM’s party programme did not prove to be very progressive about ethnic issues. Through this turn Zaev succeeded to, in the first time of the young Macedonian republic, receive extensive Albanian support for a Macedonian party.

The situation in Macedonia now is the following: primarily the country deals with a crisis of democracy. Reason for this is the president’s refusal to hand the mandate for forming a government to SDSM. He is acting against the constitution – and knows it very well – but defends this decision with the endangered Macedonian identity. The members of parliament belonging to VMRO-DPMNE stall with endless speeches any progress in parliament. To secure their own powerful positions in government the VMRO-DPMNE politicians also instrumentalize self-servingly the schisms between Albanians and Macedonians. Many of those live in their own communities and their ethnic bubbles and do not feel anything but scorn and hatred for the others who they barely know. In Skopje’s Albanian quarter Cair Macedonian sign posts are covered in black paint and graffitis say “Cair is not Macedonia”. The two-headed Albanian eagle adorns the street scape. In the Macedonian quarter Aerodrom on the other hand, where the Macedonian flag waves in the wind, the Albanian names at signs are covered up, you would barely hear Albanian and especially not at night.

The blame for the political crisis, watched with concern by international observers, is pinned to Albanian “terrorists” (supported by Western agencies and their agendas) by national media and that should be why the protection of the motherland would be the only logical consequence. Ironically, such an ethnical, nationalist conflict is ideal to distract from one’s own failures and real problems and leading politicians of the former government know that.

Even though Zoran Zaev and the Social Democrats definitely do not have a clean slate – they grew up in an illiberal and corrupted political system – one has to grant them their important efforts to opening up and changing their country with their approach towards the Albanians. Opposite to VMRO-DPMNE they allow public criticism of their party, focus increasingly – yet hesitantly – on socio-political issues and do not show totalitarian structures. Progressive organizations, initiatives and experts see potential in SDSM to bring a gradual improvement of the situation in the country.

Never-satisfied Albanians vs. benevolent Macedonians?

Macedonian media present Albanians as never satisfied, asking for more and more, putting the country at risk. In this rhetoric they are not presented as an equal part of the country, but as a group which has patriotic feels only towards the Southwestern neighbour Albania and which only intends to “thank” the efforts taken by the benevolent Macedonian state for includion by scratching the country off the map. While there surely are too many nationalist Albanians who perceive Macedonians and Macedonia with the same non-reflective, closed-minded perspective as it is vice-versa and who rather want to see mosques built than schools, it still is left out of the argument that Albanians are holders of the same passport as Macedonians. They have lived in their cities for decades and centuries and they are not recent settlers who are being generously allowed in the country.

It is also left out of the argument that a constitutional change in Macedonia (such as adding an official language) demands a two-third majority in parliament, which would be 80 of the 120 members of parliament. Together the SDSM and the Albanian parties have only 69 voices meaning that their request would need support from VMRO-DPMNE politicians who could still block it if it would come to parliament. This makes the protest at core nothing more than a grand show, directed by VMRO-DPMNE, to prevent a new, progressive government which will debunk the criminal activities of their predecessors.

Ways away from the dead end?

International intermediaries – diplomats, foreign ministers, EU representatives and such – are regular visitors in Macedonia at the moment, but their demands and exhortations fall on deaf ears. At some point sanctions against individuals were under debate, but that did not happen.

National agents and international observers hoped that the parliament would move out of their self-created deadlock situation before Easter, but that did not happen either. Instead the rhetoric keeps tapering as no side scares back from insults and accusations, often unfounded. In the meantime, cleavages are sharpening between three factions of society. On one side are the Macedonians, on one side are the Albanians – and somewhere in between despair progressive forces from both sides who care about political opinions and reform more than about ethnicity. Four months after the elections in Macedonia the situation draws a sobering picture and the question, debated by everyone, is what it needs to loosen up this gridlocked situation. The search for the answer continues.

A little bit more to read:

Balkan Insight, 11.04.2017:

The Macedonian constitution, of special interest art. 129-131 about constitutional change:

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