West and Russia at odds over Macedonia after clashes in parliament

Russia says political crisis could spiral into ethnic conflict

Macedonia’s Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev (centre) and members of his party at a news conference in Skopje on Friday, a day after they were attacked in parliament by right-wing protesters. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

Macedonia’s Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev (centre) and members of his party at a news conference in Skopje on Friday, a day after they were attacked in parliament by right-wing protesters. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

 

The European Union and United States have condemned an attack by right-wing protesters on Macedonia’s parliament that injured more than 100 people, while Russia accused the West of meddling in the unstable Balkan state’s affairs.

The chaos in parliament on Thursday night deepened a chronic crisis in Macedonia where the populist VMRO-DPMNE party and president Gjorge Ivanov oppose the efforts of the Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties to form a new coalition government.

Thousands of people have heeded calls from VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski to take to the streets to “defend” Macedonia against the coalition, in what his critics call a desperate attempt to halt major anti-corruption investigations.

A crisis that has rumbled on for more than two years has paralysed Macedonia’s progress towards EU accession, and stirred fears of violence in a country where about one-quarter of residents are ethnic Albanians.

Mr Gruevski denounced the violence but blamed his opponents for provoking it by voting for a new speaker of parliament even though Mr Ivanov refuses to give the proposed coalition his approval to form a government.

Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev – who was bloodied in the violence – insists there is no constitutional obligation to have the president’s support, and that the majority enjoyed by his party and the ethnic Albanian groups allows them to take power.

Calm and restraint

“The acts of violence in the parliament are wholly unacceptable and we call for calm and restraint,” top EU foreign policy officials said in a joint statement.

“Democracy must run its course. We take positive note of the election of Talat Xhaferi as a speaker of the parliament.”

The election of the ethnic Albanian Mr Xhaferi by a majority of deputies triggered the attack as it was seen as a crucial step towards the formation of a new, multi-ethnic government following hard-fought elections last December.

“We condemn the violence in parliament in the strongest terms,” said the US embassy in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. “We will work with [Mr Xhaferi] to support democracy and to advance the interests of Macedonia.”

Supporters of Mr Gruevski, who ruled his country for almost a decade, accuse the US and EU of interfering in Macedonia’s affairs along with US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who funds liberals NGOs in the country and around the world.

Street protests

Populist and right-wing groups have accused Mr Soros of being behind recent street protests in countries including the US, Hungary, Romania and Serbia, and Russia banned his foundations from the country in 2015 as a “security threat”.

Moscow backs the position of Mr Gruevski and supporters, and claims – without offering evidence – that the West is part of a conspiracy to install a multi-ethnic government in Skopje, which would seek to carve up the Balkans to help create a “greater Albania” – a notion that alarms Slavs in Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia.

“Further developments in this scenario...threaten to cause more tension and risk tipping the situation towards conflict, including along ethnic lines,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.