|Fault lines in FYROM|
The country of about 2 million people, usually one of the more tranquil in the Balkans, has suffered political, ethnic and economic crises in the year's first quarter. The ruling, center-right VMRO party has tried to paper over criticism with excuses, elections and pinning the blame on the country’s bilateral dispute with Greece over the name “Macedonia.”
“Enough,” has repeatedly been the reply of late from both Brussels and Washington. This young democracy, celebrating 20 years of independence this year, has bigger problems.
(Photo from the Skopje Fortress courtesy of wikimedia user d_proffer)
FYROM’s economy is in bad straits, as evidenced by its recent move to draw €220 million of support from the IMF. FYROM joins Greece in Europe’s IMF support club.
FYROM has also reached the brink of its largest ethnic crisis in the decade since the brief 2001 civil war.
The more pressing crisis has to do with this year’s census, which is not merely a matter of statistics in light of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, that distributes power between the Slav Macedonian majority and the country's minorities. Albanian and Turkish representatives on FYROM’s census commission walked out due to a number of issues. Among them, the VMRO government proposed carrying out the census in April, a time when many Albanians, unable to find work at home, venture out as seasonal labor elsewhere in the region. The Albanian representatives have asked for the census to take place in July when many of these workers return home. The final blow came when calls from the Albanian and Turkish communities to have more co-ethnic census-takers deployed to their enclaves went ignored.
The less systemic, but more volatile "Kale Conflict" escalated in February over the construction of a church-like building for a museum within the ruins of the Skopje or Kale fortress. The structure is part of a larger program dubbed “Skopje 2014” that includes an array of public buildings and monuments, including a soon-to-be completed statue of Alexander the Great that is sure to cause a fuss south of the border. Albanian activists tried to damage or destroy the building’s foundation, pulling ethnic tensions taut.
At this raw moment, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski chose to announce snap elections, pinning the blame on a parliamentary boycott by the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SDSM), begun on January 28 in reaction to the government shutdown of the A1 television station. Ruling VMRO’s coalition partner, the Albanian party BDI, has been on the verge of mutiny, with the opposition Albanian party PDSh already boycotting since August. The opposition has accepted the call for the polls but only based on the preconditions that led to the boycott. Whatever their merits – increased press freedom, judiciary reform, etc. – it is unlikely any government could make such sweeping changes both quickly and effectively.
Albanian language media outlets have speculated that SDSM will try to form a grand coalition with the two Albanian parties in order to take back the government and put on a more appealing face to the international community. Such a move would capitalize on Gruevski’s current weak position abroad. Both Washington and Brussels have given signs of becoming impatient with FYROM’s lack of progress domestically and unwillingness to find a compromise on the name issue with Greece.
Gruevski left for a trip to Washington in mid-February for a meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with a message to his countrymen that the purpose was mainly to get the US to intervene in the name dispute. He returned home with a public tongue-lashing and a warning to deal responsibly with the country’s simmering issues. The government returned fire at the West, which at the moment is more concerned with events in Libya and Japan than the Balkans. The results of the trip may have come as a shock since the International Community, the US in particular, has tended to prop FYROM up at the first signs of trouble.
What characterizes all of these issues is that they stem from conscious, poor choices by Gruevski’s government. “Skopje 2014” and other culture projects fail to make Slav Macedonians forget their economic problems while alienating the Albanian minority, which feels the Ohrid Agreement has yet to keep its promises. Elections will add fuel to the fire, especially considering the violence during the 2009 local and presidential polls.
Gruevski got a lesson that the rest of the Balkans, including Greece, have learned the hard way. The International Community cannot and will no longer write a blank check in a crisis. Support will come with conditions. Domestic affairs have international consequences.