Macedonia’s prime minister, under international pressure to resolve a political crisis in the troubled Balkan country, held talks yesterday (14 May) with opposition and ethnic Albanian party leaders.
The meeting took place following clashes at the weekend in a northern town between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian police that left 22 dead, including eight police officers.
The violence in Kumanovo was the worst in Macedonia for 14 years, and raised fears of fresh unrest similar to the country’s 2001 ethnic conflict.
“We met to support democratic values including the right to peaceful protests and to condemn violence, whether it is for criminal or political purposes,” the four leaders said in a statement.
Reportedly, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski reiterated he would not resign to pave the way for a transitional government, insisting Macedonians had already thrown clearly their support behind him during the elections held last year.
However, Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, leader of the protesters demanding the resignation of the government, said he would not back down from demands that Gruevski step down in another round of demonstrations scheduled for 17 May.
They were due to resume their talks on Monday.
Macedonia has seen an ongoing struggle between Gruevski and Zaev that has threatened the country’s democracy and has also sparked clashes in the streets of the capital Skopje.
The conservative government, affiliated to the centre-right EPP political family, and the centre-left opposition have traded accusations including claims of wiretapping and million-euro bribes, and both sides are due to hold rallies in coming days.
On Tuesday two ministers and the intelligence chief resigned. The three officials reputation was badly damaged over the wiretapping scandal.
Thursday’s meeting was attended by Gruevski and Zaev and the leaders of two ethnic Albanian parties: the Democratic Union for Integration, which is a junior partner of the government, and the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians.
US ambassador Jess Baily and head of the European Union mission in Skopje, Aivo Orav, also took part.
30 alleged gunmen have been charged with terror offences after the bloody shootout in Kumanovo that erupted on Saturday at dawn when police moved in on the armed group. 18 of the 30 men charged were ethnic Albanians from neighbouring Kosovo, the prosecutors said.
Ethnic Albanians make up around one quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1 million population.
The 2001 Macedonian conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels ended with an agreement providing more rights to the minority community, but relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians remain strained.
The weekend’s violence should not distract attention from Macedonia’s “very serious internal political situation” or be used “to introduce ethnic tensions”, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said Monday.
Macedonia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.
Integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war. The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the ethnic-Albanian communities (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called "name dispute" with Greece appears to be the biggest. Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece pledged to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
Greece also believes that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria contends that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman rule.
Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a "'warrior on horseback" resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.