Balkanalysis.com

Macedonia

Capital Skopje
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 389
Mobile Codes 70,71,72,75,76,78
ccTLD .mk
Currency Denar (1EUR = 61.5MKD)
Land Area 25,713 sq km
Population 2.1 million
Language Macedonian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

After Macedonia’s Islamist Protest, Investigators Search for Significance amidst Confusing Array of Motives and Clues

By Chris Deliso

Although local and international media have depicted last month’s Islamic protest and church attacks in Macedonia as manifestations of inter-ethnic and inter-religious polarity, these events actually derived from internal power struggles between the country’s diverse Muslim parties and interests, Balkanalysis.com can report. However, the inevitable impulse towards mediation and political settlement may make the incorrect depiction a fait accompli in future.

At the same time, new information corroborating seven years of field research indicates that this internal turmoil is allowing rhetorical, financial and logistical opportunities for a small number of people who are truly dangerous, and directed from outside the country. Events and processes scheduled for the next couple years, such as a national census and local elections may act as triggers for further infighting, protests and divisiveness.

What Happened in Brief

In late January 2012, Macedonia received brief but intense international media attention following an unprecedented large-scale Islamic protest in the southwestern lake town of Struga, and attacks against churches, other structures and people. The official cause of the protest, allegedly, was the Vevchani Carnival’s caricature of Islam. (Eye-opening videos of the protest, in which Islamic and Albanian flags were waved amid cries of Allahu Akbar, abound on Youtube). However, the international media coverage of it all was simplistic and lacked proper context- thus improving neither reader understanding nor national and regional security.

First, it should be said that as of February 2012 there is no reason why Macedonia’s different local populations should not be able to co-exist as they always have, and without any outside interference. Unfortunately, it appears that various interests representing different centers of power – some visible, others less so – would like to use the recent incidents for their own varied yet overlapping goals. And, despite that the political leaders have now agreed to work together, these goals do not involve the greater public good.

Odd Timing, a Lack of Spontaneity, and the Media

Until this year, no one had ever seriously criticized the Vevchani Carnival, held every 13-14 January for roughly the last 1,400 years. The statistical chances of two protests from different parties, occurring within nine days of each other would thus seem rather low. Yet this is what happened, when first the Greek government in a note, and then the local Islamist community in force, lashed out at the carnival, on 19 January and 28 January respectively.

The carnival is a major winter cultural event in Macedonia that is regularly attended by international ambassadors and officials as well as by tourists local and foreign. Development in this eternally peaceful Macedonian Orthodox village has been supported by the US, EU and World Bank, and it has a thriving sustainable tourism industry and welcoming atmosphere. Those who showed up at the later Struga protests (Muslims from that town and the villages neighboring Vevchani) have known all their lives that the carnival and the Vevchani locals are entirely harmless; anyone who knows both populations immediately understands this. Yet the protesters have very disingenuously sought to portray things otherwise.

An awareness of what is customary in local reality possibly can explain why the Muslims did not react immediately. When Muslim rioting and protests have occurred in Europe, as after the Paris youth deaths or after the Danish cartoon controversy, it has usually been fairly spontaneous. The recent protest in Macedonia was anything but- it was well-organized, supported by local officials, and took place a full two weeks after the carnival. It was another example of the truism that in Macedonia, nothing happens by accident.

What did transpire in the interim, however, was an indignant protest statement on 19 January from the Greek foreign ministry regarding the same carnival, which had featured a ceremonial funeral float for the country- a gag targeting Greece’s current financial problems, and not symbolic of any real ill-will against the country. And when examined more closely, it seems clear that the skit was actually designed for internal consumption, as it included a mock Orthodox death notice that listed among the supposed bereaved, Macedonian public figures who have over the years been identified with a “pro-Greek” position.

The rationale behind the official Greek reaction can be understood in two ways. First, it offered an easy opportunity to temporarily distract Greek citizens from worsening internal political and economic problems. Second, Greek diplomacy is currently concerned that the negative (albeit merely symbolic) ruling of the International Court of Justice in December 2011 will result in increasing international pressure to resolve the name issue. Therefore, the Greek MFA is seeking to take advantage of any trifling matter that can be depicted as a sign of ‘provocation’ from the Macedonian side. Athens thus seems to think it can stall for time or endlessly defer the process through pointing out alleged cases of Macedonian ‘provocations.’

