The recent clashes between the police and armed groups of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia in Kumanovo – which left eight dead and over 30 policemen wounded – returned Macedonia to the headlines 14 years after the conflict ended in 2001. This follows on the heels of allegations of corruption raised by the biggest opposition party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) which disclosed wiretapped conversations of highly-placed government representatives. The government has not denied them, claiming only that the conversations were”edited” so as to leave it open to accusations of corruption, serious violations of the electoral process, and politicization of government institutions. Moreover, the opposition has announced protests for 17 Maywhich they predict will result in the resignation of the Government, the formation of a transitional government and snap elections.
Legitimate anti-terrorist action or just a distraction?
The manner and timing of the police action in Kumanovo has further divided opinion in an already heated political debate, resulting in different interpretations of what actually happened. On the one hand, the government says there was a group of 30-70 people (including known KLA commanders and local criminals) who intended to attack government buildings and carry out acts of terror leading to civilian casualties in order to destabilise the country. On the other hand, the opposition see it as an attempt to divert public attention from growing public unrest and to prevent the planned opposition protest from going ahead. While the Government presents the actions as heroic and well-planned, its opponents accuse it of needlessly sacrificing the lives of policemen.
There are other conspiracy theories that the appearance of this armed group is a message to all Balkan countries that they may be destabilised if they get closer to Russia. Or even that this group was hired and paid (allegedly €2m) by individuals from governing parties in Macedonia to run riot.
An isolated incident or the beginning of a new conflict?
Regardless of all these theories, it is now a fact that an armed group has been present and active in European country which is a candidate for EU and NATO membership. This raises the worrying question of whether this will spark a new conflict and destabilise Macedonia and the region. But the situation is very different to 2001 and it is almost unthinkable that it might happen again. There is simply not enough tension between Macedonians and Albanians to cause a real ethnic conflict.
Moreover, all neighbouring countries are either members of EU and NATO or planning to join so an unstable Macedonia is not in their interest. This is particularly true of Kosovo, because Albanians are trying to show that they are not playing the role of the “usual suspects” in destabilising the region. And– neither the EU, NATO nor the United States would tolerate the creation of a crisis in Europe which could be exploited by Islamic State.
Having said that, the deep political crisis in Macedonia over the last two months could be exploited by criminal and extremist groups. It must be resolved as soon as possible in order to prevent these groups spreading interethnic tensions.
A longer stick and a bigger carrot
The existence of these criminal and extremist groups in Macedonia and their power to destabilise countries in the region calls for decisive and co-ordinated action against them by governments, particularly those of Kosovo and Macedonia. The connections between politicians with organised crime must be cut in order to eliminate the protection that they provide. On the other hand, there has to be strong pressure from the international community for the rule of law, because for some Balkan elites, it is much easier to live with organised crime (and profit from it), than to fight it . They must be urged to put the fight against organised crime top of the reform agenda and the EU should offer support, monitoring and guidance in the process. Moreover, a failure to achieve results should lead to a cut in support in other areas.
The current political crisis in Macedonia – which has been off the EU and NATO radar for 10 years – confirms that without a longer stick or a bigger carrot there will always bedust and smoke in the region.
Zoran Jačev is a lawyer and has held various positions in the Macedonian Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Defence. He has also been the Executive Director of one of the first Macedonian think-tanks Forum – Center for Strategic Research and Documentation and was the Founder and President of Transparency International – Macedonia.
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