Macedonia is for most people an unknown country, despite the fact that the Macedonian Flag was considered the most beautiful flag in the world, last February.
The ones that know something about Macedonia, have usually heard only of the name dispute with Greece, which is blocking Macedonia’s membership in the EU and NATO. Many institutions and countries still use the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the formal name for this small state, in the middle of the Balkans. It’s a complicated dispute, but the main problems occurring now in Macedonia have nothing to do with its name.
Macedonia is ethnically divided, the two main groups are the Macedonians (64,2% of its population) and the Albanians (25,2%), but there are also Turkish (3,9%), Roma (2,7%) and Serbs (1,8%). Even its capital is divided, there is no wall but you can feel the differences and mostly, Macedonians do not go to the Albanian part of Skopje. From time to time there are clashes between the two main groups. In 2001 there was a war in Macedonia lasting almost 10 months between the Macedonian government and the Albanian National Liberation Army. Now the Republic of Macedonia, a country that I had the pleasure to live in since the beginning of 2014 during my EVS, is going through a series of demonstrations in its streets for many reasons.
Studentski Plenum, the students’ protest
At the end of 2014, an educational reform in Macedonia made students go to the streets and protest, mobilized by Studentski Plenum, a non-formal group of students. The Macedonian educational reform created an external State-supervised exam, and every student in Macedonia that wants to go to university had to take this external exam.
The new law will improve the quality of the educational system in Macedonia, according to the government, but the new external exams were seen as a government interference in the academic system. The Studentski Plenum agrees that efforts must be made to improve their educational system, but they did not agree with this supervised exam.
Mainly in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, many students have overcrowded the streets. When I first saw the photos I did not believe that was in Macedonia – during my EVS some friends told me that Macedonian people do not like their government, but they never do anything to change it. However, everything has an end, and for Macedonians their dolce far niente has ended, they are sick of having no opportunities for their future and they want to raise their voice against injustice. The Independent did an article about the horrifying dorms for students in Skopje – “Hells of residence”.
The young students, and even their professors, demand not only better conditions for their educational life but also autonomy for their universities. On February 11, they started to proclaim the faculties in Skopje as “autonomous student territories”. Many activities were organized by the students for the students, like the concert of Dubioza Kolektiv at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University during one of the days of Autonomous
A representative of Studentski Plenum said to mladiinfo.eu that her thoughts about the success of these protests were “precisely the fact that all of it was and it still is a collective effort, a singularity of energy that had been accumulating for a long, long time in Macedonia. What is important, I think, for people to understand, is the fact that when something is wrong the logical step that follows is to fix it – not to descend in apathy as it had been the case before, especially regarding student issues, but rather, to take some action, participate in the change you want to see.”
These demonstrations achieved their goal – the Macedonian government withdrew the educational reform, and will engage students in future talks. Macedonian students cannot stop their fight for a better educational system, they also need to fight for a better future after their studies. Young Macedonians, such as all the young around the world, are a key element in their societies, they are the future of the country and governments must hear what they have to say.
Wiretaps, the Macedonian Bomb
Lately, Macedonian people were out on the streets protesting again, this time because of revelations of wiretapping that the opposition leader Zoran Zaev, from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), started to release in the beginning of the year.
The wiretaps, known as bomba in Macedonian, revealed many corruption scenes from the nine-year government lead by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO – DPMNE), a Christian democratic political party described as nationalist. The fact that the VMRO – DPMNE is a Macedonian nationalist party did not prevent it from making coalitions with political parties that are representing minorities, such as the Albanians.
The current VMRO – DPMNE government has been spending a lot of money in projects using ancient Macedonian figures. Skopje 2014 has turned the Macedonian capital into the Disneyland of the Balkan’s with its classical buildings and statues. One more baroque building will be built in Skopje, replacing the iconic mall in the city center. Last April, Macedonians did a referendum in an attempt to stop this project, but only 40% of the city center’s residents voted, not enough for the referendum to be considered successful.
No one knows where the wiretaps came from, the Macedonian Secret Service (DBK) can be involved or, as the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski says, the wiretaps may have come from an unidentified foreign intelligence service. The wiretaps are illegal, but they show important conversations about many of the problems that Macedonia is currently facing: corruption, bribery, election-rigging, abuse of power, suppressing freedom of the media, violation of the Macedonian constitution, persecution of political opponents, as well as interference in the judiciary and complete disregard for the rule of law.
The European Parliament is hosting the talks between VMRO – DPMNE and SDSM, but a solution is yet to be achieved. The SDSM have been boycotting the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia since the last general elections in April 2014. On 5th of May, Macedonians, including Studentski Plenum, Albanians and other minorities, made an anti-government protest, after the SDSM published another wiretapped conversation where alleged officials tried to cover up the murder of a young man in 2011.
