Monday, July 27, 2015

Hints of Yugoslavia in the Forgotten Balkan Corner: Authoritarianism and Inter-Ethnic Antagonism in Macedonia

This post was originally published on Diplomatist Online in July 2015.

Macedonian journalists have been divided into two cohorts: the pro-government sources are labelled as ‘patriotic’ and those critical of it as ‘traitors’. ‘Patriotic’ media has made a practice of publishing lists of critics whom they identify as spies, conspirators and homosexuals. Journalists themselves report of declining working conditions in recent years, not to mention what could be termed as an open persecution of the free press. 
The short-lived conflict between ethnic Albanians and the Slavic Macedonian government in 2001 was largely overshadowed by the earlier, longer, and far more costly conflicts in the neighbourhood in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Inter-ethnic flare-ups have not been entirely exceptional in Macedonia since 2001, but the gun battle that broke out between Albanian militants and police in Kumanovo on May 10 was comparably seismic. The shootout claimed the lives of eight policemen and fourteen militants, many of whom hailed from neighbouring Kosovo, while thirty more were arrested. Coming on the wings of a government wiretapping scandal which has revealed widespread impropriety, accusations have been levelled that the recent inter-ethnic clashes were orchestrated by the government to divert public attention from the wiretapping revelations. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is at the epicentre of the scandal. If the wiretapping revelations and the government riposte (that they are part of a foreign conspiracy) carry all the familiar connotations of authoritarianism in the region, the possibility of exacerbating ethnic cleavage to crystallise government’s control is likewise reminiscent of the Slobodan Milošević regime’s machinations that sent Yugoslavia spiralling into ethnic war.

Unlike the case of its fellow Yugoslav successors, Macedonia did not plunge into a bloody inter-ethnic conflict with the collapse of Yugoslavia that began in 1990. Rather, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia transitioned to a parliamentary democracy relatively smoothly and peacefully, and in 1991 it declared its independence from Yugoslavia. For the next decade the rest of former Yugoslavia declined into brutal war, saw the rise of ethnic strongmen and experienced virtual economic collapse, the effects of which are still being felt. In contrast, Macedonia, a valuable regional ally of the US and NATO, made substantial gains in democratisation and began its path towards European Union accession in 1995.

Managing to stay comparably pacific throughout the tumultuous 1990s in the region, Macedonia did descend into a brief ethnic conflict in 2001 between the government (dominated by Slavic Macedonians) and the ethnic Albanians (that constitute roughly one-quarter of the country’s population). During the Kosovo War in 1998-99, Kosovo Albanians, having been driven out by the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign, sought refuge with their ethnic kin in Macedonia’s Albanian-dominated Tetovo Valley. In 2001, radicalised elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) founded the National Liberation Army (NLA), borrowed its insignia, and began attacking police installations in Macedonia. Demanding equal rights rather than secession or unification with the Republic of Albania, the NLA seized a number of towns and moved within artillery range of the capital, Skopje. Fearing escalation NATO and the EU quickly intervened militarily and brokered the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which sought to decentralise administration and police, and grant cultural and linguistic autonomy to the Albanian population. The disarmed NLA was transformed into the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which has become the largest Albanian political party and a ruling coalition partner since 2008. 

A peaceful transition from communism to democracy and the quelling of inter-ethnic war in its early stages inspired optimism about Macedonia, especially compared to its neighbours. However such optimism has eroded since Macedonia’s attainment of EU candidate status in 2005. Since 2006, Nikola Gruevski, a former finance minister, served as the prime minister. Gruevski and his party, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE (or just VMRO), have consistently acted illiberally to further entrench their positions of power, while inter-ethnic relations appear to have declined, returning some of the shadows of Macedonia’s dark past. The lustration laws, passed in 2008 and 2012, have allowed a government-appointed commission to review Yugoslav secret police files and blacklist those believed to be ‘collaborators’. Prominent intellectuals and former state officials have been lustrated, being publicly denounced and removed from public employment. Critics have vehemently argued that lustration has served as a means of silencing government critics and eliminating viable opposition, particularly because its 2012 reform was supported only by VMRO MPs.

