What Happened in Macedonia, and Why

A new flare-up in a troubled democracy

Protesters at Macedonia's parliament
Protesters at Macedonia's parliament (Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters)

It would have been a breakthrough for Macedonia—a government finally in place after two years of political crisis—if it hadn’t turned bloody.

On Thursday, Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) announced that Talat Xhaferi had been elected speaker of parliament, paving the way for a coalition between his party and parties representing ethnic Albanians, who comprise between one-quarter and one-third of Macedonia’s population, to form a government. (No one knows the exact proportion because there has been no census since 2002, as the parties cannot agree to hold one.)For the last 15 years, ethnic-Albanian parties have been represented in every government, but the conservative-nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) has tried to portray Zaev’s coalition as a vehicle for a coup and eventual takeover of Macedonia by ethnic Albanians, who have higher birth rates than ethnic Macedonians.*

Moments after Zaev announced the election of Xhaferi,  Macedonia’s first ethnic-Albanian speaker since its separation from Yugoslavia in 1991, some 200 supporters of the VMRO-DPMNE stormed the building. Zaev and others were beaten. Journalists and MPs were hospitalized. SDSM deputy leader Radmila Sekerinska received stitches in the hospital, and ethnic Albanian MP Zijadin Sela was dragged, blood streaming from his face, across the assembly floor; he would later receive treatment for brain injuries. Riot police eventually quelled the protests with stun grenades in order to extricate journalists and MPs who had been stuck inside. In total, some 100 people, including nine members of parliament, were injured.

A spasm of shocking political violence in Macedonia, which is on the front lines of the European refugee crisis, was, perhaps, long overdue. The VMRO-DPMNE has held the country’s prime ministership and a majority in parliament for the past 10 years. But support for party has slipped in recent years over accusations of corruption, high levels of unemployment, and a controversial, nearly $1 billion-renovation of the capital. In last December’s elections, it eked out a narrow victory. But its efforts to form a government were thwarted by an absence of coalition partners. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s leader, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, has refused to cede power to Zaev’s Social Democrats; President Gjorge Ivanov has also refused to allow Zaev to form a government. His refusal to recognize the SDSM arguably helped ignite Thursday’s bloody spectacle: For months, he has said that having SDSM in power jeopardizes Macedonian sovereignty. Though his largely ceremonial position should be apolitical, he has been privileging VMRO-DPMNE by blocking SDSM from forming the government.  

The tiny country was thrown into political turmoil in 2015, when Zaev facilitated the release of 670,000 wiretapped recordings of phone conversations on 20,000 phone numbers. Zaev released those which involved public officials, containing allegations of corruption, electoral fraud, and even the cover up of an alleged murder. The release of the recordings set off daily protests in Skopje and elsewhere that escalated last year after Ivanov's attempted pardons. The demonstrations were dubbed “The Colorful Revolution,” with protesters throwing colored paintballs at government institutions, especially those renovated as part of Gruevski’s neoclassical facelift.

It is unclear where Zaev obtained the recordings, but an independent investigation by the European Commission found that the wiretaps had been orchestrated by the national security services on orders from top government officials. A special prosecutor was set up by EU mediators to investigate the allegations in the wiretaps.

VMRO-DPMNE, for its part, rejects the allegations raised in the wiretaps, and claims they were doctored by a foreign-intelligence agency intent on destabilizing the country. SDSM claims that VMRO-DPMNE has clung to power over fears of prosecution stemming from the wiretaps. VMRO-DPMNE leaders, including Gruevski and his cousin, former head of secret police Saso Mijalkov, are facing investigation and indictments by a special prosecutor set up to investigate the wiretap allegations. Last year, Ivanov preemptively pardoned officials under investigation by the special prosecutor, but after months of protests and international pressure, he walked the pardons back.

The wiretaps helped incite Macedonia’s worst political crisis since the country narrowly averted a civil war in 2001 instigated by ethnic Albanian insurgents fighting for greater political representation. The war came to an end with the Ohrid Agreement, which expanded the rights of ethnic Albanians, instituted the official use of the Albanian language in municipalities where Albanians are a majority, and required that an ethnic Albanian party be included as a junior-coalition member of every government. Though some of the Albanian parties had been part of VMRO-DPMNE governments, this time, after weeks of negotiations, they  refused to join, due in part to lack of concessions and because of revelations in the wiretaps.

