Macedonia’s Local Elections: Political and Ethnic Tensions

July 1, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

Alejandro Marx The parliamentary session of December 24, 2012 saw the violent expulsion of opposition MPs and members of the press from parliament to ensure voting on the 2013 State Budget. There were also clashes between supporters of the opposition and of the government outside of the Parliament building. These events have triggered a succession of demonstrations in Macedonia. On February 19, 2013, a former leader of the now-disbanded ethnic Albanian separatist armed group was chosen to become the new Minister of Defense[i]. In reaction to this appointment, clashes took place in Skopje against ethnic Albanians of Macedonia, which was followed days later by a demonstration of ethnic Albanians, which turned also violent. Macedonia has experienced a political crisis, followed by an ethnic crisis, tempering the growth of a democracy in the making A history of ethnic violence Despite avoiding a violent conflict after declaring independence in 1991, Macedonia witnessed a short war in its territory between ethnic Albanian separatists, the “National Liberation Army” (NLA) and the Macedonian security forces in 2001. The conflict started in February 2001 and ended in August 2001 with the signing of the Ohrid Peace Agreement giving more autonomy to the Albanian community, which according to the 2002 census, composed 25.2 percent of the population.[ii] The past year has seen a recurrence of ethnic clashes. The conflict started in January, after ethnic Macedonians participated in an annual carnival in Vevcani, wearing masks mocking the Muslim faith of the Albanians. In the following weeks, ethnic Albanians staged protests which turned violent. A Macedonian Orthodox Church was attacked, and Macedonian flags were set on fire. Also, unknown arsonists set ablaze a Macedonian Orthodox Church in the town of Struga.[iii] The situation did not improve after two young Albanians were shot by an off-duty police officer in Gostivar in February 2012. Violence spread to Skopje, where in March 2012, a youth was stabbed and two minors from the Albanian Skopje district of Cair were assaulted by a group of ten individuals.[iv] The finding of the bodies of five murdered Macedonians in April 2012, near a lake north of Skopje, was blamed on Albanians. Angry protesters were prevented by the police from entering an Albanian majority district of Skopje. The accusations were later confirmed after five individuals of Albanian ethnicity were charged of the murders.[v] A succession of early parliamentary elections The Parliament of Macedonia is called the Sobranie (Assembly). It is a unicameral chamber with 123 seats. Currently, the seats of the Assembly are shared with 47 seats for the “VMRO-DPMNE” (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) and its main coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), an ethnic Albanian party with 14 seats. The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDUM) has 29 seats. There are 18 other parties in Parliament which represent other ethnicities and other political views. However, a lot of these parties have no more than one MP in Parliament. The biggest of these parties, the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA) has 8 MPs.[vi] Macedonia had already two early elections in June 2008 and June 2011. Branko Crvenkovski of the SDUM party held the post of President from May 2004 to May 2009. He was also Prime Minister from August 1992 to November 1998, and again between November 2002 and May 2004, making him a veteran of politics in Macedonia. Nikola Gruevski is Prime Minister since August 2006. Also, the country has already lived through a parliamentary crisis in September 2012, when the minor coalition partner of the VMRO-DPMNE, DUI opposed a legislation granting a range of benefits to the veterans and families of deceased soldiers who fought during the 2001 conflict in Macedonia.[vii] The DUI wished to have this legislation extended to ethnic Albanian separatist fighters. Seeing that the government would not amend the draft bill, Talat Xhaferi a legislator of the DUI blocked parliament from proceeding through the use a filibuster.[viii] Violence in Parliament The conflict of the 2013 State Budget was caused by the proposal of the ruling coalition lead by the VMRO–DPMNE party of the Prime Minister Gruevski to vote on a State Budget of 2.4 billion Euros. The main opposition party, the SDUM, wanted the government to vote for spending cuts of 196 million Euros, citing the struggling economic climate.[ix] The allocation of public funds is often divisive in Macedonia, in particular in the construction sector. The building project “Skopje 2014,” caused controversy in Macedonia because it is perceived as aiming to build expensive monuments, museums and governments buildings in the city of Skopje to divert the attention of the citizens from the problems of unemployment and poverty.[x] The SDUM blocked the budget vote by submitting over 1,200 amendments. The government of the VMRO-DPMNE sent police officers to expel the opposition parliamentarians and members of the press. The SDUM decided to start a campaign of demonstrations, boycott Parliament and block roads to call for the resignation of the police, justice and economy ministers and the organization of early Parliamentarian elections. The SDUM also threatened to boycott the local elections of March 2013, if their grievances were not answered.[xi] Following the demonstrations, a meeting between Prime Minister Gruevski and SDUM head Crvenkovski, failed to resolve the conflict between the two leaders. Stefan Fuele, EU Commissioner for Enlargement came to Macedonia to hold talks with the government.[xii] However, with the deadline for submitting candidates for the March local elections arriving on February 16, the European Parliament sent MEP Richard Howitt, the Rapporteur on Macedonia on February 13. Howitt said that he would try to exert a “positive and constructive” influence on matters to resume dialogue between the different parties.[xiii] However, when this negotiation took place, ethnicity returned to the political arena. The party “Dignity”, which represents Macedonian veterans of the 2001 war, expressed outrage at the appointment of Talat Xhaferi as Minister of Defense in February 2013.[xiv] A protest against this appointment took place on March 1. Clashes took place between the police and protesters attempting to enter in the majority Albanian part of Skopje. Ethnic Albanians were victims of random attacks.[xv] The day after a counter protest by ethnic Albanian ended in violence with buses being torched and at least 15 people injured.[xvi] This brought back the issue of ethnicity in the electoral campaign, which had been until now focused on politics. An agreement was finally concluded with the two main parties, deciding that they will participate in the elections on March 24, 2013. The two competing Macedonian parties also presented a joint list in the districts of Kicevo and Struga, where Albanians and Macedonians are equal in number.[xvii] A second round took place on the 7th of April 2013 in districts where a majority of 50 percent by a candidate was not achieved. There were also allegations of electoral frauds in some districts.[xviii] The VMRO-DPMNE gained most of the mayoral seats. Both Kicevo and Struga saw Albanians candidates being elected when the DUI and the DPA presented a joint list against the Macedonian joint list. However, the election of an Albanian was only confirmed in the second round in Struga after the Macedonian administration court cancelled his electoral victory in the first round. This also took place in the Skopje’s district of Centar, where the SDUM candidate won both rounds of the votes after his first victory was cancelled.[xix] Incertitude for the future of FYROM The elections in Macedonia have shown that this country is living a period full of tension and complex political and ethnic relations. If it was possible to imagine that after the expulsion of the opposition from parliament by the police, the population would punish the ruling government by voting for oppositions parties, the result of the elections have shown that this was not the case. The ethnic tensions have pushed citizens to give more importance to the issue of stability in Macedonia by voting for the party of Gruevski. Ethnic Albanians are now feeling alienated by the violence they were victims of. However, their victory in the districts of Kicevo and Struga may have relieved this anger. On the other hand, Albanians must feel that everything has been done against them to avoid the elections of Albanian Mayors. Macedonia finds itself in a very anxious state. The voters are faced with a political and ethnic debate in the country. This makes it difficult for voters to choose a party on a political program, and not on how the victory of a particular party could affect the stability in the country. For this reason, ethnic loyalty to an ethnic party is only reinforced, when political ideas should be driving the vote of voters.  However, a part of the civic society does not want to be used by political leaders who use the threat of political and ethnic crisis as bargain to hold or gain power. Civil organisations have expressed their disagreement with the current situation.[xx] *Note: Macedonia or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. There is a name dispute between the State of Macedonian and the State of Greece since the declaration of independence of Macedonia from Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece says that the name of Macedonia imply a territorial claim on the region of Macedonia in Greece.  The use of the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is used provisionally by international organisations and States which do not recognize translations of the constitutional name Republic of Macedonia. Both Greece and Macedonia are still negotiating to resolve this issue through the United Nations.

