Ethnic tension rocks Macedonian government

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Macedonia may face early elections after an ethnic Albanian party that is part of the governing coalition threatened to quit in protest of a draft law on the rights of Macedonian soldiers and their families that was put before parliament.

The draft law, tabled on Friday (24 August), has provoked a crisis in the Macedonian government between the main ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, the Balkan Insight news site reports.

DUI leaders said they would quit the coalition if the same rights and privileges are not extended to members of Albanian guerrilla forces that fought in a brief ethnic conflict in 2001.

“If our amendments are not accepted and the law on the rights of the security forces is passed, we will take into consideration all the options that we have,” Bujar Osmani, the DUI spokesperson, was quoted as saying.

The proposal provides a range of privileges for members of the armed forces who fought in 2001, their families, and survivors of deceased soldiers, including: free health services; employment rights; rights to free education, housing and family pensions; other financial compensation; as well as honours and medals.

The draft law encompasses the period from 1 January until 31 December 2001 and covers all those who participated in defending the country during the conflict between the government and ethnic Albanians, mostly in the West of the country, between February and August 2001. The civil war ended with an intervention of NATO and the signing of the Ohrid Agreement, under which the government gives greater political power to the Albanian minority (see background).

The draft law states that members of paramilitary groups, a reference to the ethnic Albanians, are not entitled to the privileges in question.

The DUI said that the eventual fall of the coalition does not necessarily mean early general elections, as it says it could form a new parliamentary majority with the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats (SDSM) and the second largest Albanian party, the DPA.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, has admitted that his government is in crisis, adding that if DUI wants early elections, his party is ready for them.

Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE has led the government for the last six years and has been in coalition with the DUI since 2008.

Who started the crisis?

It is difficult to say who started the latest political crisis in Macedonia, an EU hopeful whose bid for starting accession talks is blocked by a conflict with Greece over the so-called “name issue”.

Greece and Macedonia have been locked in a dispute over the smaller country's constitutional name since it became independent from the crumbling Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece, which once imposed a punishing embargo on its neighbour, claims the name implies territorial ambitions on its northern province of the same name.

Two weeks ago, Defence Minister Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian from DUI, accompanied by other ethnic Albanian ministers and people in army uniforms, placed flowers before monument to Albanian guerrilla fighters killed in the 2001 conflict in Slupcane, a village near the northern town of Kumanovo.

The act outraged many Macedonians, and President Gjorge Ivanov and Gruevski both criticised Besimi.

A European Commission spokesperson said yesterday (27 August) that the EU executive was following the situation but had no comment at this point.

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