After the Ohrid Agreement, the EU and NATO promised Macedonia paths to membership. But accession remains blocked: Greece disputes Macedonia's very name, saying it implies that the former Yugoslav republic wants to expand to the Greek region of the same name—it doesn’t. Macedonia has been a candidate country for EU membership since 2005 but democratic indicators have been slipping since then, with the EU last year raising concerns about “state capture of institutions and key sectors of society.”

In 2015, as the wiretaps were being published, police raided an ethnic Albanian neighborhood in the city of Kumanovo, where they said separatists were plotting attacks on state institutions. Many believe the raid was staged to distract from the wiretap revelations and precipitate a state of emergency. The violent raid, in which eight police and 14 alleged attackers were killed, inflamed tensions, but has remained shrouded in mystery, with little information published about the actual risk posed by those who were killed or why the raid was so poorly executed. Thirty ethnic Albanians were charged with terrorism, but the court proceedings were almost all closed to the media over national security concerns—an explanation many journalists don’t buy. (There is no verdict, but it is unclear whether or not the trial itself has finished.)

Despite an agreement brokered by the EU which led to the December elections, tensions between the social democrats and nationalists have escalated. The VMRO-DPMNE has declared “de-Sorosization” a top priority, a reference to George Soros, the wealthy philanthropist who funds progressive causes across Europe, including in Macedonia. The editor in chief of MIA, the state-run news agency, is among the leaders of an NGO called “Stop Operation Soros,” which wants to expose organizations that receive money from him.

On the political front, after failing to form a coalition, the VMRO-DPMNE has alleged that an SDSM-led government would change the Macedonian flag, state symbols, and language, into one representing only Albanian interests—a mischaracterization, according to Ana Petruseva, executive director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Macedonia. But any changes would need the support of a two-thirds majority, meaning that they would not pass given the current composition of the assembly. In February, Gruevski wrote on his Facebook page that “people have to stand up and defend Macedonian national interests, and not stay at home in their slippers.” The next day his supporters took to the streets.

The violence in the parliament “was part of a deliberate strategy to escalate the conflict,” Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies in Graz, Austria, told me. “This was also the reason the opposition has been avoiding protests in recent weeks to not take the bait. The … ruling party’s [plan] has been to instigate street violence which would justify either a state of emergency or new elections and avoid a hand over of power.”

One Western diplomat familiar with the situation told me this isn’t about inter-ethnic tensions, despite appearances. “It is about a criminal regime doing everything it can to stay in power,” the diplomat said. VMRO-DPMNE has escalated its political rhetoric and use of violence in order to negotiate amnesty for crimes linked to the wiretaps, activist Ivana Jordanovska alleged. “The continuous instigating of the protests with violent rhetoric has been done in order to provoke violence, and invite SDSM to negotiations. The smokescreen would be that the negotiations are a way to calm down tensions, when in fact, VMRO would try to get amnesty.”

On Thursday, the U.S. embassy in Macedonia condemned the violence as did the EU. Both see Xhaferi's election as legitimate. Gruevski, who was in Vienna at the time parliament was stormed, issued a statement on Facebook in which he tried to condemn the protesters' violence but seemed to support their cause. Petruseva and others have said that the reason the violence got as bad as it did is that the special police, which is controlled by a VMRO official, waited for more than an hour before intervening. She expects the EU to begin sanctioning individuals. “Politically I think this was VMRO’s funeral. Can anyone see them as a legitimate partner after this?”

Bieber said that EU leaders have continued to work with Balkan leaders showing autocratic tendencies because they have prioritized stability over democracy, (he has dubbed these places “stabilitocracies”). “There are number of other autocrats and if the EU does not take up the issue more aggressively there will be more Macedonian scenarios.”

Zaev, Petruseva said, came across as a hero, staying in the parliament with a bandaged head and refusing to resort to violence. Yet it is unclear how the deeply polarized country will manage to move forward. Some protesters indicated an intention to camp in front of the parliament and prevent future sessions.

Only eight people have been detained so far for the violence, a fraction of the 40 or so who were hospitalized for injuries sustained in the parliament. And with VMRO-DPMNE controlling most of the state institutions and almost half of the votes in the Assembly, even holding the next session will be a challenge.

* This article previously incorrectly stated that the Macedonian constitution regulates the level of Albanian participation in government institutions.