By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Ethnically-charged incidents that mainly troubled the relations between Macedonians and Albanians this year, as to 2015, were overshadowed by the political crisis that began at the start of the previous year.
Macedonia this year saw two failed attempts to stage early elections and then polls on December 11, a controversial presidential pardoning of top officials suspected of various crimes, which was later withdrawn, massive anti-government protests as well as a series of political ructions between the ruling party and the opposition, which meant that ethnic issues did not attract as much attention in some previous years.
Kumanovo shootout trial still ongoing
The year started with the still-ongoing trial of 29 ethnic Albanians who stand accused of terrorism for their involvement in a shootout with the police that left 18 dead in Kumanovo in May 2015, eight of whom were police officers.
The high-security trial that started in February in Skopje continued to stir discontent among country’s Albanians, as many of them saw it as a politically-motivated farce, staged by a judiciary that has long lost its credibility among the majority of the population.
Ever since the bloody events in Kumanovo, which came against the backdrop of the political conflagration that revolved around opposition claims that former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski ordered the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people, some critics have accused the authorities of actually plotting the violence in the town in order to distract attention from the ongoing crisis.
Many, Albanians and Macedonians alike, continued to see the trial in the same light, suspecting that the people put on trial for terrorism were just scapegoats used to mask the political misdeeds of those in power.
The discontent just grew stronger as lawyers for the defendants on several occasions alleged that their clients had been tortured in custody – claims to which all except the Ombudsman’s office appear to have turned a blind eye.
Two more ethnically-charged cases
While the Kumanovo shootout trial took the spotlight, two more cases concerning ethnic Albanians also tested Macedonia this year.
After the court in Skopje in December 2015 upheld life sentences for six ethnic Albanians convicted of terrorism for the killing of five Macedonians in 2012 – a case that sparked ethnically-charged unrest that year – the defence lawyers spent this year hoping a retrial would be possible after some of the revelations in wiretapped recording of senior officials, which were released by the opposition Social Democrats, shed more light on the case which they claimed was politically motivated.
The Special Prosecution which was set up in 2015 to investigate criminal allegations arising from the wiretaps, asked to take over the case, which sparked hopes of a retrial, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen next year.
In another, much older politically-charged case, in which 11 ethnic Albanian villagers from Sopot are accused of planting a mine that killed two Polish NATO soldiers and one Macedonian civilian in 2003, a retrial has already been set but over the course of the year, its start was repeatedly postponed.
The initial hearing in the retrial at Skopje’s Criminal Court was postponed yet again on December 20, following the postponement of four other hearings earlier this year. Only two preparatory hearings have taken place so far.
The defendants in this case, tired after their 13-year legal fight, also hope that the case will soon be transferred to the new Special Prosecution and that a fresh investigation will be launched which could exonerate them.
Court strikes down Macedonian lustration
In July, amid the already shaken credibility of a process that aimed to name and shame former secret police collaborators in Macedonia, ended in farce, as the Administrative Court started annulling its decisions, one by one.
In June and July alone, the court annulled 17 decisions made by the Macedonian Lustration Commission. Another 40 contested decisions were either annulled in the following months or still await rulings.
As these rulings affected many of the 200 lustrated people who have been declared to be former collaborators with the secret police, the entire process is now in deep trouble.
Only the defiant head of the Lustration Commission, Tome Adziev, stood by his body’s decisions. He called the Administrative Court’s decisions “odd” and said that the court had ignored ample police evidence proving – he said – that those who had been named as police collaborators had been guilty as charged.
The annulments came after the EU exerted pressure on Macedonia in 2015 to scrap the much-disputed lustration process, which it said the government had turned into a weapon for dealing with its critics.
After this, the Commission last year said it was terminating the lustration process, but maintaining the restrictions on the people it had lustrated, one of which was a ban on running for public office.
The latest developments opened up the possibility for many of those who have been named by the Lustration Commission to now seek damages through the domestic courts and internationally.
