EU and Russia step into Macedonia crisis
Macedonia has become the latest theatre in a tug-of-war between the West and Russia over the future of the Western Balkans.
With street protests in Skopje and a constitutional crisis over the results of a recent election, Nato, the US, the EU, and the Russian foreign ministry issued contradictory statements on Thursday (2 March).
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The Western bloc urged Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov to allow a new coalition of ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties take power because they had a majority of 67 out of 120 seats in parliament.
“[We must] avoid that this political and institutional crisis becomes an inter-ethnic conflict or, even worse, a geopolitical one,” EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini said after meeting Ivanov in Skopje on Thursday.
She urged him to “reverse his decision”, adding that “instead of democratic rules, chaos prevails today”.
Nato head Jens Stoltenberg and the US ambassador to Macedonia, Jess L. Baily, echoed her views.
“I look to the authorities in Skopje to fulfil the next step in the democratic process,” Stoltenberg said.
Baily, who also met Ivanov, said his decision was “inconsistent with basic democratic principles and the rule of law which are core values of Nato.”
The Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday that EU and Nato had caused the crisis and that they endorsed the creation of a “Greater Albania” in the region.
“The political crisis in Macedonia [was] provoked by the gross external interference in the country’s internal affairs,” Russia said.
“Attempts, which are actively supported by EU and Nato leaders, are being made to make Macedonians accept the ‘Albanian platform’ designed in Tirana in the prime minister’s office based on the map of the so-called Greater Albania, which illustrates its territorial claims to vast regions in neighbouring Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece,” it said.
The reference to Albania's leader Edia Rama comes after he held a meeting with Macedonian Albanian parties in December and called for the Albanian language to get official status in Skopje.
The new `Macedonian-Albanian coalition that Ivanov rejected included the official language move as part of its programme.
Russia’s propaganda outlet, Sputnik, on Thursday also ran an inflammatory story entitled: “Nato willing to see ‘blood in streets of Macedonia' for Greater Albania project”.
The street protests in Skopje began on Tuesday.
Some 15,000 supporters of former Macedonian prime minister Nikolai Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, which stands to lose power after 11 years in office, chanted anti-Albanian and anti-EU slogans such as: “EU hands off Macedonia”.
VMRO-DPMNE won the most seats in the election (51 out of 120), but the party, which is embroiled in a corruption scandal, failed to build a coalition with a majority.
Macedonia is home to some 500,000 ethnic Albanians who make up 25 percent of the population.
The country witnessed a brief civil war in 2001 which ended in the Ohrid Agreement, a Western-backed deal that give ethnic Albanians greater rights.
Mogherini had also visited Podgorice on Wednesday.
Montenegro prosecutors are preparing to indict Eduard Shishmakov, an alleged Russian spy, for plotting a failed coup last year that was designed to stop the country from joining Nato in May.
“The European Union door is open, not only that, but that we want you to cross that door and enter,” Mogherini said.
The EU envoy travelled to Belgrade on Friday and aims to go to Sarajevo and Pristina on Saturday.
Russia is also trying to pull Belgrade back into its sphere of influence, with a recent arms deal ahead of elections that could see its pro-Russian nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic, remain in office.
The Russian foreign ministry said in its statement on Thursday that the EU’s support for Kosovo’s independence was part of the same Greater Albania “scam”.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also met with Miroslav Dodik in Bosnia on Thursday.
Dodik, the pro-Russian president of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in the Bosnian federation, has threatened to call a referendum on secession.
But Lavrov accused “the West” of trying to overturn the Dayton Agreement, the 1995 peace accord that ended the ethnic conflict in the country.
“Of course, the recent attempts to review these principles cause concern. We know that some of our Western counterparts either turn a blind eye to these attempts or openly support them,” he said, without giving details on what he meant.