As the crisis in Macedonia deepens, the two largest European political families – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES) – have added fuel to fire by stirring up antagonism between their parties.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Macedonia’s capital Skopje on Sunday (17 May), waving Macedonian and Albanian flags in a dramatic display of ethnic unity against a government on the ropes after months of damaging wiretap revelations.
Against this background, the EU’s largest political forces appeared to be largely out of sync, with the EPP desperately supporting the discredited rule of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, and the PES sending its leader to Skopje, in an effort to derive score points in the standoff.
Observers are equally pessimistic about a scenario which would give more time in power for Gruevksi, or a less likely political alternative, with Social Democrat Union leader Zoran Zaev gaining the upper hand.
Western diplomats appear to push toward forming national unity government in which the two political parties would keep a low profile until early elections are held.
The crisis rocking Gruevski’s nine-year conservative rule is the worst since Western diplomacy dragged the country from the brink of all-out civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to European Union and NATO membership.
Since February, Gruevski has faced a wave of embarrassing revelations about his government, from wiretaps which expose tight government control over journalists, judges and the handling of elections.
Zaev says the recordings, which he has dubbed “bombs”, were made illegally by the government, part of a mass surveillance operation targeting 20,000 allies and opponents alike, and leaked to him by a whistleblower.
Gruevski has not disputed that the voices on the tapes are genuine, but says that he did not order the recordings and that the audio has been doctored. Zaev has been charged with violence against the state.
Zaev says several thousand demonstrators plan to camp out in the streets until the prime minister quits.
On 9 and 10 May, a police raid on a northern ethnic Albanian neighborhood left 18 people dead: eight police officers and 10 Albanians described by the government as ‘terrorists’.
Gruevski said police had thwarted a terrorist plot, but Albanians and some foreign analysts said the timing suggested the government was trying to create a diversion.
On 16 May, Russia’s foreign ministry accused “Western organisers” of trying to foment revolution against a government that has refused to join European sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, and which sits on a potential transit route for Russian gas through Turkey.
Western diplomats are trying to mediate a solution to the crisis, but it is uncertain that the EPP and PES are on board. The two political families seem to be waging their own turf wars.
The EPP still supports Gruevski. Asked to comment on the matter, the party’s spokesperson Siegfried Muresan, stood by Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, saying that the eavesdropping scandal had not shattered the EPP’s confidence in its affiliated Macedonian member.
“VMRO is an EPP member party and therefore has the support of the EPP. Like every EPP Member Party, this party shall respect EPP values and principles, the rule of law, work for a strong, independent judicial system and tackle corruption,” Muresan said.
Concerning the wiretaps, he said that the EPP expecteded the authorities “to investigate and clarify all that is to be clarified”, adding that evaluations need to tbe based on solid evidence.
“PM Gruevski is ready to cooperate with all international partners of the country. There is nothing to be commented by the EPP,” Muresan said.
“Prime Minister Gruevski won democratic elections. The vast majority of the people of the former Yugosal Republic of Macedonia have put their trust in VMRO and PM Gruevski. He shall be left to govern the country. He shall be allowed to continue his mandate,” the EPP spokesperson added.
Muresan also argued that since the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Social Democrats had not been present in the parliament, which he said was “unacceptable”. However, it was Gruevski’s VMRO which organized a pogrom against the opposition and the press, in December 2013.
For his part, PES leader Sergei Stanishev went to Skopje on Sunday reportedly “to support Macedonian citizens who want democracy, rule of law and transparent institutions”.
“The current government’s failure to defend itself against allegations of mass surveillance and threatening the opposition casts serious doubt on its commitment to democratic principles and values. Worryingly, it could be a backwards step in its progress towards EU and NATO membership,” Stanishev said.
Stanishev, who is a former Prime Minister of Bulgaria, has been vociferously attacked by the Macedonian government-controlled media for being hostile to the neighbouring country.
The Macedonian government ordered a police operation at dawn on 9 May against what it called ethnic Albanian "terrorists" in the northern, ethnically-mixed town of Kumanovo, triggering a gun battle in which eight police and 14 alleged gunmen died.
NATO, which dragged Macedonia from the brink of civil war in 2001, called for a "transparent investigation" of what went on when heavily armed police entered a mainly Albanian neighbourhood in the northern town of Kumanovo before dawn on Saturday.
The bloodshed also drew rebuke from the US and major European powers.
But it also drew accusations from the country's Albanian minority and Gruevski's political opponents that the government was trying to create a diversion.
For months, the Conservative government of Nikola Gruevski and the socialist opposition have been embroiled in a scandal involving the disclosure of taped conversations between Gruevski and his closest allies.
Europeans are alarmed, with some warnding Macedonia could be on the bring of another civil war.