Against this backdrop, press freedom in Macedonia has declined since 2009 to the worst in Europe in rankings by Journalists Without Borders. State-funded media and pro-government outlets have grown substantially, as the Broadcasting Council of Macedonia has closed independent and critical sources. Macedonian journalists have been divided into two cohorts: the pro-government sources are labelled as ‘patriotic’ and those critical of it as ‘traitors’. ‘Patriotic’ media has made a practice of publishing lists of critics whom they identify as spies, conspirators and homosexuals. Journalists themselves report of declining working conditions in recent years, not to mention what could be termed as an open persecution of the free press. Most notable has been the jailing of investigative journalist Tomislav Kezarovski in 2013 for publishing details of a leaked five-year old police report that allegedly influenced a trial. In 2011 Prime Minister Gruevski himself publicly denounced critical journalist Borjan Jovanovski. Consequently, the high profile physical assaults on Zoran Vasilevski and, more recently, Saše Ivanovski were carried out in a government-fostered environment, though not necessarily executed by government agents. It’s unfortunate that such illiberal behaviour targeted at the free press has become permissible.

With the longstanding Gruevski government having become the object of criticism from regular accusations of corruption and nepotism, further revelations of government wrongdoing by the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev in February were unsurprising. What have come to astonish the south-eastern corner of the former Yugoslavia, or at least the foreign observers, are the scale of the illiberal meddling which has come to light and the lack of a valid rejoinder by the prime minister or his party. On January 31, Zaev was publicly accused by Gruevski of espionage and attempting a coup d’etat. His passport was confiscated and three of his associates, including a former security chief Zoran Verusevski, were arrested. This came after a meeting with Gruevski in which Zaev threatened to drop a ‘political bomb’ that would ruin the VMRO. Subsequently, the government banned the publication of any alleged ‘coup d’etat’ material. Gruevski stated that Zaev’s ‘political bomb’ was illegally obtained from unidentified foreign intelligence services seeking to destabilise the country, a common label for critics. Then, amid public demand and Western words of warning over democratic standards, on February 9 Zaev dropped his bomb, revealing government wiretapping on more than 20,000 Macedonians including VMRO, coalition partners and opposition officials.

The massive domestic wiretapping operation is illegal and in itself reveals the paranoia of the VMRO government and its desire to keep a tight control over its opposition and the general population. What Zaev has publicised in dozens of press conferences since February are recorded conversations that reveal the shadowy dealings of a tight inner circle of officials acting in their own interests to seriously sway elections, maintain control over the media, promote systematic nepotism and influence judicial proceedings. Among others, this influential coterie includes Prime Minister Gruevski, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, secret police (UBK) chief Sašo Mijalkov, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Martin Protugjer, Transport Minister Mile Janakieski and Vice Prime Minister Vladimir Pesevski, as well as pro-government media figures Emil Stojmenov, Dragan Pavlović and Goran Ivanov. At each press conference, by offering fresh transcripts exposing improprieties by these parties, Zaev called for the resignation of Gruevski. And each time Gruevski rebutted with accusations of libel and Zaev’s connivance with foreign intelligence services to destabilise Macedonia.

A number of wiretapped telephone conversations and SMS messages presented at Zaev’s press conferences expose a broad array of tactics employed by the VMRO to influence election outcomes. Notably, this included an elaborate scheme, employed in the 2013 local elections, of transporting ethnic Macedonians from the Prespa region of Albania by buses to vote in contested municipalities. According to the transcripts of the tapped conversations between Jankuloska, Janakieski, Protugjer and Gruevski the ‘Prespans’ were provided with IDs and addresses of residences owned by the VMRO. As many as 40 foreign voters were assigned a single address. The more routine designs discussed included using handpicked policemen to cause incidents – misplacing ballots, coercing public employees into voting favourably, bribing public officials and even shutting off sections of the power grid. Power was shut off in apartment blocks to keep the elevators off and prevent elderly citizens from voting. Graphic discussion on how to punish or slander uncooperative public officials by exposing them in pro-government media is also included in the transcripts.

