22nd Jan 2018

EU unfazed by Macedonia ethnic tensions

Former ethnic-Albanian guerrillas are telling the EU that a power grab by the Macedonian majority is threatening the country's stability. But Brussels believes the warning should be taken with a big pinch of salt.

"I am afraid we are heading back to the 1990s when we had hundreds of problems and the EU said Macedonia is an oasis of peace," Agron Buxhaku - the foreign affairs secretary of the largest ethnic-Albanian party, the DUI - told EUobserver during a visit to Brussels last week.

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  • Mural of ancient Balkan king, Alexander the Great - ethnic Albanians call the nationalist Mr Gruevski "Alexander the II" (Photo: wikipedia)

"I'm trying to wake up the international community," he added, after getting the brush-off by EU officials. "If the integration of the two ethnic groups in Macedonia is put into question, then the very concept of Macedonia is put into question."

EU-entry candidate Macedonia is home to 2.1 million people, 500,000 of whom are ethnic Albanians. The DUI was formed out of the NLA guerrilla movement after seven months of fighting against Macedonian forces in 2001, which ended with the EU and NATO-brokered Ohrid Agreement on power sharing.

The conservative Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE party of prime minister Nikola Gruevski pushed the DUI out of government following 2006 elections, however, with the DUI now accusing Mr Gruevski of violating Ohrid rules on making police and media laws in an attempt to build "a Macedonia for Macedonians."

The DUI has boycotted parliament since January and recently held internal talks on blocking off roads to ethnic Albanian municipalities and forming its own, extra-governmental institutions. The plan was abandoned for fear of emboldening ethnic Serbs in neighbouring Kosovo.

"There is no alternative to the Ohrid Agreement because the alternative is chaos," the DUI's Mr Buxhaku said. "If we say now this model [a multi-ethnic unitary state] doesn't work, the signal will be heard by the Kosovo Serbs."

EU sympathy limited

EU officials admit there has been minor "backsliding" on Ohrid by the Macedonian government and feel sympathy for DUI, which struck a deal to share power in 2001 but now finds itself out in the cold after Mr Gruevski created a coalition with a smaller Albanian group, the DPA, instead.

Brussels also admits that the Kosovo status debate has heightened tensions between ethnic Albanians and Slavs in the Balkans in general. But it is not worried about Macedonia's stability, placing its trust in personal pledges given by DUI leader Ali Ahmeti and depicting the DUI stance as simple post-election frustration.

"We encourage the DUI to go back to parliament," a European Commission spokeswoman said. "This process is still ongoing in a peaceful and cooperative atmosphere and therefore we see no reason to be worried of instability."

She added that Skopje needs to get back on track with technical EU integration reforms, with a commission status report due out in October or November.

The EU line mirrors comments made by the VMRO-DPMNE's foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, in Brussels earlier this month. "Such behaviour is not only unconstructive for Macedonia but also creates an additional complexity to the regional challenges and Kosovo," he said on the DUI parliamentary boycott.

EU entry date needed

The topic has also come up in the European Parliament, where Dutch left-wing MEP Erik Meijer is drafting a report urging both sides to make peace and for the commission to recommend in autumn that EU states give Macedonia a clear date for starting EU entry talks.

The draft report "regrets the practice of boycotting the parliament" and "recommends that the country could learn from the way in which Belgium, Spain, Italy and Switzerland" have solved their ethnic problems. "Respect of the letter and spirit of the [Ohrid] Agreement will remain crucial for the European journey of the country," it adds.

"There will be strong opposition to this [a call for a firm EU entry talks date], with some MEPs just wanting to express that Macedonia should carry out the necessary reforms," Mr Meijer said, ahead of a foreign affairs committee vote on his text in June and a plenary vote in July.

EU ushers Macedonia to come closer

The European commission has said it would restore full-throated support for Macedonia to start accession talks if it kept up reform.

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