21st Mar 2018

EU to Macedonia: 'Stop playing with fire'

  • Hahn (l) with Gruevski in the latter's time as prime minister of Macedonia (Photo: European Commission)

The EU has once again urged Macedonia to let Albanian parties join a new government and to stop “playing with fire” on ethnic hate speech.

“In a democracy, everyone must acknowledge parliamentary majorities … We therefore encourage the president to reconsider his position urgently”, EU enlargement and neighbourhood commissioner Johannes Hahn said on Tuesday (21 March) in Skopje.

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He said that anti-Albanian protesters had the right to freedom of assembly and expression, but said those rights “come with responsibilities”.

“No one should be tempted to play with fire. We are deeply concerned about tensions and hate speech,” he said.

He also urged people to stop “negative rhetoric targeting the international community”, which, he said “undermines the country's standing”.

Hahn spoke after meeting Macedonia’s political leaders in a bid to end a political crisis that unfolded after elections in December.

The ruling party, the VMRO-DPMNE of former leader Nikola Gruevski, which has held power for over a decade, won the most seats, but failed to get a majority.

The opposition SDSM party formed a coalition with Albanian parties on condition of making Albanian an official language.

But the ethnic Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, refused to endorse the new government, saying it would harm the country’s “territorial integrity and independence”, while pro-Gruevski crowds took to the streets.

Hahn’s visit came amid a 50,000-strong pro-Gruevski rally in the capital on Tuesday.

Gruevski, who risks going to jail over a corruption scandal if his side is ousted from office, said over the weekend: “We are left alone to defend the country. The people will have to defend the country”.

Some participants at another rally on Saturday had chanted “death to Shiptari!”, using a pejorative term for ethnic Albanians, according to the news agency.

Participants at previous events had also chanted anti-EU and anti-US slogans, while earlier this month vandals threw molotov cocktails at a museum of the Albanian language in the town of Manastir in south-west Macedonia.

Albanians make up a quarter of the population in Macedonia, which narrowly avoided an ethnic conflict in 2001.

Hahn told Macedonian TV that he was encouraged by Tuesday’s talks in which, he said, everybody pledged to respect the constitution.

But president Ivanov declined to meet Hahn, while the EU commissioner declined to meet with organisers of the pro-Gruevski protests.

Hahn said the country needed to resolve the crisis for the sake of its “euro-atlantic integration”.

The EU has said there would be no more enlargements in the next few years, but EU leaders at a recent summit reiterated that all Western Balkan countries had a European “perspective”.

Wider tensions

The Macedonia crisis comes amid a wider flare-up in nationalist and ethnic tension in the region, including in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia.

EU leaders, including Britain’s Theresa May, also voiced concern over Russian attempts to destabilise Western Balkan states.

Britain said that Russia was behind last year’s failed coup in Montenegro, which, the UK said, was designed to stop it from joining Nato.

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said in a letter to Senate leaders on Tuesday that it was “strongly in the interests of the United States that Montenegro's membership in Nato be ratified”.

“Montenegro's participation in the May Nato summit as full member, not as an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity," he added, according to the Reuters news agency.

The US leader, Donald Trump, who has been accused of shady ties with Moscow, is to attend the Nato event in his first state trip to Europe.

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