The weekend siege and gun battle in Macedonia which left 22 dead has uncanny and deeply worrying echoes of the Balkans’ bloody ethnic conflicts of the 1990s. The battle in Kumanovo, near Macedonia’s border with Kosovo and Serbia, saw police pitched against what the authorities claimed were a gang of ethnic Albanian “terrorists” led by former rebels from Kosovo. Eight police died, 14 “terrorists”.
Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov has blamed the broader ongoing crisis in the impoverished two-million-strong ex-Yugoslav republic on the vacuum created in “the long status quo in terms of the European integration, which leaves room for a variety of attempts for destabilisation”. He urged the EU to accelerate bringing Macedonia into the union.
Opposition forces see the 36-hour siege with Albanians, who make up 30 per cent of the country, as a deliberate diversion and attempt to sow ethnic divisions to distract from huge political pressure on the government – notably a major march planned for the 17th – over poverty, unemployment, lack of reforms and corruption. These grievances are compounded by a storm of claims of state eavesdropping, covert control over major institutions, the judiciary and media, and anti-democratic practices.
Despite the bloodshed, Western envoys to Macedonia pulled no punches following talks with conservative PM Nikola Gruevski on Monday. They called for an independent investigation into the deaths, questioning his government’s commitment to democracy and European values given its failure to investigate “many allegations of government wrongdoing” arising from a flurry of leaked wire taps.
EU pressure on the regime must be sustained, not least because of provocative Russian support and encouragement to the government in Skopje where dozens were hurt when anti-government protests turned violent last week. The government must be warned that a crackdown on the upcoming march will have serious consequences for Macedonia’s EU’s accession ambitions.