[i] Talat Xhaferi takes over as Defense Minister, MIA Press Agency Website, http://www.mia.mk/en/Inside/RenderSingleNews/61/102403287

[iii] Church almost burned in Struga, Macedonia, Balkan Insight, January 31 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/ethnic-tensions-surge-in-macedonian-town

[iv] Ethnic violence simmers in Macedonia, Balkan Insight, March 11 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/spree-of-ethnic-violence-continues-in-macedonia

[v] Macedonian outrage grows over mystery killing, Balkan Insight, April 13 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/five-boys-found-dead-near-macedonian-capital

[vii] Controversial Military Law Tests Macedonia Coalition, Balkan Insight, August 27 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/controversial-military-law-tests-macedonia-coalition

[viii] Macedonia Albanians Filibuster over Army Law, Balkan Insight, Septembre 25 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-albanians-filibuster-over-army-law

[x] Skopje 2014: The new face of Macedonia, updated, Balkan Insight, May 11 2012, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/gallery/skopje-2014

[xi] Macedonia Opposition threatens bigger protests, Balkan Insight, January 17 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonian-opposition-to-step-up-road-blockades

[xii] Fuele Knocks Heads Together in Macedonia, Balkan Insight, January 24 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/fuele-pays-unannounced-visit-to-macedonia

[xiii] Deadline Looms for Macedonia Local Elections, Balkan Insight, February 12 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-nears-deadline-on-local-polls

[xiv] New Defence Minister Outrages Macedonian Veterans, Balkan Insight, February 20 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/former-insurgent-takes-over-macedonian-defence

[xv] Macedonia Protest Against Defence Minister Turns Violent, Balkan Insight, March 01 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonian-protest-against-defense-minister-turns-violent

[xvi] Macedonia Leaders Condemn Skopje Ethnic Riots, Balkan Insight, March 04 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonian-capital-peaceful-after-two-day-violence

[xvii]Macedonia rivals ally against Albanians for elections, Balkan Insight, March 15 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-s-bitter-political-rivals-strike-ethnic-alliance

[xviii] Macedonia ruling party takes lead in local polls, Balkan Insight, March 25 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonian-ruling-party-declares-local-election-victory

[xix] Macedonia opposition celebrates Skopje polls victory, Balkan Insight, April 22 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/opposition-celebrates-after-election-rerun-in-skopje

[xx] Why fear and insecurity has gripped in Macedonia again, Balkan Insight, March 7 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/why-fear-and-insecurity-has-gripped-macedonia-again

comments powered by Disqus