A series of dramatic events have been unfolding in the small and historically peaceful Balkan country of Macedonia. Although these events have received much less international attention than Brexit, French elections or even the Eurovision contest, they have significant implications for the rest of Europe and should garner greater attention.
Macedonia is one of the states that emerged peacefully from the former Yugoslavia, and borders Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. In 2015, Macedonia’s conservative government was accused of using the national security services to wiretap up to 20,000 people for its own political gain. To defuse the scandal, the European Union stepped in to help the four main political parties — the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, the Social Democrats, and two small ethnic Albanian parties — negotiate next steps. The conservatives Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski — accused of becoming increasingly autocratic — stepped down, and the country held snap elections in December 2016.
However, while the opposition parties gained seats, no party won a clear majority, and for five months negotiations toward electing a prime minister have been extremely heated. On April 27, legislators finally elected a new parliamentary speaker — Talat Xaferi, an ethnic Albanian from the Social Democrats’ coalition. Protesters supporting the nationalist conservatives were so furious that an angry mob broke into the parliament and attacked lawmakers, bloodying the Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev and injuring 100 others, including MPs and journalists. Nine of the attackers have been convicted; more than 30 others have been charged.
Why should Europe and the world care?
Based on our regional expertise, we can identify several major reasons the world should care about what is happening in Macedonia.
1. Ethnic conflict in the Balkans can be flammable
Demographic estimates for Macedonia are quite dated; there has not been an official census since 2002. But the most recent figures indicate that about 64 percent of the population are ethnic Macedonians (who are Orthodox Christians and speak Macedonian as their native language) and up to 25 percent of the population may be ethnic Albanians (who are traditionally Muslim and speak Albanian in addition to Macedonian).
The ethnic Albanian parties are demanding that their language be added to the nation’s officially recognized languages, among other specifics. The conservatives contend that these are dangerous steps toward redrawing the region’s borders to make way for a Greater Albania. And they warn that any attempt to redraw Balkan borders would lead to violence and war.
And so the mob attack on Macedonia’s parliament put the region on alert. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić called an emergency meeting and mobilized his nation’s military, lest conflict boil over. Zaev has since accused Serbia of hostility toward Macedonia.
2. The E.U. and U.S. have played an unclear and somewhat ambivalent role
Upon the recent violence in the Macedonian legislature, the United States and many European governments almost immediately recognized the new speaker-elect, Talat Xaferi, despite the fact that the vote lacked the necessary quorum and violated important procedural rules, including electronic voting.
This immediate recognition of the vote contrasts with attempts to negotiate a truce in a neutral manner. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Hoyt Lee, appointed under President Barack Obama, helped negotiate an agreement between President Gjorge Ivanov of the VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democrats. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, continued to claim that Macedonia is not a country — even though the country peacefully gained independence in 1992, before the other former Yugoslavian territories slid into bloody conflict.
Macedonia tried to join the European Union in 2009, but Greece vetoed that effort. Some think European governments did not do enough to pressure Greece to allow Macedonia to join the bloc — especially because the European Union’s strategic position has been that Western Balkans’ gradual integration into the bloc is crucial for promoting peace, stability and economic development. Since then, Macedonian citizens have been increasingly skeptical about the European Union. A clearer, more consistent and more vocal stance from Western governments could help promote stability.
3. Russia is accusing the West of causing the trouble
The European Union and the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, have long been calling for an end to the political deadlock and for the return of the rule of law. E.U. officials supported Xaferi’s election, and called on Ivanov to allow the formation of a new government coalition between the Macedonian Social Democrats and the ethnic Albanian parties.
Russia, on the other hand, has accused the West of stirring up Macedonia’s turmoil. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the Western effort for regime change in Macedonia is part of a plan to create a Greater Albania and destabilize the region. Russia backs the conservative party, and has been trying to pressure Macedonia to give up its ambitions to join the European Union and instead come further into Russia’s orbit.
4. Macedonia’s future is uncertain
Macedonia’s uncertain fate is bad news for the region and Europe. Ivanov has agreed to allow the Zaev’s government to form. Supported by the European Union and NATO, the new government may come under intense pressure to solve major outstanding issues.
For instance, there is the unresolved name dispute: Greece claims that Macedonia’s constitutional name threatens their territorial integrity since Greece’s Northern Province is also called Macedonia. Changing the name would open the doors for Macedonia to join the European Union and NATO, but many Macedonians are opposed.
So what does it all mean?
Western governments might be able to prevent the fragile situation in Macedonia from deteriorating by welcoming it as a full member of both the European Union and NATO. Doing so could encourage Macedonian politicians to resolve political struggles in a peaceful and sustainable manner.
Danilo Gjukovikj is a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Sarah Wilson Sokhey is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on the politics of economic reform in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.