The Balkans, Interrupted: The Protests in Macedonia are Only the Beginning

CFR Snapshot, 10.05.2015
Edward P. Joseph, ex militar, M.A. en RRII y representante de la OSCE en la ex Yugoslavia

Like most terrorists, he was young. He had been born in the days just before bitter hatred engulfed his country; not long after his birth, his father had been seized by authorities and killed, along with scores of other Sunni Muslims. Two weeks ago, the 24-year-old son marched into a police station reportedly shouting the jihadist war cry “Allahu Akbar!” and then opened fire, killing one officer and wounding two others, before he was killed in a firefight with police.

Over the weekend, 350 miles to the south, eight more policemen were killed along with 14 suspected terrorists in a raging gunbattle near an international border created in the aftermath of World War I that radicals no longer recognize.

Another day in Syria or Iraq? No, this happened in Europe, an easy day’s drive from Vienna. The first attack, in Zvornik, a town in Bosnia’s Serb entity, was a shocking reminder of the potential influence of radical Islam in the region, especially in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (also called ISIS). Only a small number of Bosnians have been radicalized, and even fewer have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. But in the still-fractured Balkans, it doesn’t take many radicals to destabilize a country.

Nor is radical Islam the only threat to years of work and billions in investment in the region by Washington and its European partners. In the wake of the standoff with the West over Ukraine, Russia has stepped up its own role there, with incendiary appeals to Orthodox Slav solidarity. Indeed, Moscow has voiced staunch support for the embattled government in Macedonia, where the second shocking incident occurred. The weekend’s firefight, replete with grenades, snipers, and automatic weapons, took place in the town of Kumanovo near the border of Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo. The government described the fight as a battle between the police and “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans,” presumably meaning Albanian radicals. The real circumstances of the shoot-out are murky and the timing suspicious, coming as the government contends with growing waves of protests over revelations of alleged massive government abuse. As the Macedonian president rushed back from Moscow, his hosts there sharply criticized demonstrators and warned against another “color revolution.”

With Macedonia facing potential implosion, with Bosnian unity at its most tenuous since the war, and with Kosovo witnessing a mass exodus of citizens who have given up on its corrupt, divisive government, the three most vulnerable countries of the region stand on a precipice. A slide toward radicalism and inter- or even intraethnic strife, abetted by Russian or Islamist opportunism, is fully plausible. And if it happens, U.S. and European diplomats will be forced to finally answer a question: Who lost the Balkans?

Just as at the height of the wars in former Yugoslavia, Washington and Brussels will likely point fingers at each other. In fact, the blame will be shared. Neither the crises in Ukraine nor those in the Middle East are alibis for the West’s timid policies and sporadic attention in recent years. The truth is that although destabilization in the Balkans poses far less of a threat to Western interests than Putin’s aggression or ISIS’ barbarism, it is a far less difficult challenge to overcome. There are no nuclear weapons in the region. Suicide terrorism, so far, is extremely rare. And most of all, unlike either Ukraine or the countries of the Middle East, even the most divided countries of southeast Europe still share a common strategic orientation, with generally high rates of support for joining NATO and the EU.

But instead of seizing on this strong foundation to overcome remaining obstacles to Euro-Atlantic integration, the West has allowed the fledgling countries of the region to backslide. Washington prematurely handed over lead responsibility for the Balkans to the EU, which prematurely handed over lead responsibility to the region’s leaders. With no meaningful EU carrots or sticks to restrain their behavior, politicians have largely consolidated their corrupt patronage networks, co-opted or intimidated the media, and resisted meaningful reform.


Macedonia is a prime example of the consequences of sporadic attention. With intensive international help following the outbreak of hostilities between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians in 2001, the country made steady progress in building joint democratic institutions. In 2006, current Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski took office. After four increasingly dubious elections, he has managed to consolidate power by debilitating the judiciary, marginalizing the opposition, and eviscerating independent media. In 2007, Macedonia ranked number 36, ahead of the United States, in Freedom House’s Press Freedom Index. Last year, Macedonia sunk to 123, languishing with the likes of Venezuela. The country’s economy, meanwhile, remains afloat through a sharp and unsustainable rise in borrowing.

Still among the region’s youngest leaders, Gruevski would be sitting pretty with years left in power were it not for a wiretapping scandal that has revealed the breathtaking extent of government abuse. Released periodically by the opposition, recorded phone calls allegedly describe the government’s direct orchestration of financial and electoral fraud, mass electronic surveillance, framing of political opponents for crimes, and even murder. In the most shocking revelation, released last week, senior government officials are allegedly heard scheming to cover up a dubious car accident that took the life of a noted government critic. Another recording seems to implicate the government in sweeping under the rug a case in which police had beaten a young reveler to death. Gruevski and other government officials have denied the allegations, claiming that the wiretaps are the work of unspecified “foreign agents” who aim to destabilize the country.

