Macedonia is reeling from two shocks. Amid a scandal over leaked wiretaps revealing a state apparatus captured and corrupted by the leading party, a battle in ethnically mixed Kumanovo between police and ethnic-Albanian gunmen, many from Kosovo, caused the region’s worst loss of life in a decade. Unless addressed urgently, the double crisis (government legitimacy/regional security) carries risk that could extend to violent confrontation, perhaps in worst case to elements of the conflict narrowly averted in 2001. Discredited national institutions cannot cope alone. The opposition has broken off talks on a European Union (EU) mediated deal between parties for reforms and early elections that deadlocked, substantially over whether the prime minister, in power since 2006, must resign and the time a transitional government would need to level the field. The EU must press for a comprehensive agreement addressing the state capture and alleged corruption, including independent investigation and monitoring with international help. Macedonia and Kosovo, also with aid, should jointly investigate Kumanovo.
In February 2015, the main opposition party began publishing excerpts from what it said was an illegal wiretap program leaked by unidentified persons. The massive surveillance, from at least 2010 to 2014, seems to have targeted thousands, including nearly all top opposition and government officials, as well as ambassadors and media figures. The fraction of published wiretaps focus on what appear to be conversations of senior government persons plotting to subvert elections, manipulating courts, controlling a nominally independent press and punishing enemies. Many who should be responsible for dealing with apparent illegalities are themselves implicated.
In the midst of this crisis, a police raid in Kumanovo on 9 May found a heavily armed group of ethnic Albanians, including former liberation army fighters from Kosovo. By the time fighting died down the next day, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood was destroyed, eight police were dead and 37 wounded; ten gunmen were dead and about 30 in custody. Top Macedonian and Kosovo officials had advance knowledge of at least some of the group’s activities, but much remains worryingly obscure, including its plans in Macedonia, possible allies on both sides of the border and many details of the police operation.
The incident did not spark ethnic conflict. Ethnic Albanians, roughly a quarter of the population, deeply resent what they perceive to be their second-class status and unequal treatment in a state dominated by ethnic Macedonians. They had expected more from the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) that ended the incipient civil war and was meant to give them a power-sharing role in a unitary state. For now, there is little constituency for fighting. While the inter-ethnic peace has proven resilient, however, further wiretap releases or a new deadly incident could raise the risk quotient unpredictably.
Macedonia appeared for a time to be building a modern, transparent state and integrating its ethnic-Albanian community, but that progress has ceased, even reversed, at least since a 2008 Greek veto resulting from the two countries’ eccentric dispute over the republic’s name blocked the prospect of EU and NATO integration indefinitely. The wiretaps, which appear to illustrate that governing parties have entrenched their power and privileges through corruption and criminality, have also dramatically compromised the ruling coalition’s ethnic-Albanian partner. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who has denied any wrongdoing, and opposition leader Zoran Zaev are playing high-stakes poker at the EU-sponsored talks, while some of the tens of thousands of activists who held duelling political rallies in the centre of Skopje in May remain encamped outside government and parliament buildings.
The EU, which has a direct stake in the threat to regional stability and a responsibility to assist a country to which it has granted membership candidacy status, should redouble efforts to persuade Macedonia’s leaders to restore trust in government by reaching an inter-party agreement that commits to:
- establishing through normal parliamentary procedures an interim government with appropriate membership of all main parties, whose main task should be to implement reforms necessary for credible elections by April 2016 (two years early), especially those related to voter lists, equal media access and abuse of office for partisan purposes;
- adopting a law in parliament establishing two independent commissions (“A” and “B”), both with authority to request and receive active expert help from the EU, U.S. and others. The mandate of “A” should be to assist with and monitor the transitional government’s efforts with respect to preparing credible early elections; The mandate of “B” should be to deal with the wiretaps, including investigation into the crimes and corruption they appear to show;
- accepting that the transitional government will remain in office and early elections will not be held unless Commission “A” determines that benchmarks have been met, and implementation is sufficiently advanced; and
- working to improve implementation of the OFA by ensuring equal representation of ethnic Albanians at all levels of public office; a fair share of government investment in ethnic-Albanian areas; and respect for language equality.
The inter-party agreement should further commit Macedonia’s leaders to:
- seek a joint Macedonia-Kosovo investigation into the Kumanovo incident, with expert assistance from EU and U.S. agencies, in order to improve the security situation and prevent future attacks; and
- improve bilateral relations with Kosovo, for example by holding regular joint cabinet meetings and cooperating on border monitoring.