Child’s death sparks ethnic row
In July, a brawl in a hospital queue that ended with the death of a child threatened to stir up new conflict between Albanians and Macedonians in the ethnically-mixed town of Kumanovo.
The Macedonian authorities and the family of the four-year-old child who died, Almir Aliu, had to call for calm after a protest in Kumanovo by thousands of ethnic Albanians accusing the suspected ethnic Macedonian killer of an ethnic hate crime, threatened to spin out of control.
The boy, an ethnic Albanian, died from wounds he sustained when he and his parents were run over by a car driven by 30-year-old Boban Ilic, an ethnic Macedonian who is now awaiting a trial.
The incident took place at Kumanovo general hospital when, according to police, the two families started to brawl amid an argument over who should see the doctor first.
In a chilling hospital video footage published by some media, a car, reportedly driven by Ilic, was seen slamming into the boy and his parents, who were also injured.
Mass grave found in politician’s yard
In October, the news of the discovery of an old mass grave in western Macedonia, believed to date from the Second Balkan War, sparked people’s interest but did not cause ethnic discontent.
The mass grave was discovered in the village of Zajas, near the family house of Ali Ahmeti, the head of the junior party in Macedonia’s ruling coalition, the Democratic Union for Integration.
Investigators said it could contain the remains of anything from 10 to 60 people and that it is believed that the victims are predominantly local ethnic Albanian residents who were killed in 1913, the year of the Second Balkan War.
Unlike in the First Balkan War of 1912, when several Balkan states fought side-by-side to oust the weakened Ottoman Empire from the Balkan peninsula, the Second Balkan War broke when Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece, unhappy over its share of spoils in Macedonia from the first war.
Much of the conflict, which was tainted by frequent massacres on all sides, took place on what was then the geographical region of Macedonia, of which only one part is today’s Republic of Macedonia.
Albanian and Serbian scholars have conflicting views about whether or not the Serbian army and paramilitaries committed massacres of Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania during the wars.
Albanians vote for ethnic Macedonian opposition
For the first time in country’s history, a considerable number of ethnic Albanians supported the main opposition Social Democratic party and did not vote for an ethnic Albanian party at the December 11 elections.
This arguably helped the Social Democrats to end up in a virtual tie with the centre-right VMRO DPMNE ruling party, whose election rhetoric was based on Macedonian nationalist and anti-Albanian sentiments.
Although estimates of how many Albanians did in fact vote for the Social Democrats vary from some 25,000 up to some 40,000, most observers agree that this happened mainly due to opposition party’s more civic platform.
Another factor was the discontent among Albanians – who make some one quarter of the country’s population of 2.1 million – about the current political offer of the Albanian parties.
War crimes convict becomes MP
The year ended with the election of Johan Tarculovski, the only Macedonian convicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal, as an MP for the main ruling VMRO DPMNE party at the December 11 parliamentary elections.
Former policeman Tarculovski entered parliament after being elected as an MP in the country’s second electoral unit that covers parts of Macedonia’s north-east but also parts of capital Skopje.
His election however did not spark serious reactions from the country’s Albanians as it was overshadowed by the larger political turmoil revolving around the near-tied election results between the ruling party and the opposition and the uncertainty about who will be able to form a government.
Tarculovski served eight years of his 12-year jail term before he was granted early release in 2013 and joined the centre-right ruling party that feted him as a hero and used him as a party mascot.
The Hague Tribunal convicted him of leading a police unit that killed ethnic Albanian civilians and committed other atrocities in the Albanian-populated village of Ljuboten near Skopje.
The crime took place during the brief armed conflict in 2001 between Macedonian security forces and a now-disbanded Albanian insurgent force whose leaders now lead the Democratic Union for Integration party, which for the past eight years has been a junior government partner to VMRO DPMNE.
Although some observers thought it was inappropriate for a controversial figure like Tarculovski to be a candidate for parliament, his party insisted it was proud to have him.