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Macedonia is a small country even by European standards. No matter how much local political analysts try to imagine themselves at the heart of a clash of civilizations, even the most intense Macedonian crises only threaten Macedonia’s immediate neighbors, posing no risk to international stability.
Still, Macedonia provides an excellent example of how the international community responds when a country on the outskirts of Europe comes to the brink of civil war. To this end, the latest Macedonian crisis is particularly useful because it involves a number of international themes that have become hot topics in the Balkans recently: talk of Russian interference; the powerlessness of the EU; and a weary United States, which has reluctantly taken on a leading role in the resolution of the conflict.
The crisis, at least as it has been covered in international media, dovetails well with the traditional notions about the eternal ethnic strife in the Balkans: a Russian-backed, ethnic-majority authoritarian regime is oppressing the ethnic-minority democratic opposition.
Former prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party have played the role of the chauvinist oppressors. Gruevski’s right-wing, nationalist party relied on ethnic Macedonians, who make up about two-thirds of the population, for support during his time in office. Gruevski and his team ruled Macedonia from 2006 to 2016, and racked up a number of criminal allegations during their tenure, including corruption, violations of journalists’ rights, and election meddling.
The opposition includes the Macedonian social democrats, headed by Zoran Zaev, as well as the parties of the Albanian minority (Albanians make up about a quarter of Macedonia’s population). In 2015, when the local media got ahold of information on corruption and meddling by the Gruevski government, the opposition took to the streets for several months until—with the support of the EU—it succeeded in getting early elections to be held in December 2016.
Gruevski’s party still won first place in the elections, but it no longer had a majority in parliament, where an alliance of social democrats and Albanian parties gained the upper hand. In return for joining the new government, the Albanians demanded new rights for their community and, in essence, the federalization of Macedonia. The social democrats agreed, but Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who was considered to be loyal to Gruevski, refused to approve the coalition, arguing that the Albanians’ plans would violate the Macedonian Constitution.
The crisis, which started with ethnically neutral anti-corruption protests, escalated to the brink of an armed ethnic conflict. Albanians demanded new rights, autonomy, the speaker’s seat in parliament, and representation in government. The president and the old regime, meanwhile, stirred up anti-Albanian sentiment among ethnic Macedonians, painting the opposition as traitors who were ready to “sell out” the country to Albania. Tensions heated up so much that in late April, a group of Macedonian nationalists (likely with assistance from the old regime) stormed parliament and attacked opposition deputies, including leader of the social democrats and potential prime minister Zaev.
The EU began trying to resolve this crisis in the spring of 2015. EU commissioners and special representatives, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, and even European Council president Donald Tusk shuttled back and forth between Brussels and Skopje for more than two years, to no avail. The EU failed to impose a compromise on Macedonian politicians, despite having all the possible leverage: the EU is Macedonia’s largest trading and investment partner, the largest aid donor, and the vast majority of Macedonian society is strongly pro-European.
Following the clash in parliament, when it became clear that the situation was dire, the West reconsidered its Macedonia strategy. Instead of Tusk and Mogherini, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee flew in to Skopje and met with President Ivanov and the leaders of the major parties. After the meetings, the party leaders announced that it was necessary to work out a compromise, and that they were ready to soften their positions.
Within several days, the Albanian parties agreed that they would be willing to compromise on their demands for federalization. The new parliament, which had been elected in December, calmly voted for an Albanian speaker. Then, on May 18, President Ivanov granted Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a new government, and the new cabinet was unveiled on May 29. By and large, a crisis that had been building for two years was defused in just a few weeks.
Fortunately for the EU, few people pay close attention to events in Macedonia, because it would be hard to come up with a better example of the shortcomings of Brussels’s foreign policy. For two years, the president of the European Council, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and a legion of bureaucrats were unable to do what the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state did in two weeks.
More lamentable still is the fact that the Macedonian crisis was not a particularly challenging one. Stories of intractable ethnic enmity between the Albanian and Macedonian communities are largely a myth that local politicians like to exploit. Certainly, relations between the two ethnic groups aren’t perfect, but they have become more or less stable since the signing of the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, which greatly expanded the rights of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians.
Macedonian politicians are not zealots. They are cynical and pragmatic individuals whose principal goal is to cling to power. For them, radical nationalism is little more than a means to this end. Before the crisis, Macedonian nationalist Gruevski and Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti were getting along well enough to be part of the same ruling coalition for eight consecutive years. For their part, Macedonia’s ethnic communities have a clear memory of the bloodshed of 2001 and do not want to see it repeated.
In addition to blaming “centuries of ethnic enmity,” some observers pointed to Russian interference to explain Brussels’s shortcomings in Macedonia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered only a few statements about the situation in Macedonia over the course of two years, which were interpreted to mean that Moscow supports Gruevski as a Slavic and Orthodox nationalist, and that the Kremlin is trying to frighten ethnic Macedonians by claiming that the West supports Albanians in the Balkans and thus shift Skopje’s focus from Brussels to Moscow.
It is true that the statements of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs imply that the West organized the anti-Gruevski protests. However, Moscow has held this position for many years—and not only in the Balkans. Russia generally tends to accuse the West of masterminding any anti-government protest, be it in Macedonia, Myanmar, or Libya.
The stereotype that the West supports Albanians in the Balkans at the expense of Christian Orthodox Slavs pleases Moscow, and it is ready to promote it through Russian media outlets in the region or by organizing a state visit of Macedonian President Ivanov to the Kremlin. But Russia is not the one who invented it. Moscow is just taking advantage of the already existing and widespread perception that the West supported Albanians both in Kosovo in the 1990s and in Macedonia in 2001.
What’s more, Russia’s rhetoric was not backed by any real actions. Moscow was quite comfortable with the United States and EU handling the Macedonian crisis and did not insist on having a say in the negotiations.
Neither Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov nor any other official Russian representative campaigned for any Macedonian party. Macedonian politicians wouldn’t have asked them to, either. Macedonia is not Serbia. Despite shared Slavic roots and Orthodox traditions, contacts between Macedonia and Russia are not well developed, and the idea of a pro-Russian foreign policy is not popular in Macedonia. All major Macedonian parties, as well as the absolute majority of the population, favor speedy accession to the EU and NATO.
The main cause of the latest crisis in Macedonia is neither Russia’s machinations nor enmity between Albanians and Macedonians: it is the EU’s unfulfilled promise that Macedonia has a European future. Back in 2001, the EU insisted that the Ohrid Agreement had to be implemented if Macedonia wanted to join the EU. Macedonians agreed and complied with the agreement. Sixteen years have passed, and Macedonia has yet to accede to the EU—and no approximate date for its accession has been set.
In short, this is a crisis of inflated and unfulfilled expectations—and similar crises are playing out throughout the Western Balkans. Judging from two fruitless years of EU mediation in Macedonia, Brussels has no solutions to offer, and Washington will have to step up once again.
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