European impotence and Greek obstruction

No, this is not a column about the torturous negotiations between the European Union and Greece to prevent a Greek default and uncertain future for the euro.

It is about Macedonia, where last weekend eight policemen and fourteen gunmen were killed in a shadowy confrontation that many are still trying to make sense of.

According to the Macedonian government, the fight was a battle between the police and “one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the Balkans,” strongly suggesting Albanian radical separatists and/or Islamists. It was a deliberate reminder of the situation in 2001 when the country was on the verge of an all-out civil war after Albanian guerrillas started fighting government forces. At that time, NATO and the EU brokered a peace deal that allowed the Albanian minority — around 30 percent of the population — to enjoy some form of autonomy.

The opposition in Skopje rejects any resemblance to 2001 and denies that ethnic tensions are to blame for the renewed violence. They openly accuse Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government of having orchestrated the fights to distract attention away from the growing anger and frustration in the country over Gruevski’s rule. The economy is not doing well (unemployment is high, corruption pervasive) and an acute political crisis has been brewing since the opposition released taped conversations revealing the breathtaking extent of the government’s abuse of power. The recorded phone calls seem to show that the ruling party has been directly involved in financial and electoral fraud, mass electronic surveillance and framing political opponents for crimes. Demonstrations have been going on for some time now and a mass rally is planned for May 17.

It is against this background that many foreign observers have also described the timing of the fights as “suspicious.” Although everyone is careful not to resort to conspiracy theories, which are so popular in this part of the world, many have questioned who would profit the most from a new round of (allegedly) ethnic violence. The answer: the Gruevski government.

How did Macedonia get into this hopeless political crisis and is there a way out? The EU and neighboring Greece play an important role. For 10 years now, Macedonia has been waiting to join both NATO and the EU as a full member. For all of those years, Greece has blocked Macedonia’s path to more security and prosperity because Athens has a problem with the name of the country. According to Greece, using the name Macedonia implies territorial ambitions over a northern Greek province with the same name. It is a blatant example of a member state using its veto to block a new member for what many in Europe consider highly nationalistic and even paranoid reasons. As a result, Macedonia’s future has been uncertain for a decade now. It is clear that this lack of a clear and positive prospect has only aggravated an already problematic domestic situation, allowing corrupt politicians’ continued resistance to meaningful reform.

It is high time the EU stopped permitting the Greeks to hamper Macedonia’s progress any longer. One can only hope that as a result of the current clashes, both Brussels and Athens are starting to realize that new turmoil and instability in Macedonia, and possibly the rest of the Balkans, in no way serves their interests.

In an article on Foreign Affairs website, Edward P. Joseph of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, put the Macedonia conflict in a broader perspective. According to Joseph, Bosnia and Kosovo are also in bad shape largely as a result of neglect and timidity on the part of the US and EU. Nonetheless, his conclusion is not pessimistic as he recognizes the potential for improvement: “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.”

One final remark: Is it just me, or are there indeed some scary similarities between the current situation in Macedonia and Turkey — leaked recordings that expose corruption, a beleaguered government blaming a Western-inspired conspiracy and efforts to distract from the real problems by fueling old ethnic tensions?