Explainer: Macedonia At A Crossroad

Scores of demonstrators stormed Macedonia’s parliament on April 27 and attacked several lawmakers after an ethnic Albanian deputy was elected speaker. It's one of the most alarming developments in that Balkan nation since it lurched into political gridlock more than two years ago.

Angry nationalists, some wearing black masks to hide their faces, are suspected of leading the charge inside of the building, where they threw chairs, camera equipment, and punches. Later, they continued the violence outside as they battled riot police, who have since cordoned off the area around parliament.

About a dozen protesters erected five tents on the front lawn of the parliament on April 28, pledging to stay to "defend Macedonia."

Legislators, meanwhile, balked at a crisis meeting sought by President Gjorge Ivanov.

What got us here?

Macedonia fell into political crisis two years ago amid claims that the governing conservative party, VMRO-DPMNE, led by former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, was responsible for the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people including journalists, politicians, and religious leaders. This spurred massive antigovernment protests and a European Union mediation effort. It eventually forced the resignation of Gruevski's government.

Since then, there have been four snap elections, none of which has produced a stable government. The most recent vote, in December, gave VMRO-DPMNE 51 seats and the opposition Social Democratic Union 49 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Neither side was able to form a majority government until the Social Democrats, led by Zoran Zaev, agreed to a coalition with some ethnic Albanian parties after accepting their demands for greater rights and the establishment of Albanian as a second official language in certain areas of the country.

President Ivanov, an ally* of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, has refused to give Zaev an official mandate to form a government, claiming the Albanian-language issue could destroy Macedonia’s independence.

Why should outsiders care?

It’s no accident that the Balkans is referred to as the powder keg of Europe. Several events in the region, including the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Sarajevo helped trigger World War I.

More recently, the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s left lingering animosities between the many ethnic groups that inhabit the region.

Many analysts say the Dayton accords that brought peace to the Balkans were short-term solutions, at best, and that without secure, longer-term legislation and the strengthening of democratic institutions, volatility will remain on Europe’s southern flank.

The Republic of Macedonia is a landlocked country in the heart of the Balkans. It borders Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.

It has a population of 2.1 million, mainly comprising Macedonian Slavs. But it is estimated that one-quarter of the country is ethnic Albanian, most of whom live in the northern and northwestern regions that border Kosovo and Albania. Other ethnic groups, none of which accounts for more than 4 percent of the population, include Serbs, Bosniaks, Turks, Roma, Montenegrins, Croats, and Vlachs.

Tensions between Slavic groups and ethnic Albanians, who comprise about 8 million people in the Balkans, including some 1.5 million in Kosovo,* is widely considered the biggest flash point in the region.

For example, since Kosovar President Hashim Thaci told RFE/RL on April 19 that "all Albanians in the region will live in a single country in order to proceed further with the integration into the European family," fears have grown that Albanians in the region, along with ultranationalists in Tirana, will trigger armed conflict by pushing the concept of a Greater Albania.

Statements like Thaci’s are particularly unsettling for Macedonia, which suffered through an armed rebellion in 2000-01 by its Albanian minority that ended only after a NATO-brokered peace agreement was reached. Albanians say the deal has not been fulfilled, with promises of increased rights being broken, heightening tensions through the country.

Is Macedonia on a "Western" path?

A former province in Yugoslavia that gained its independence in 1991, Macedonia has been targeting European Union membership since it became a candidate in 2005, though it has yet to open accession talks. It also has aspirations of joining the NATO security alliance.

However, membership drives to both institutions have been blocked by Greece amid a dispute over the country’s name. Greece has voiced concern that the usage of "Macedonia" implies territorial aspirations against its own region of the same name.

While Macedonia continues to negotiate its place in the EU, because of Greece’s objections it currently goes by the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. NATO has said that Macedonia can only officially receive a membership invitation once the naming dispute is settled.

The rising tensions in the Balkans have not gone unnoticed by the EU. A summit in Brussels in March was aimed at cementing the bloc’s long-term commitment to the region. Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia are all currently in membership negotiations with the EU.

By reiterating its commitment to the Balkans, Brussels said it is hoping to erase any feelings that the road to membership has been blocked. But equally, if not more, important to many Europeans is the effort to keep Russia, which has long-standing cultural and economic ties in the region, from gaining sway in the region.

The Kremlin appears to see destabilization as a way of driving a wedge between the West and the Balkans, opening the door for it to boost economic ties, including through energy and trade links.

How has the international community reacted to the Skopje violence?

Brussels, Washington, and Berlin were quick to condemn the violence of April 27, suggesting it was an attack on democracy.

The EU's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, warned that "violence is unacceptable, even more so when it happens in the house of democracy."

The U.S. Embassy in Skopje decried the violence "in the strongest terms," saying via Twitter that it was "not consistent with democracy and is not an acceptable way to resolve differences."

The Russian Foreign Ministry countered that the West’s "gross interference" in Macedonia was to blame for the political crisis engulfing the country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office issued a statement expressing "deep concern" and saying that "Macedonia holds key significance to establish lasting peace in the Balkans."

In Serbia, President-elect and current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic convened security consultations and cautioned that events in Macedonia "present a problem for all of us who live here and it is better to stop all the problems and secure peace and stability for our children."

What might pressure Macedonian leaders to end this crisis?

Though it has made strides in reforming its small, open economy over the past decade, Macedonia remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. Economic growth was robust at an average 4.3 percent from 2002-08, but it has slowed by half since 2009 to average just 2.1 percent.

The current political crisis threatens to negatively affect the economy of a country that is already one of Europe’s poorest even further if it is not solved in a timely manner, the World Bank has said.

With this, and the threat of a fresh breakout of violence on their minds, many Western countries have called for Ivanov to respect the election results and allow the proposed coalition to form a new government. This, they say, will strengthen democratic institutions in the country and allow it to regain its footing, thus avoiding a deep economic crisis on top of its political woes.

With additional reporting by AP and Reuters

* CORRECTION: This story has been amended from an earlier version to note that there are 1.5 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. It has also been changed to note that President Ivanov is an ally of the VMRO-DPMNE​ rather than a member of that party.