Macedonia's Ethnic and Political Tensions

4 MINS READAug 30, 2012 | 10:15 GMT
Supporters of the Macedonia's Social Democratic Union of Macedonia protest in Skopje in December 2010

Macedonia's minority ethnic Albanian political party threatened Aug. 27 to abandon the government coalition in protest of a law it believes benefits the ethnically Macedonian military. This threat shows how both members of Macedonia's ruling coalition have resorted to nationalism to maintain popular support as the Macedonian economy slows down. In recent weeks, the relationship between the party representing ethnic Macedonians and the party representing ethnic Albanians has deteriorated due to this use of nationalism to win support before local elections in March. As a result, Macedonia is now heading toward political paralysis, which will affect its domestic and foreign policy goals.

On Aug. 25, Macedonia's ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, presented a draft of a law that would provide economic and social benefits, such as free health services and education and cheaper housing credits, for members of the Macedonian army who participated in the 2001 conflict against Albanian guerrillas. The minority party, Democratic Union for Integration, which is composed of ethnic Albanians, immediately rejected the proposal. According to the Democratic Union for Integration, surviving Albanian fighters were defending their civil rights and thus deserve the same benefits as members of the Macedonian military. The party has threatened to leave the coalition if their demands are not met.

Macedonia's Ethnic Tensions

Map of Macedonia

Map of Macedonia

Macedonia has a fragile social balance. Ethnic Macedonians are the majority, but ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of the total population. In February 2001, an armed group of Albanian activists known as the Albanian Liberation Army rose up against the central government, demanding greater rights for the Albanian minority.

The result of this conflict — in which about 150 people were killed — was the Ohrid Agreement, which extended the rights of ethnic Albanians. As a result of the agreement, Albanian was recognized as an official language and Albanians were allowed greater participation in government institutions, the police and the army. Since then, all government coalitions have been formed by one of the Macedonian political parties and at least one of the Albanian parties. But despite the Ohrid Agreement, ethnic tensions persist in Macedonia, and episodes of ethnic violence are still frequent.

Political Calculations

The ruling party is trying to use this military law to secure popular support from its ethnic Macedonian voting base at a time of political and economic turmoil. Several developments have led to the government's fear of losing popular support. Macedonia will hold local elections in March 2013 and the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, has begun a strong campaign against the government, with weekly rallies in major cities. In July, the party announced an alliance with the Democratic Party of Albanians — one of Macedonia's largest ethnic Albanian parties.

The slowdown of Macedonia's economy is the government's biggest source of concern. On Aug. 1, the Central Bank of Macedonia revised its forecast for the country's gross domestic product growth in 2012 — to 1 percent from 2 percent — mainly due to a reduction in exports to the European Union and other Balkan countries. On Aug. 28, the Finance Ministry denied rumors that it would devaluate Macedonia's national currency, the denar.

A second concern is the Macedonian government's failure to make substantial progress in its foreign policy goals. Macedonia aspires to join NATO and the European Union, but negotiations have stalled on both fronts. Greece systematically blocks Macedonia's access to NATO and the European Union as a result of a dispute over the use of the name Macedonia. Greece believes that by using the name Macedonia, Skopje may feel entitled to make territorial claims over the Greek province of the same name. No significant progress was made on this issue at the latest NATO summit, which took place in May.

The political and economic crisis in Greece has further complicated the negotiations because it has left Athens with neither the time nor the will to negotiate with Skopje. Furthermore, the continuing financial crisis in the European Union has substantially delayed negotiations. Brussels already worries about fundamental issues — such as the independence and quality of Macedonian institutions — that affect Macedonia's potential accession.

Finally, there is an internal struggle between the parties of the ruling coalition. On Aug. 16, Macedonian Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian, visited a monument to the Albanian guerrilla fighters killed in 2001. Besimi's move generated the immediate criticism of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his party. The proposal of benefits for Macedonian veterans could be meant to a large extent as an act of political revenge against the Democratic Union for Integration.

Looking Ahead

Gruevski is the most popular politician in Macedonia, but his party is losing support and has decided to appeal to nationalist elements — even if that means creating tensions with its partner in government.

If the Democratic Union for Integration decides to leave the government, Gruevski's party is likely to call for early elections, believing it will be better to hold the general elections along with local elections early in 2013, before the economic crisis causes the situation in Macedonia to further deteriorate. The Democratic Union for Integration said it would seek an alliance with opposition parties to prevent early elections.

Even without early general elections, tensions between all the political forces in Macedonia will increase in the coming months, especially as local elections approach. This pre-election climate will bring about more street protests and rallies sponsored by both the government and the opposition. While a substantial increase in ethnic violence is not to be expected, the political stalemate will prevent Skopje from making significant progress in its foreign policy goals.

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