Given Macedonia’s disquieting degeneration of media freedom under Nikola Gruevski, it was hardly surprising that further wiretapped conversations reveal seamless manipulation of pro-government media by the VMRO elite to sustain their image while libelling opposition and critics. One conversation, between Jankuloska and Gruevski, discusses a list of party-approved journalists eligible to be hired. In another conversation – mainly between Protugjer, Mijalkov and the editors-in-chief Stojmenov and Pavlovićdisplay – the government officials instructed the media figures on what news to run, how to present it and how long to run it. In one such conversation between Mijalkov and Pavlović, the UBK chief informs Sitel TV editor-in-chief about where and when a high-profile arrest will take place and how to film it. The dubious relationship between VMRO officials and the supposedly independent media is not a one-way traffic. In a number of recordings, high-ranking personnel from pro-government media discussed business interests and tax issues with their government contacts. Notably, Protugjer pledges, in a conversation, to keep the revenue department from investigating Kanal 5 TV for tax evasion.

Party interference in the independence of the press is highly detrimental to liberal democracy in Macedonia, and is undoubtedly the catalyst for the country’s dive down the globally accepted rankings. What further recorded conversations reveal is a similar corruption of rule of law by the elites of the VMRO. A series of revealed dialogues exposes a party list of acceptable judges and prosecutors who can be nominated. The Albanian DUI, a ruling coalition partner, is allowed to select a certain number of judicial sector personnel, but for the most part selection is left entirely up to the VMRO. Naturally, figures unsupportive of the party don’t qualify for the list of potential candidates. Additional conversations, featuring the voices of Jankuloska, Mijalkov, Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski and others, indicate widespread influence in ongoing trials and a judicial culture of clientelism. Calls to VMRO elites from pro-government media or influential supporters requested favourable judgements in cases against them and expressed gratitude to the VMRO for acquittals. And in one of his latest press conferences, Zaev has insinuated judicial impropriety in last year’s controversial terrorism conviction of six ethnic Albanians, in the so-called ‘Monster’ case.

Last summer when the ‘Monster’ case concluded in the terrorism conviction of six Muslim Albanians, who murdered five Orthodox Macedonians on Orthodox Easter near Smilkovci Lake in 2012, serious ethnic unrest broke out. The massive ethnic Albanian demonstrations in Skopje, protesting judicial improprieties in the case, turned violent. Albanians in neighbouring Kosovo joined forces in the protest, burning flags as they marched to the Macedonian embassy in Prishtina. While Zaev has refused to release the details of this alleged impropriety for fear of sparking inter-ethnic clashes, this claim is the last of the three that reasserts the government’s misconducts in some of the most recent controversies in the country. The first was the murder of the 21-year old activist Martin Neskovski who was beaten to death by the special police officer Igor Spasov following the 2011 election. Though recorded conversations do not implicate Gruevski’s inner circle in sanctioning the murder, they do indicate that Spasov wasn’t acting autonomously and that the government promptly began a cover up. The second dealt with the alleged accidental death of investigative journalist Nikola Mladenov in 2013 when his car went off the road just outside of Skopje. Zaev’s public account on May 7 highlighted a number of inconsistencies in the police reporting, hinting at a possible murder cover up, and produced wiretapped conversations in which VMRO figures mocked the journalist’s death and planned to use it to threaten Mladenov’s colleagues and others.

