Inter-ethnic tensions have recently been on the rise in Macedonia. The convicting to life imprisonment of six Albanians accused of killing five ethnic Macedonians during 2012 Orthodox Easter near Skopje has triggered mass demonstration on behalf of the Albanian community living in the country. Opposition to the police last Friday led to at least twenty injured demonstrators. Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski declared yesterday that “The state won’t let these protests escalate to an extent where they can jeopardise the interests of the people and the [country’s] institutions”.
“The state won’t let these protests escalate”
The PM’s words follow the recent events that opposed the police to young ethnic Albanians who had rallied in Skopje and other cities composed of a majority of Albanians in order to protest against the life imprisonment for terrorism of the six ethnic Albanians. Authorities have also asked for the people not to answer to “extremist groups” manipulations.
The case underlines the rising opposition between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in a country where the latter represent about a quarter of the population, the largest ethnic minority in the country. Disagreements are mainly due to their different religions, respectively Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The country, which had been relatively spared from inter-ethnic violence after the break-up of Yugoslavia, underwent great tensions from 2001 onwards, when the Albanian minority started demanding greater rights. The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo had forced thousands of Albanians to stream into Macedonia. Since then, the Ohrid Agreement, signed with the support of the European Union and NATO, had guaranteed a unitary Macedonian state, reinforced by its EU candidate status since 2005.
Nevertheless, last week’s marches have highlighted a rather precarious stability. In March 2013, riots had started from the Macedonian side after Talat Xhaferi, a former Albanian guerrilla commander was appointed as defence minister. In April of the same year, Johan Tarculovski, the only Macedonian convicted of war crimes against Albanians by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, was granted a hero’s welcome as he came back to Skopje, raising disagreement from the Albanian community. Winter 2013 saw the opposition of the two ethnic groups over the building of a new Orthodox Christian Church in a Muslim-dominated village.
Eventually last week, two to three thousand protesters chanted slogans against the government, the “terrorist police” and in favour of a “Greater Albania”. This last idea is the irredentist concept that calls for the reunification of Albanian’s homeland, over the territorial parts of Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Macedonia. The Albanian website Albeu called for “all Albanians from all cities [to] ask for protection of [their] brothers to the state.” It also affirmed that “NATO, the international community and the US to support [them] in the big Albanian dream, that of Ethnic Albania. The future of the Balkans is the Albanian youth". Their progression towards the Court of Justice was stopped by the police that fired teargas and stun grenades.
Neighbouring countries concerned
The multiplication of such interethnic clashes gives rise to concerns both within and outside Macedonia. Albanian Foreign Minister declared that “Violence does not help in resolving this issue and undermines the harmony and inter-ethnic relations between communities,” while Kosovo’s government called for a “mutual dialogue” and the “respect of fundamental constitutional and institutional rights”.
Despite their increasing representation, Albanians still claim unequal involvement in government ministries and public enterprises. The US Department of State’s 2013 Country Report on Human Rights Practices underlined that out of the 123 Parliament seats, only 23 were obtained by Albanians while other ethnic minorities accounted for 13 seats. These figures contradict the Ohrid Agreement principles, which stated that “The multi-ethnic character of Macedonia’s society must be preserved and reflected in public life”, notably in the public administration. Rural inhabitants, for their part, nourish resentment towards the State, blamed for hiding issues of corruption and absence of integration policies through destabilising the country.
Recent provocation and violence from extremists reported in urban and rural areas alike, have been reinforcing misunderstandings and prejudices on both sides.
Author : Laura Gounon