Skopje protests underscore Balkan tensions

Protest marches on consecutive days in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, brought tens of thousands of people into the streets this week, some to call for the government’s resignation and others to show their support.

The flare-up of political strife is in part related to the frustrations of all the Balkan states at the long timeframe for their possible membership in the European Union. And Macedonia has the additional problem that Greece insists it change its name, which is the same as a Greek province.

Anti-government protesters were out on Sunday, bringing together members of several of Macedonia’s ethnic groups in a call for the prime minister to resign. The opposition accuses the government of electoral fraud, repressing journalists, and other abuses, including covering up a murder.

The next day, Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski spoke at a similar-sized pro-government rally. Supporters said last year’s election results should be respected and the prime minister should continue his nine-year rule.

But some experts say although Gruevski was elected and re-elected, he has become increasingly autocratic, partly enabled by the European Union’s imposition of an extremely slow process for Macedonia and other Balkan countries to join.

“The government has become very comfortable in its position because it hasn’t been subject to the reforms that would have to have taken place had it moved closer to NATO or the EU,” said James Ker-Lindsay, at the London School of Economics. “And is actually starting to move against the idea of EU membership, and I think that this is what makes it so very risky.”

Speaking via Skype, the former EU special representative for Macedonia, Erwan Fouere, is even more critical of the government. “The current regime has lost whatever credibility it had and any legitimacy to remain in government. And I think the only way that a peaceful process can be restored is by the government resigning and making way for a transition process,” he said.

Some of the opposition protesters have set up a tent city to demand just that. But their prospects for success are not clear. Ker-Lindsay said they are not likely to get as much attention as their counterparts in Ukraine did last year. “The country just doesn’t sit on that fault line between East and West in the way that Ukraine has,” he stated.

Still, Ker-Lindsay said the EU’s policy has created an opening for Russia to try to re-establish some influence in a region it controlled until 1989. But Erwan Fouere is not too concerned. “There is no strategic interest for Russia in this, apart from annoying the West and suggesting that the West are not fulfilling their commitments toward the Balkans as they should,” Fouere said.

The commitment is to bring the Balkan countries into the European Union. The delay is related to the need for reforms and concerns about immigration into current EU countries.

Ker-Lindsay said the EU has to balance its concerns with a strong message that the Balkan states will become members, though likely not in the next several years.


(Photo: Граѓаните за Македонија Facebook page)