Macedonians rally for government resignation amid surging political unrest

A man looks at a destroyed house in Kumanovo, Macedonia, May 11, 2015 (Reuters / Marko Djurica)
Anti-government protesters have gathered near the parliament building in Macedonia’s capital demanding the government’s resignation after a wiretapping scandal. The protests come as 30 people were charged with terrorism after 22 were killed this weekend.

Amid the political scandal Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsky removed his Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska and head of counter-intelligence Saso Mijalkov, the state news agency MIA reported on Tuesday.

The move follows the armed clashes in the ethnically mixed city of Kumanovo that erupted on Saturday and left 22 dead, including eight police officers. On Monday prosecutors charged 30 people with terrorism for the attack.

“Out of 30 people charged 18 are Kosovans, 11 are Macedonian citizens, two of whom are living in Kosovo, and one is from Albania with residence in Germany,” said the prosecutor’s office as quoted by AFP. Authorities said most Albanians from neighboring Kosovo have entered Macedonia illegally.

The prosecutors added that some of the men were also charged with illegal possession of arms and explosives.

Another 37 people were injured when police tried to arrest members of the armed group belonging to the now-dismantled Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which were allegedly planning terror attacks in Macedonia.

The shooting in Kumanovo, the third largest city in Macedonia, has rekindled fears that ethnic tensions which engulfed the region over 14 years ago could exacerbate amid the political instability.

Last week Macedonia’s capital Skopje was gripped by anti-government protests in which the demonstrators called for the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet. The protesters were instigated by calls from the opposition leader from the Social Democratic Union, Zoran Zaev who has urged to create a transitional government.

The opposition has also recently disclosed that the government has been allegedly wiretapping 20,000 Macedonians illegally. The protesters accused authorities of covering up the killing of a 22-year-old man, who was beaten to death by a police officer during a post-election celebration in 2011.

West doubts Macedonian democracy

The West has started throwing Macedonia’s democracy into doubt amid the political instability and ethnic tensions once again on the rise in the heart of the Balkans.

Following the shooting in Kumanovo, ambassadors of the US, France, Italy, the UK, Germany, and the EU issued a statement threatening to “undermine” Macedonia's decade long road towards EU and NATO membership.

READ MORE: Ethnic clashes in Macedonia leave dozens injured (PHOTOS)

We have specifically reiterated our concerns to the Prime Minister that his government has not made progress towards accounting for the many allegations of government wrongdoing arising from the disclosures,” said the joint statement issued on Monday.

This continued inaction casts serious doubt on the Government of Macedonia’s commitment to the democratic principles and values of the Euro-Atlantic community. Continued failure to demonstrate this commitment with concrete action will undermine Macedonia’s progress towards EU and NATO membership.”

On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the recent violence in Kumanovo saying that “he strongly supports the calls by the European Union and other members of the international community urging the state authorities and all political and community leaders to cooperate to restore calm and to fully investigate the events in an objective and transparent manner.”

Ethnic Albanians make roughly a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population. Out of 70,000 Kumanovo residents, 18,000 of them are ethnic Albanians.

‘Albanians do not react this way, encouragement from outside’

The recent ethnic clashes have been the worst since the 2001 insurgency, when the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) militant group, a KLA offshoot, began attacking the security forces in Macedonia, demanding for greater rights and autonomy to the country's Albanian minority. As the result of the 2001 violence NATO sent 3,500 troops to the region.

The latest armed attack in Macedonia has “confirmed that the EU and NATO still have much unfinished business in the Western Balkans,” said senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe Judy Dempsey on Monday

On Sunday Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski also claimed that several participants of the deadly Saturday clashes took part “in several conflicts, some in the Middle East, which points out to their big experience in guerrilla fighting.”

Foreign affairs analyst Srdja Trifkovic told RT that the rise in ethnic tensions in Albania could have been orchestrated with foreign help.

“The Albanians do not react the way they’ve reacted over the past three days without some encouragement from outside,” he said. “We’ve seen this 14 years ago, in 2001 when the Albanians were caught in the village of Aracinovo, and there were some American fighters with them.”

The Albanians were the US levee into the Balkans as they were the basis for Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the largest military base since Vietnam, Marko Gasic, international affairs commentator, told RT.

“The US still supports the Kosovo project even though it has undeniably failed and there is a huge amount of instability in Kosovo caused by the endemic corruption there, which has led many Kosovan extremists to go join ISIS in the Middle East and to come back now and destabilize nearby Macedonia.”

Unrest comes amid debate over Turkish Stream plans

Critics suggest that the unrest in Macedonia comes at an inconvenient time with reference to the construction of the Turkish Stream project, which would deliver Russian gas to Europe via Greece and potentially via Macedonia.

“Macedonia or rather the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has become very important to the US recently because of Bulgaria’s refusal to accept the South Stream project,” Trifkovic said.

READ MORE: Gazprom, Ankara agree to start Turkish Stream gas deliveries in Dec 2016

In the end the Bulgarians under EU pressure had to say “no.” And now if the Russian pipeline goes across Turkey to the Greek- Turkish border, the only way it can reach central Europe would be across Macedonia and then the old path as originally suggested through Serbia, Hungary into Austria, Slovenia, and Italy – and this is something the Americans don’t want. What we’ve seen in recent days is a warning to the government in Skopje not to even think about hosting the new Turkish pipeline in replacement for the South Stream.”

If the Turkish pipeline goes through then the US plans to send gas into Europe via Qatar will be sacrificed, Gasic said.

The US has created a very effective cordon sanitaire to block off Russia from its natural EU economic partners. But this cordon sanitaire is freight with the Turks not paying ball, with the Greeks being unreliable…If [the US] needs to shut down this pipeline off, it will do it in Macedonia.

“And how better to do that than to create instability to make Russia and the EU to think twice about building the pipeline there?” he asked.