The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia blames the U.S. after protesters storm Macedonia’s parliament

Nationalist protesters descend on Macedonia's parliament, attacking lawmakers after they voted to elect a new speaker (Video: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty via Storyful)

After masked protesters stormed Macedonia's parliament in the capital Skopje on Thursday evening to attack opposition lawmakers, Russia's foreign ministry has blamed the United States and the European Union for the political turmoil.

In a statement Friday, Moscow accused the West of “gross interference” in Macedonian politics with the purported aim of manipulating “the will of the citizens with the aim of removing the legitimate government from power.” But political observers say that recent clashes in Macedonia are the result of a simmering domestic crisis rather than foreign interference, and that Russia may be trying to reframe the debate in its favor.

The Russian accusations add to mounting concerns in Western Europe that Moscow is backing parties or politicians with policies potentially more friendly to the Kremlin. On the Balkans and in Eastern Europe, Russia is positioning itself as an alternative partner to the European Union, at a time when the E.U. is being viewed by right-wing or conservative groups with growing suspicion.

[Protesters attack Macedonian lawmakers over leadership vote]

The origins of Macedonia's political turmoil are predominantly domestic, however. For the last two years, Macedonian politics have been paralyzed, leaving the country divided between supporters of the increasingly repressive conservative government and opposition groups. The divide widened after the ruling VMRO-DPMNE conservative party was accused of repressions against journalists and of conducting an illegal wiretapping operation to monitor up to 20,000 people, including some of the party's own ministers.

In an attempt to calm tensions, the E.U. — backed by the U.S. — helped to negotiate a short-term deal with the country's major political parties in 2015 which included the resignation of controversial Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

A snap election in December, which was part of that deal, created an even more severe deadlock situation by empowering opposition parties to some extent, but leaving no party with a clear majority. Although Albanian parties and the Social Democrats would be ready to form a coalition, such a move has been blocked by the country's president, whose approval is needed. He is a member of the VMRO-DPMNE conservative party.

Conservatives expressed outrage on Thursday when an ethnic Albanian was elected as parliamentary speaker. It is the first time a member of the ethnic minority has held the office, and the storming of the parliament that followed is being seen as an indication that the political divide is being reframed along ethnic lines.

The minority Albanians in the country, who make up around 25 percent of the population, have long felt neglected by national politicians. In 2001, that discontent nearly threw the country into a civil war after Albanian rebels launched an uprising in which dozens died.

[Macedonian opposition chief shuns emergency political talks]

Thursday's bloody clashes — in which more than 100 people, including the head of a small Albanian party and the leader of the Social Democrats, were injured by conservative protesters — have brought back memories of the violence from 16 years ago.

In Macedonia, there is some public support for the Russian allegations that the United States and the E.U. are stirring the new tensions.

The U.S. Embassy in Macedonia constitutes the largest U.S. representation in any Balkan state and has recently struggled to not be dragged into the domestic political debate. Before the December snap election, the U.S. Embassy openly dismissed claims made by a conservative newspaper that the U.S. was supporting Gruevski.

“The United States Government does not endorse candidates in other countries’ elections. Macedonia is no exception,” the embassy wrote in a letter to the paper. Half a year later, the United States is now facing allegations claiming the opposite, but analysts say there is no evidence of any actual U.S. meddling.

In the case of the E.U. — of which Macedonia is not a member — the union's involvement in the deal that created the current deadlock has dragged Brussels far deeper into the domestic conflict than the United States.

There are no signs of an imminent solution to the political turmoil. The Social Democrats refused to attend an emergency meeting Friday after conservative party leader and former prime minister Gruevski blamed them for the escalation of the violence, saying the party's “greed for power at any cost” was a “direct cause” of the clashes.