It is also possible that diplomats in Athens were unnecessarily angered because they are unfamiliar with the event, and thus took it much more seriously than they should have. For example, burning all the masks at the end of the carnival is a traditional ritual, not a singular provocation against anyone or anything.

It is very interesting to note that there was no initial uproar from Muslims after the carnival, and the usual news wraps-ups devoting most of their attention to the Greek sketch. It was only on 28 January that Muslims in the Struga area took to the street to protest. In a telephone interview for Skopje’s Sitel TV conducted a few days after the protest, Struga Mayor Ramiz Merko evaded the question when asked why the Muslims did not seem to have a problem with Vevchani until after the Greeks did. However, the interviewer did not push the issue and this vital question has still not been answered.

A question that still remains, therefore, is whether the Muslims acted completely independently, or played off of the Greek involvement with a ‘copycat’ – but much more serious – protest, or if the two sides could even have been coordinating activities due to a common interest in obstructing the country’s progress. We have absolutely no opinion or information regarding this possibility, and only mention it because it is one of the hypothetical possibilities being weighed now by investigators. However, it does seem plausible that without the Greek protest over Vevchani (an example of the more aggressive Greek policy since the Hague ruling), the Muslims would not have gotten the idea to protest. It is thus possible that this whole incident was entirely avoidable and in a way accidental.

Macedonian officials were further concerned by very damaging and inaccurate news articles, such as an Associated Press piece of 30 January and another of 31 January that soon had around 160 Google News citations, including several US newspapers and even TV networks. Like a similar Reuters report on the same day, these articles depicted the incident as an inter-ethnic one, mentioning the 2001 conflict in the same breath as recent events. The articles take for granted a direct causal connection between the carnival and the protest (although as we have seen, it was not spontaneous) and also make erroneous claims regarding the demographic breakdown and population figures for Muslims in the country.

These articles also provide a distorted selection of quotes from local Muslim leaders and politicians, ignoring those characterized by rough language, and instead transmitting the more politically-correct comments out of the vast totality of commentary made for local media during the crisis period. The second piece provocatively states that Muslims “accuse the [Christian] majority of stoking hatred,” ominously adding that “ethnic tension has been simmering in this small Balkan country since the end of an armed rebellion in 2001.”

These implications portray the whole issue in a completely incorrect light and exaggerate the supposed demise of inter-ethnic relations. It is unclear whether this sensationalism can be attributed to bad writing or to an uninformed editor. But it cannot be due to an uninformed author, as at least the AP work was written by longtime local correspondent Konstantin Testorides, who is presumably better informed about local realities. (Mr Testorides did not reply to an email request for clarification from Balkanalysis.com).

Motive: Political and Economic Control of Struga

Understanding the recent events in Macedonia depends on an understanding of the unique structure of local power- something that the international media has ignored completely. The public figure most associated with supporting the Islamic protest is Struga Mayor Ramiz Merko, who gave permission for it to be held and who has been very vocal in this and in several previous cases of supporting Islamist projects. Although Reuters quoted Merko as saying “we should avoid further incidents and not be influenced by politics,” the Struga mayor has from the beginning sought to manipulate the incidents to increase his political prestige.

This representative of the ethnic Albanian governing coalition member, DUI, has been elected twice, in 2005 and 2009, but it is believed that he will not be the party’s candidate in the 2013 election. This may be partly because he angered party leader Ali Ahmeti by publicly threatening to run with rival ethnic Albanian parties in the 2009 race. Since leading the NLA paramilitary force in 2001, Ahmeti has kept an ironclad grip on party power. For party members, it is better to remain on his good side.

Although a lot can happen between now and the elections, informed sources believe that DUI’s next mayoral candidate will be Artim Labunisti, a doctor and descendent of an established, ‘old’ Struga family. They expect that he could even have crossover appeal with Macedonian voters, something that would be highly unusual for an Albanian party’s candidate.

