Violence erupted in Macedonia’s parliament as tensions between ethnic Albanian minorities and nationalists boiled over, prompting sharp rebukes from Western governments.
Protesters supportive of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, as well as individuals clad in identity-concealing hoods, stormed parliament on Thursday night local time, violently accosting at least lawmakers and journalists. Police say the violence left 102 inside and outside parliament injured.
Parliament had just managed to break the “filibuster” of the minority VMRO-DPMNE. The party lost its governing majority in December’s elections, which were an attempt to quell concern after leaked wiretaps showing illegal surveillance and corruption on the part of the then-ruling party. The governing majority is now the Social Democrats, led by Zoran Zaev, in coalition with the parliament’s ethnic Albanian parties. President Gjorge Ivanov has so far defied calls to make Zaev prime minister.
On Thursday, parliament managed to move forward in putting together a new government by voting on a new speaker, who received the support of the Social Democratic parties as well as members of the ethnic Albanian parties. The newly elected speaker is Albanian Talat Xhaferi.
The demonstrators, who had been protesting the influence of ethnic Albanian parties, broke through the police and entered parliament to assault journalists and legislators — including some Albanian MPs. And so the fear now is that what had been a political crisis, with VMRO-DPMNE attempting to scare the Macedonian population with the idea of more rights for Albanians, will become a full-fledged ethnic clash.
The Macedonian and ethnic Albanian “communities are still living next to each other, not together,” Jan Cingel, a researcher with the Bratislava-based GLOBSEC Policy Institute, told Foreign Policy. “If something happens — some kind of a spark can light more tensions.”
The European Union and NATO swiftly condemned the assault on lawmakers and reporters.
“The acts of violence in the Parliament are wholly unacceptable and we call for calm and restraint,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s head of foreign policy, and Johannes Hahn, European commissioner, said in a joint statement.
“I strongly condemn yesterday’s attacks on members of Parliament in Skopje. Violence has no place in any parliament,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general.
But the EU and NATO haven’t specified how they could follow up on these words of warning. And, of course, not all EU member states saw the situation the same way.
Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, echoed the official Russian position in blaming influence from abroad. Moscow blames the EU and United States; Budapest, “external intervention” and, of course, Hungarian-born billionaire and perpetual bogeyman George Soros. (Russian and European interest and investment in the region increased only recently, said Cingel, who believes the protests were the manifestation of homegrown tension.)
Macedonia hasn’t had a government since December, when former Prime Minister Nukola Gruevski won an election but didn’t gain enough votes to win a parliamentary majority. Talks with the ethnic Albanian parties floundered over a debate on designating Albanian as an official second language in Macedonia.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, plunged into ethnically-fueled strife and violence following Yugoslavia’s break-up in the 1990s. In 2001, the country’s Albanian minority led an armed rebellion that ended under a NATO-brokered peace agreement. The peace deal failed to resolve tensions between the country’s ethnic groups, which have been simmering ever since.
While Macedonia made a series of democratic and market-oriented reforms in the past decade to boost their prospects of joining the EU and NATO, experts fear the country is backsliding and that the political crisis could spill into the streets.
Photo credit: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images