Crisis-hit Macedonia braces itself for the next ‘bomb’

West scrambles to defuse confrontation as Moscow makes accusation of stoking unrest

On a sweltering Sunday in Skopje, as people flocked to fan-cooled cafes for shade, ice cream and espresso, dozens of Macedonians talked beneath plastic awnings and dozed in tents that seemed in danger of melting in the Balkan sun.

Around them hung banners and placards denouncing prime minister Nikola Gruevski, and the government he leads from the dazzling white headquarters that overlooks this protest camp in the centre of Macedonia's capital.

Demonstrators pitched their tents here after a May 17th rally that saw tens of thousands of people condemn what they called a criminal and corrupt regime that could destroy Macedonia’s still-fragile democracy.

The next day, a crowd of similar size marched through Skopje in support of the government, and a few participants made their own, much smaller, tent camp just 1km away in front of parliament.


Now, as the temperature soars, both sides watch each other, and wait.

They wait for the next explosive revelation from opposition leader Zoran Zaev’s cache of wiretap “bombs” – secretly recorded conversations in which top officials appear to conspire in corrupt and criminal acts.

They wait for the outcome of talks that the EU and US hurriedly brokered as political confrontation threatened to erupt into street clashes, and for Russia’s next move in what it calls a western attempt to spark “Ukraine-style” revolution here.

And they wait, with most trepidation, for something as unexpected as a still-mysterious battle that erupted without warning on May 9th in the town of Kumanovo, which killed eight police officers and 10 ethnic-Albanian gunmen and reawakened fears of communal violence in Macedonia 14 years after a brief but deadly insurgency.

"No one knows how this will end, but I think Gruevski is ready to go to the 'danger zone'," said Djabir (26), an anti-government protester from the town of Ohrid, near Macedonia's border with Albania.

“Gruevski knows that if he leaves power he could end up in jail, and those around him know the same thing. It’s hard to imagine they will just go quietly.”

After a Nato-brokered deal ended the 2001 insurgency, Macedonia made enough progress for the EU to accept it as a candidate for membership in 2005.

The country has made little headway since, however, and roads to both the EU and Nato are blocked by Greece's refusal to accept its neighbour's very name, which Athens says implies a territorial claim to the Greek region of Macedonia.

Experts say Athens cannot be blamed for all Macedonia’s woes, however, and that Mr Gruevski – premier since 2006 – bears great responsibility.

Erwan Fouéré, the Irishman who from 2005-11 was the EU’s special representative to Macedonia, has said the country of two million is now “governed by fear and intimidation with a ruling party whose ethno-nationalist and populist agenda has created new fault lines in an already-fragile environment”.

In April, Fouéré accused Gruevski and allies of pursuing “a systematic campaign against all those who openly criticise the regime” and fanning ethnic tensions to the point where Macedonia was now the biggest problem in the region.

“It is an example of how one should never take anything for granted in the Balkans – a positive narrative one day can become a nightmare scenario the next.”

For Macedonians frustrated by high unemployment, poverty and corruption, the wiretap “bombs” dropped this year by Zaev – which the government says are doctored – have become a galvanising force, uniting ethnic groups in demanding swift and radical change.

“I am of Turkish origin, and there are Albanians and Serbs and others in our movement,” said protester Djabir. “Macedonia is a kind of hell for all young people who don’t have money or connections to the ruling party.”

Though few of his supporters are camping out in Skopje, Gruevski is far from friendless, however.

“Zaev and the opposition can’t be trusted. When in power, they were a disaster,” said Cvetin, a Skopje taxi driver.

“All the new buildings in the city centre, the statues and parks – that’s all been done under Gruevski.”

Gruevski also has support from Russia, which claims the West is trying to oust him for refusing to join a sanctions regime against Moscow, and for supporting Russian plans to build a Balkan gas pipeline through the country.

On their big march, pro-Gruevski protesters carried Russian flags, pictures of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and pan-Slavic and Orthodox Christian symbols, stoking unease among Macedonia’s 25-percent ethnic-Albanian minority and those who doubt the government’s commitment to EU accession.

The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, is due to fly into Skopje tomorrow for talks, but no one on the streets expects a breakthrough.

“For years we haven’t had democracy in Macedonia,” said Trajko (25), at the protest. “We will wait here until it comes.”