The Macedonian Interior Minister said that 30 people were arrested and that 38 police officers and one civilian were injured during the first day of the protests in front of the government headquarters. NGOs said that Macedonian police used excessive force, tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades to disperse the protesters.
The second day of protest was calmer and was held in front of the Parliament. Protesters were shouting slogans to police officers such as “You should protect us”, but the protesters were the ones that at some point made a cordon to protect the police officers from a group that threw bottles at them.
Former ambassadors to Macedonia showed their sympathy with the protest on Twitter: “No stone palace, no matter how thick the walls, will protect those hiding inside, who have lost all credibility and legitimacy to remain in government, from the will of the people. It’s high time for change,” former EU ambassador Erwan Fouere; the former Dutch ambassador Simone Filippini wrote “Time for change in Macedonia. With positive governance and responsible leadership the country could flourish in no time.”
From Moscow there was a completely different message however – one blaming the protesters, as they were, in their point of view, an attempt from Western countries to cause a “coloured revolution” that can provoke more ethnic tensions in Macedonia.
Kumanovo attack, a revival of THE ethnic clashes
Two days after the demonstrations in Skopje, a police operation was held in Kumanovo, a Macedonian city close to the Serbian border. The National Liberation Army claims it was behind the Kumanovo attack. The Prime Minister Gruevski said that a terrorist group has entered Macedonia from one of the neighboring countries with the aim of attacking government and civilian facilities, and also to commit mass murders, and that the group is connected with the last attack in Gosince. He also said that some of the members fought in Syria.
The Kumanovo attack reminded Macedonia and their neighboring countries of the ethnic tensions existing in the Balkans, especially in the Kumanovo region that was the front line of the war in 2001. Kosovo and Albania condemned the violence, while Serbia sent troops to secure its border with Macedonia. On Monday, Kosovo also reinforced the control of the border with Macedonia – part of the terrorists were Kosovan citizens.
Many organizations, such as the EU and OECD, and political parties, including the Albanian coalition party of the government, called on Macedonian citizens and institutions to remain calm in order to avoid an escalation of tensions between different Macedonian ethnic groups.
Russia called for a wide and constructive dialogue between all parts in Macedonia, in order to maintain regional security, urging the OECD to be a mediator. Similar words arrived from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “It is important that all political and community leaders work together to restore calm and conduct a transparent investigation to establish what happened. I urge everyone to exercise restraint and avoid any further escalation, in the interest of the country and the whole region”.
The President of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov was in Moscow during the Kumanovo attack but had to leave in order to hold the Security Council on Sunday, when the police operation ended. The terrorist group was fully eliminated as the reports said. Eight policemen and 14 members of the armed group died, 37 policemen were wounded and 30 persons of the armed group were handed over to the police during the Kumanovo operation.
The EU delegation to Macedonia canceled the Europe Day reception on the 11 of May, because of the Day of Mourning declared by the Macedonian Government for the police killed in the attack. On Sunday, the Skopje Marathon was also cancelled due the security situation in Macedonia.
Some observers and the SDSM suspect that the police operation was to distract Macedonians from the current crisis that the country is going through. The same opinion is shared by a resident in Kumanovo that told the Turkish Hürriyet Daily News: “this is pure manipulation, this is a stunt by Gruevski to cover up Zaev’s revelations”. Before this operation, the SDSM had announced a mass demonstration on 17 of May, but now it is unclear if the protest will be held, because the Government can declare a state of emergency due to the latest events. No politician is safe in Macedonia, a recent a video tape posted on YouTube shows the opposition SDSM leader Zoran Zaev asking for a EUR 200,000 bribe. The VMRO – DPMNE, that will also make a mass rally next Monday, already asked the judicial bodies to launch one more procedure against Zaev.
The government and the opposition need to reach an agreement. The Parliament boycott is not less democratic than the authoritarianism of the Macedonian government. The situation of the wiretaps needs to be investigated and conclusions need to be reached. The two ministers and the Intelligence Chief involved in the wiretaps already resigned, but this is not enough to bring a fresh air to Macedonian Government. The European Parliament, as a mediator in this situation, can and must make more efforts to help Macedonia in order to not let democracy die. Macedonia is facing important problems that need to be solved soon, during the years, the name issue was a distraction to all of these problems, but now there is no more time to waste. As the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said last week the name issue is “one of the craziest international discussions of all time”.
I share the same opinion as the Macedonian writer for OneEurope, Ivana Dushkova: “these attacks will only strengthen the relationship between Macedonians and Albanians. The people recognize that this is a politically created scenario”. Macedonians have been through a lot in their lives, but it is time to leave the ethnic differences aside and to build a better country together. More and more injustices are brought to light, and Macedonians are determined to end them, that is why they are still in the streets protesting together. They know that they deserve a better future than the one that they are living in right now, but if ethnic violence escalates, it may bring more conflicts to the fragile region of the Balkans.
(*) first published in 0neEurope