Riot police in Macedonia clashed with ethnic Albanian protestors over the weekend following the appointment of a former guerrilla fighter as defence minister. The clashes came after Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle visited the country to defuse tension between the government and opposition.
Ethnic tensions continue to simmer in the impoverished former Yugoslav republic more than a decade since it was brought to the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian guerrilla insurgency.
Saturday's violence, in which at least 20 people were injured and a dozen arrested, appeared to be a response to angry demonstrations by Macedonians late on Friday against the appointment last month of former guerrilla commander Talat Xhaferi as defence minister.
Several hundred ethnic Albanians in the capital, Skopje, torched a bus and several cars, and attacked shops. Police in riot gear fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them, a Reuters photographer said.
"The situation is under control. A dozen people have been arrested, while the others fled," said a police spokesman. "Police are on the ground and working on finding the others who took part. The material damage is great."
Xhaferi was part of a guerrilla army that fought for greater rights and representation for Macedonia's 25% ethnic Albanian minority.
The West brokered a deal whereby the guerrillas disarmed and entered politics, and one faction is now in coalition government with rightist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
But relations remain tense, exacerbated by the slow pace of progress in Macedonia towards European Union membership and the freedom of movement and economic opportunity the country's 2 million people hope this will bring.
Macedonia's bid to join the EU and NATO is being held hostage to a long-running dispute with neighbouring Greece over the country's name, which it shares with a northern Greek province. Greece wants it changed (see background).
Local elections to be held
On Friday, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle visited Skopje in a bid to defuse tensions between the government and the opposition that have been growing since last December.
He was accompanied by British MEP Richard Howitt (S&D), the European Parliament's rapporteur on Macedonia, and former Parliament President Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland).
Füle and MEPs held meetings with Gruevski and opposition leader Branko Crvenkovski, who had led a boycott of parliament.
The opposition would return to Parliament and that all parties would participate to the local elections on 24 March.
“We are pleased to see that the political leaders have finally been able to show their political responsibility and courage to agree on a solution which should bring the country back to the resumption of normal functioning of the political institutions and continuing constructive work on its Euro-Atlantic priorities for the ultimate benefit of the country and its people,” the three Brussels envoys said a statement.
Under the agreement, seen by EurActiv, a parliamentary commission would look unto the events on and before 24 December, when opposition MPs tried to block the parliamentary debate on the 2013 budget and were expelled from the chamber.
Also, electoral reform would be held after the local elections.
Regarding the parliamentary elections, discussions on “all options” should continue to be discussed, so that results of these discussions could be taken into account in an April Commission report.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the infamous 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest one (see EurActiv's LinksDossier on 'EU-Macedonia relations').
Greece is pressing Macedonia to change its name because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. In addition, Athens considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history.
Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and from its 19th and early 20th Century struggle against Ottoman domination.
Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the name dispute has led to an impasse in the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.