Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A FYROM breakdown gets Europe’s attention

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Tensions with the country’s Albanian politicians could deteriorate into conflict

The Economist

IN NORMAL times, the world tends to ignore FYROM and its 2m people, a quarter of them ethnic Albanian. But the world is not ignoring FYROM now. Western politicians are rushing to Skopje, Russia is issuing warnings and Serbian newspapers proclaim that war is coming. “Geopolitical relevance is returning to the Balkans,” laments Veton Latifi, an analyst.

The Macedonian crisis started with a coalition dispute. To preserve ethnic peace, governments consist of the winning FYROM party and an Albanian one. Elections last December gave the incumbent FYROM party, the nationalist VMRO, a slight edge. But after talks with the VMRO failed, the leading Albanian party, headed by Ali Ahmeti, opted for the Social Democrats. On March 1st Macedonia’s president refused to ask the Social Democrats to form a government, saying Albanian demands would “destroy” the country. The Social Democrats called it a “coup”.

Every weekday since, thousands of Slav Macedonians have demonstrated in support of the president. The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, along with the head of NATO and America’s State Department, have pleaded with him to reverse his decision. VMRO has staunchly supported joining NATO, but in this crisis it is backed by Russia.

At a deeper level, the conflict goes back to 2015, when the Social Democrats began releasing tapes of conversations (tapped by the intelligence services) which implicated Nikola Gruevski, the VMRO prime minister at the time, in corruption. Under EU auspices, a special prosecution office was set up, but VMRO now claims it is packed with Social Democrats. Lately VMRO supporters have accused George Soros, a philanthropist named in many potty conspiracy theories, of plotting against them. Ms Mogherini has been attacked in the press as a “fascistic Sorosoid bimbo”. American congressmen sympathetic to VMRO have attacked the American ambassador to FYROM as a tool of Mr Soros.

At the centre of the crisis is Mr Ahmeti, a former guerrilla leader. Sharing power with Mr Gruevski since 2008 cost him support. He says Mr Gruevski would not agree to extend the mandate of the special prosecutor investigating him. Meanwhile, Albanian parties asked the government to keep its agreement to widen the use of Albanian as an official language.

According to Radmila Sekerinska, deputy head of the Social Democrats, Mr Gruevski instigated the crisis when he realised that he might lose power, which would leave him exposed to the special prosecutor investigating him. Not so, says Nikola Poposki, Macedonia’s foreign minister and a VMRO official. The Albanian language demand accepted by the Social Democrats “endangers the unity and sovereignty of FYROM”, he says.

Mr Ahmeti warns against turning the crisis from a political one into an ethnic one, saying he has a tough job keeping his side’s own nationalist radicals in check. He disclaims any plans for a Greater Albania. Russia, he says, is stirring the Balkan pot; the best way out is to accelerate FYROM’s accession to the EU and NATO. Good luck with that.

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