Macedonia could tip over the Balkans, and with it Europe

1 May 2017 – London, UK

by Chris Murray


Protestors stormed the Macedonian parliament Thursday, brutally assaulting government lawmakers in what marks a shocking level of escalation in an ongoing political crisis. Since the December elections, a state of political limbo has existed in Macedonia that has been largely ignored by the west despite posing a considerable threat to the region and to the European order more generally.

It should be noted that Macedonia has been facing considerable troubles for some time. The current crisis has roots reaching back several years. The December elections, which had been delayed by 8 months, were the result of EU intervention. This was in the face of large-scale protests against the government of Nikola Gruevski over a wiretapping scandal involving many of the country’s highest ranking political officials. These issues date back to 2015 when a transitional government was installed made up of the two largest parties, Gruevski’s ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM).

When the elections were finally held the current form of the crisis began to take shape. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s conservative party failed to win enough votes to form a government and later coalition talks broke down. Talks centered around an agreement between Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE party and the main ethnic Albanian party the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). The talks broke down over Gruevski’s refusal to entertain DUI’s demand for Albanian to be declared a second official language in Macedonia.

Of Macedonia’s population of 2 million, roughly 25 percent, are ethnic Albanians. There has been a concerted effort on the part of this large majority to advance new laws that would give greater credence to this minority and make Albanian the second official language, turning Macedonia into a bi-lingual nation. For many Europeans, or Canadians, the idea seems unremarkable but in Macedonia, it has set off a firestorm.

Assembly of Macedonia

As per Macedonia’s constitution if the largest party is unable to build a government coalition the opportunity falls to the second-largest party to form a government that has the support of a parliamentary majority. In this instance, the responsibility falls to Zoran Zaev’s Democratic Union (SDSM). However, the president must first present a potential coalition leader with a mandate to form a government before the proposed government can be voted on by parliament. On 27 February Zaev presented signatures from three ethnic Albanian political parties to Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov (also of VMRO-DPMNE) demonstrating he had the required majority. However, this majority was obtained through a commitment to advancing the second language agenda which President Ivanov is opposed to and labeled as a ‘foreign intervention.’ As a result, President Ivanov, on 1 March refused to issue a mandate to Zaev, which then set off a democratic crisis in Macedonia.

An interim coalition of VMRO-DPMNE, the Democratic Union for Integration, the Socialist Party of Macedonia, and the Party for the Movement of Turks in Macedonia with Acting Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev of the VMRO-DPMNE currently presides over the Macedonian parliament while debate continues over the future government’s makeup.

The situation is anti-democratic, divisive, and contrary to the will of the majority of Macedonians. However, there is, alternatively, a large well of resistance to Albanian language legislation. Thursday’s attacks were in response to Zaev’s call for the election of a new Parliamentary House Speaker. The assembly has been in deadlock for three weeks over the election. Despite being denied the right to form a government by President Ivanov, Zaev still holds majority influence and his call to vote led to the election of Talat Xhaferi, a former defence minister and a member of the Democratic Union for Integration. The DUI stands in support of the Albanian language agenda and therefore the election of a House Speaker from this party has been seen a move towards these goals. It was this move that sparked the attacks on Thursday, by what is believed to be mainly VMRO-DPMNE supporters, and demonstrates how divisive the issue has become.

The reality is the longer Macedonia is left in limbo the more threatening it becomes to the overall stability of the region. Macedonia is an EU member candidate. It also happens to share a border with Greece, the most economically fragile member of the EU which happens to be on the front line of the largest migrant crisis of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the EU is sitting around talking about Brexit. They should be once again intervening as they did in 2015 by calling for elections. Only this time it would seem the issue is the need to see President Ivanov removed for abuse of power.

“Hungarians won’t live according to the commands of foreign powers”, Orbán told the crowd at Kossuth square, 15 March 2012

The EU is, however, at a standstill. The Hungarians are reverting back into an authoritarian state, their president attempting down a university over personal rivalries. The only thing that stopped him was the EU actually taking legal action against one of its own members, not exactly confidence inspiring. This when Putin has seized on the opportunity to strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations.

This is also at a time when anti-EU sentiment is growing in France along with the dreadful Marine Le Pen’s numbers. Le Pen, let us remember has been mired in controversy over her financial connections to Russia, a fact that leaves one bewildered as to how she is still in the running.

Photograph of a Brexit rally outside of Parliament 23 November 2016

The Germans sit by blissfully unaware that in their Besserwisserei they are presiding over the collapse (good or bad) of one of the most ambitious political experiments of the modern era. German arrogance has influenced EU policy and the attitudes of their neighbours to the EU, which has been of far greater benefit to Deutschland than some of her partners. It has in fact helped breed the attitudes of the Le Pen crowd and the Brexiteers. As well as others eager to dance on the grave of the EU.

While they sit their arms crossed in judgment claiming the German way is the best way (both morally and economically) reality is setting in and suggesting this is not the case. Without real alternatives within the EU, it is the far-right exiters that have been given voice. It has also created the perfect situation in which a far off crisis in the Balkans could topple the whole thing.

Historically, Europe has had a blind spot when it comes to their south-eastern frontier. The Balkans are ignored and neglected. In that neglect chaos breeds, when the upheaval comes it drags Europe along with it. The Balkans are again being neglected and ignored until the very moment the region rears up and in the chaos drags Europe into the fire. This is a historical pattern so plain one is baffled at how we continue to ignore the lesson.