In response, this month, thousands of young Macedonians have braved truncheon-bearing riot police to protest. They and the opposition demand that the prime minister and his associates hand power over to a caretaker government that will organize fresh elections while independent investigations into the revelations proceed. With tensions mounting, the opposition has called for a massive demonstration next week. Facing severe legal and personal consequences if he and his cohorts resign, Gruevski appears poised to fight it out to the end, leaving Macedonia’s stability in the breach.

The ramifications of the weekend’s shocking violence in Kumanovo are as unpredictable as the circumstances of the clash are mysterious. There is precedent in Macedonia for dubious shoot-outs with purported terrorists, including in 2002 when seven migrants from Pakistan and India were shot dead by police in a highly suspicious incident. A Macedonian court eventually cleared the former interior minister of charges of responsibility for the killings. Last month, a Macedonian police spokesman claimed that 40 Albanian radicals attacked a police outpost on the border with Kosovo, yet neither NATO nor the Kosovo police could confirm any such activity.

Rather than let Gruevski—who claims that the wiretaps are part of an international conspiracy to get him to change the country’s name—exploit the issue, the United States should take the initiative. Ironically, the shoot out between Macedonian police and purported Albanian radicals comes as inter-ethnic relations in the country have made impressive strides. For the first time in its 24-year history as a modern independent state, ethnic Albanians and Macedonians seem largely united in the struggle against perceived dictatorship. With nearly all television stations under the government’s grip, it is Alsat, an Albanian-owned station, that is airing the wiretaps and offering extensive airtime to opposition voices, a remarkable gesture of solidarity. Albanian web-sites have published sharp anti-government commentary by ethnic Macedonians, something that was largely unheard of in the traditionally ethnically segregated media sector. The broadcasts have become increasingly awkward for both the ruling and opposition Albanian political parties, which have been curiously silent in the face of the massive scandal.

The international community could play a decisive role in bringing things to a peaceful resolution, but so far its reaction has been tentative. Only the German ambassador has openly called for the government to resign. In the wake of the recent violence, the U.S. embassy joined the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to call, improbably, for “the country’s leaders to pull together and engage in dialogue on all issues facing the country.”

It is typical of the West to seek to avoid a confrontation with Gruevski, allowing him and other figures to keep the region’s open questions simmering. But the one over-arching lesson since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia 25 years ago is that the failure to deal with core problems head-on has only made them harder to resolve in the end. This is especially true in Macdonia’s case, where Greece’s longstanding objections to the country’s name, which Athens sees as theft of Greek heritage, have kept Macedonia out of both NATO (where its membership is on offer) and the EU (with which it is poised to open negotiations). The country’s current instability could have been avoided had Skopje been allowed to proceed towards NATO and EU membership. Rather than move toward autocracy, Gruevski would have been constrained by strict requirements that have proved to empower democratic institutions elsewhere.

Rather than forge a trans-Atlantic consensus on the urgency for a compromise on the name—for which many possibilities exist—Washington has focused on the matter only when pressed to do so. In 1995, on the eve of the talks in Dayton, Ohio aimed at ending the war in Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke achieved a modus vivendi between Athens and Skopje. In 2004, crisis in Macedonia prompted the Bush administration to finally recognize Macedonia by its constitutional name. Feared blowback from Greece over this move never materialized. Despite that fact, Washington dropped the issue until the run-up to NATO’s 2008 summit, when it was too late to push the parties into compromise. Underscoring the West’s impotence on the issue, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that Athens had no right to deny Macedonia entry into NATO. Nonetheless, the alliance continues to leave Skopje, which has fulfilled all requirements for membership, in the waiting room.

Grueski has seized on international paralysis over the name issue to provoke Greece with tacky appeals to Macedonian nationalism. Most recently, he claimed that the wiretaps are part of an international conspiracy designed to force him to jettison the country’s name. For its part, Athens has recently emerged as a key player in trans-Atlantic attempts to thwart a planned Russian-Turkish gas pipeline, which boosts the ability of the nearly bankrupt country to stand up to Western pressure on the name issue. In short, as in other cases from the region, Western inattention has only made the question of Macedonia’s name more acute and more fraught.