The erosion of credibility and the exposure of mass government impropriety over the past year have coincided with a seeming decline in ethnic relations in Macedonia, adding an additional and delicate layer to the current crisis. The violent rioting following the conclusion of the ‘Monster’ case was episodic, but it stimulated widespread cries of the Ohrid Framework Agreement being ignored. In its attempt to mitigate the civil unrest, the police exacerbated the situation by detaining at the border ethnic Albanians attempting to enter from Kosovo. Then in September, former Albanian politician Nevzat Halili declared an autonomous Albanian Republic of Ilirida within Macedonia. Unofficial Albanian paramilitary police reportedly began operating in Albanian dominated territory at this time. This was followed by reported grenade attacks on government buildings in Skopje and on police stations in Tetovo and Kumanovo, for which the ‘Liberation Army’ allegedly claimed responsibility or had responsibility conferred upon it. None of these projectile attacks resulted in casualties though. The two major events in April and May, however, constitute a prodigious escalation. On April 21, a group of around 40 men, armed and wearing the markings of the defunct NLA, entered from Kosovo and seized a police station in Lipkovo, threatening to execute the officers present. In the end the officers were released, but the militants escaped with stolen arms and ammunition. Three weeks later, the special police executed a large-scale raid employing armoured vehicles and long-barrelled weapons – resulting in a deadly, day-long shootout – in ethnically heterogeneous Kumanovo, believing to have tracked down the militant group responsible for the Lipkovo attack.

The violence of the Kumanovo raid, highly reminiscent of the 2001 conflict, took the country by surprise when compared to small-scale flare-ups over the past year. Albanian and Slavic Macedonian residents of Kumanovo denied knowledge of the group or inter-ethnic tension in the city and pledged their solidarity. Immediately following the violence in Lipkovo and Kumanovo, allegations of government orchestration emerged. Amidst the heavy criticism from Zaev’s wiretapping revelations it was alleged that Gruevski and the VMRO elite, who fancy themselves to be nationalists, orchestrated the attacks in order to divert attention from their own impropriety and to consolidate the waning support from among the nationalists. It was suggested by regional experts that government agents had hired the militants, many of whom were from economically desperate Kosovo, to antagonise the sensitive ethnic cleavage that has been fragile since 2001. If such accusations are valid, the successful antagonising of the Albanian population that has already supplied high numbers of fighters to the Islamic State in the Middle East could prove to be catastrophic not only for Macedonia but also for the delicate ethnic rifts in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the light of this, ethnic Albanian leaders in Macedonia have commended their ethnic kin for exhibiting restraint and resistance to any possible provocation.

Undoubtedly, Zoran Zaev’s credibility has been called into question by his initial attempt to use wiretapping information to seemingly blackmail Nikola Gruevski to resign. However, the mass wiretapping exposure has revealed widespread impropriety and authoritarian motifs in a government under whose stewardship Macedonia has declined economically and democratically. What has become evident over the past weeks is the fact that the denouement of the political crisis in Macedonia is still unclear. Just days after the Kumanovo shootout, three prominent VMRO figures – Mijalkov, Jankuloska and Janakieski – whose voices appeared in the wiretapped conversations resigned. Nikola Gruevski, however, continues to cling to power, rallying VMRO supporters against the SDSM, and continuing to accuse Zaev of complicity in a foreign conspiracy and ‘anti-state behaviour’. Such riposte, along with accusations of participation in communist plotting or a conspiracy by the Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, has become increasingly routine under the VMRO and hardly taken as substantive. With ethnic tensions rising over the past year, machinations by Gruevski and the VMRO to solidify the nationalist base risk Macedonia’s chances of being prevented to descent into inter-ethnic conflict. A journalist from the Balkan Insight described the West as having treated Macedonia since 2001 with a hands-off policy as long as the people weren’t killing each other. If the attack in Lipkovo wasn’t warning enough, the deadly shootout in Kumanovo signals a return of inter-ethnic violence to the forgotten Balkan corner, whether it was a product of government orchestration, a genuine ethnic grievance, or simply an autonomous terrorist cell. In the wake of Kumanovo, Western attention has been drawn back to Macedonia. On June 2, the EU concluded an agreement in Skopje to hold snap elections next year. But in a country pulled apart by so many factors, and with religious extremism lingering in the background, stronger stewardship will be needed. A substantial international mission, akin to the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), but informed by its shortcomings, would be instrumental in steering the country away from further authoritarian entrenchment, preventing escalation of ethnic antagonism and renewing the EU’s commitment to the once key NATO ally.

Christopher M. Jackson earned a MA in European Union Studies from the European Union Center at the University of Illinois in spring 2015. Previously he earned a BA in history from Centre College in Kentucky. His research focuses primarily on conflict management, post-conflict normalisation, and international development.


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