Macedonia also shares a border with Kosovo which is in the middle of its own upheaval as tension grows with Serbia over a possible union with Albania. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama suggested just last week that union with Kosovo might seriously be considered as an alternative to EU membership.

Let’s not forget on the other side of Kosovo lies NATO’s newest prospective member Montenegro – a membership the Russians are hell bent on stopping. The lengths the Russians appear willing to go to exert influence a region they feel historical connect with does not inspire confidence.

Two common threads prevail in the narrative. The first is Russia. It seems unbelievable that Russia is reaching out as far as they are but they have many fingers in many pies. This is hard to understand given the internal state of the country and one is left to wonder how long Russia can hold it together. Already workers are beginning to push back against the Russian government’s inability to manage the economy effectively.

One has to acknowledge there are obvious connections between Russian domestic troubles and these international efforts aimed at undermining the forces that might seek to upset the current regime’s plans. Despite the external strength being projected, Russian is incredibly fragile and the country is beginning to show signs of crumbling within. This could draw off Russian strength from the international scene, but the way it retreats and the implications of such a retreat are just as troubling. It would not be surprising to see this strength turned against its own people instead of correcting their economic crash course. It’s all unlikely to fix anything so long as Russia continues along with the levels of corruption that have become commonplace under the rule of the oligarchs. Without real change, Russia could face a breakdown of sorts that would only add fuel to the fire.

The other thread in this narrative is that Europe is so busy with itself (Russia included) that, again, the Balkans are being ignored. That is when they are not being used for some other end. The region is getting dangerously close to the breaking point.

Croatia (like Hungary both a NATO and EU member) has been sliding back towards the rather disturbing radical right tendencies of its past. Tensions continue to grow over the backslide into right-wing populism that leaves open questions about whether Croatia will pull itself out of the slide or drop further into the muck.

Serbia, meanwhile finds itself again torn between east and west in a desperate attempt to find some security and stability. Popular opinion, ignorant to Serbian realties leans pro-Russian and anti-western but the Economic (as well as the military for that matter) reality is that Serbia is tied far more to the west despite these feelings. The underlying point here is that when push comes to shove Serbia will likely be driven towards poor choices.

We ignore these developments at our own peril, the Balkans has historically been the powder keg stored in Europe’s cellar. It only takes one good spark to set it off and it would seem that there are plenty embers blowing around the region that could set it off. This might not be quite as concerning provided Europe was in a position to focus on the region or at least resend collectively in an effective way was something to ignite the powderkeg. However given the position of Hungary, Croatia, EU’s distractions elsewhere, Russia’s destabilising foreign policy, ongoing issues in Greece, the migrant crisis, not to mention Turkey’s turn towards authoritarian populism, things look pretty bleak.

The Espace Leopold, the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels.

That ‘something’ that might set if all of could very well be the very real possibility of a complete breakdown in the most unnoticed place, Macedonia. If the state of political limbo is allowed to remain and international pressure is not brought upon President Ivanov to accept Zaev’s coalition government Macedonia will face multiple possibilities none of which look appealing. Either it will slide into a sort of quasi-dictatorship under President Ivanov, there will be a coup or revolution, and/or there could very well be a revolution which would no doubt come with civil war. The creation of a stateless, or near-stateless entity in this region creating a vacuum of sorts, or even the continued ‘frozen government’ that currently exists does not bode well. Greece continues with extreme economic difficulties, the rest of the region is quietly sharpening its knives, and a massive migrant crisis floods the area. This holds all the elements for a terrifying crisis on proportions we do not wish to face.

Unfortunately given the current political realities of the EU and Russia’s apparent posture it seems unlikely that anyone is in a position to firmly address the possibility if / when it arises. Europe is currently quite weakest and it too, like Russia is beginning to show cracks. Indeed, it has been in some time, infested with infighting, EU economic tensions, and right-wing populism. All of which are rooted in a failure to address the fundamental economic issues at the heart of it all. The US has a president with isolationist tendencies and a complete inability to even find the Balkans on a map. Let us not forget President Trump’s own connections to Russia and little concern over Russian ambitions. The stage seems all but set for a perfect storm. Unless something is done quickly to realign EU focus squarely on the Balkans the region could once again rear during a time of European turmoil to tip the order into chaos as it has done in the past.


Feature Photo:  Macedonia, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo:  Assembly of Macedonia, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo: Viktor Orbán’s speech, 15/03/2012, Kossuth Square, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo: Photograph of a Brexit rally outside of Parliament 23 November 2016, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo: The Espace Leopold, the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels. Main chamber of Parliament, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

Chris is a PhD student at King’s College London, department of Defence Studies. He holds both a BA in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University, as well as an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He specializes in irregular conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, insurgency, revolution, guerrilla warfare, resistance movements, and rebel forces. His primary area of focus is the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Chris has served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as an advisor and analyst to the office of a Member of Canada’s federal Parliament.

About the Author

Chris Murray
Chris is a PhD student at King's College London, department of Defence Studies. He holds both a BA in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University, as well as an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He specializes in irregular conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, insurgency, revolution, guerrilla warfare, resistance movements, and rebel forces. His primary area of focus is the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. Chris has served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, as well as an advisor and analyst to the office of a Member of Canada’s federal Parliament.