If Macedonia is in acute pain, Bosnia is facing deeper and nearly irreparable injury. Radical Islam and Russian influence are exacerbating ever-present ethnic suspicions. Meanwhile, some of the country’s politicians are taking concrete steps to split the country. Ruling Serb and Croat parties recently announced their commitment to thinly veiled separatist agendas. The Republika Srpska parliament even passed a resolution for a separatist referendum that, for the first time, included a concrete date, 2018, for the incendiary plebiscite. If held, the Serb referendum is guaranteed to reopen hostilities.

Bosnia will face near-term tests of its cohesion this summer. In June, long-delayed census results are set to be released, potentially fueling anger among Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs alike, each of whom can spin figures to claim advantage or complain of systematic disadvantage. Then, in July, Bosnia will mark the emotional 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed at the hands of Serb forces.

U.S. and EU leaders have given up on the priority of getting Bosnia to change its outmoded constitution that is responsible for most of the gridlock that keeps the country mired. EU leaders have now coalesced around a new policy of seemingly easier-to-achieve economic and social measures. Next month, the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are to announce a ballyhooed “reform action plan” meant to spur long overdue cuts to the bloated bureaucracy and other reforms needed for EU accession. Unfortunately, the public is adamantly against cutting public sector jobs, and many politicians rightly fear that reform will force them to privatize public companies they currently manipulate for patronage and graft. Sensing this resistance, and congenitally afraid of confronting local officials, international players are likely to temper their demands for reform. Brussels already fudged its own requirements for the formal association agreement between Bosnia and the EU enacted this year, and officials have made it clear that according Bosnia candidate status is the crux of their latest strategy for the troubled country.

Emphasizing form over substance, the EU is no more likely to achieve desperately needed progress now than it has been over the past nine years. As in Macedonia, it was in 2006 that the democratization process, which had seen fledgling joint institutions take shape under vigorous international stewardship, began to unravel. Prematurely applying a rigid form of local ownership over institutions, recalcitrant officials (particularly in the Serb entity) began to unwind progress and openly challenge the country’s unity. As Washington periodically attempted to goad the EU into action and local officials into compromise, Bosnian leaders shrugged off the efforts and the country slumped more deeply into stagnation. With 14 separate governments, the country’s institutions today are a dysfunctional relic of the war years, inhibiting investment and interethnic cooperation.

There is no need to squander, through neglect and timidity, a principled effort begun with courage and vision. The only positive from the terrorist attack in Zvornik is that it may finally shock international officials into action. An EU-IMF package that links ambitious standards with generous financial incentives and credible penalties—such as visa bans and exposure of financial chicanery for recalcitrant leaders—can finally concentrate minds in Bosnia.


Concerted effort can also achieve results in Kosovo, the site of the EU’s most significant breakthrough. Under Brussels’ leadership, and with strong U.S. support, Serbia and Kosovo agreed to normalize their relations two years ago. But bickering between Belgrade and Pristina, abetted by the refusal of five EU countries to recognize independent Kosovo, along with endemic corruption, has left Kosovo in miserable shape. Tens of thousands of Kosovars have left the country for the EU, expressing their abject lack of confidence in the future with their feet.

Potted plants are put in place by local Serbs to form a barricade on the main bridge in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, June18, 2014.

Radical options for unifying Kosovo with Albania, which would reopen conflict with Serbs, continue to find favor. Once exemplary moderates have been hardening their stance against the Brussels-backed compromise. At the same time, Kosovo has seen disturbing signs of Islamist radicals who strike fear in the hearts of Serbs and moderate Albanian Muslims alike. The great worry is that Islamists will find common cause with radical Albanian nationalists, injecting greater instability into a country whose security is still overseen by NATO, along with a substantial EU presence.

Brussels and Washington need to press Albanian leaders to move forward now on key rule of law reforms, while dragging Belgrade and Pristina to agreement on issues arguably far less onerous than those they overcame in 2013. Those talks proved that when Brussels conditions progress toward EU membership on progress in their relations, then Serbs and Albanians begin to move toward compromise.

Dangers abound, but the Balkans are by no means hopeless. The irony of today’s crises in Macedonia, Bosnia, and Kosovo is that while some leaders play the nationalism card, more ordinary citizens than ever before are willing to move past ethnic differences. Enough time has been frittered away protracting the region’s outstanding issues with abortive, inadequate initiatives. There is no need to squander, through neglect and timidity, a principled (and largely successful) effort begun with courage and vision. More than anything, resolving the region’s problems today simply requires that officials once more take them seriously.

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