A local from the Macedonian Muslim village of Labunista praised this idea, telling Balkanalysis.com that the doctor’s grandfather, Murat Labunisti, “was highly respected in our village, and had studied in France.” (In fact, the name of the village’s elementary school has been changed from ‘Josip Broz Tito’ to ‘Murat Labunisti’). Other sources indicate that this candidate was discussed favorably in an internal DUI meeting approximately three months ago.

In the purely politico-economic sense, Struga today is somewhat reminiscent of Atlantic City in the 1920s. Being the mayor of a large municipality such as this puts an individual and party in a position to hand out jobs, favors, contracts and tenders- and, of course, a chance to profit from this interaction. Controlling this machinery not only means controlling cash; it also means the ability to continue deferring non-financial personal debts accrued to a varied group of ‘creditors.’ If one is the mayor of such a place, it is thus best to stay so for as long as possible.

Presuming that Merko will not run with DUI, he could conceivably reach out to another Albanian party, such as the New Democracy of Imer Selmani, or run as an independent. However, running against a strongly supported local candidate would jack up the price of votes from local businessmen, and significant collateral would have to be brought to the table in order to buy them. At very least we can say that the political situation in Struga is fluid.

There is more, however. Despite two attempts, the Struga municipal council could not pass the 2012 budget by the end of December; according to law, this means that the Ministry of Finance in Skopje must intervene. To avoid endangering the fate of this 13.5-million euro jackpot, the budget was illegally passed on January 5. The decision was backed by 14 councilors from DUI and the Macedonian parties SDSM and LDP. Four councilors from the ethnic Albanian DPA voted against it, while nine councilors from the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE and the (Macedonian Muslim) PEI abstained.

Local representatives of VMRO-DPMNE, which is ironically ruling on the national level in coalition with DUI, announced that they would go to the Constitutional Court over the issue. Legally, if the budget is not adopted by the end of the year, they argued, “the next step would be a decision on temporary financing, which entails the dissolution of the Council,” reported Alfa TV on January 15.

This infighting between political parties, and the tacit issue of control of substantial funds, may not have been directly related to Mayor Merko’s decision to support an Islamic show of force on the city square three weeks later. But it is definitely worth bearing in mind as we consider the bigger picture. It is interesting to note that, while minority Albanian parties relish in playing a kingmaker role on the national level, in ethnically-mixed areas led by the Albanian parties, like Struga, Macedonian parties apparently get to serve a similar function.

More Politics: from Local to National and Back Again

Still another source of local political influence is the above-mentioned PEI (Party for a European Future) of businessman Fiat Canoski, a wealthy Macedonian Muslim who emerged from impoverished origins in the village of Oktisi. Today Canoski’s most visible business is the private FON University, headquartered in Skopje but with branches throughout the country (including in Struga, where it competes with a university linked to Merko). The university’s faculty includes professors from a wide spectrum of political and business life and, like other universities in the country, has thus become an inherent part of Macedonia’s system of dispersed power through patronage.

The PEI was created in May 2006, partly in reaction to years of Albanian chauvinism, but also because Canoski cleverly saw that he could control the swing vote between the Macedonian and Albanian parties. After the post-war decentralization project had annexed the largely Macedonian Muslim-populated villages to Struga, some locals became irritated when the Albanian parties (particularly DUI) went on an aggressive campaign to convince the Macedonian-speaking Muslims that they were ‘really’ Albanian, on account of their shared Islamic faith. Merko and DUI had won the historic race for Struga largely thanks to the Macedonian Muslim vote, and the creation of a rival party run by this crucial population only increased their leverage in economic and political life on the local level.

However, after summer 2006 elections marred by gunfights between rival Albanian parties DUI and DPA, the PEI joined the coalition of the victorious VMRO-DPMNE, which included DPA (even though it had won less of the ethnic Albanian popular vote than the DUI). The PEI remained in coalition after the early elections of 2008, when DPA was replaced by DUI. After Canoski ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Struga in 2009, his party blamed Merko and DUI for falsifying results. A very complex and interesting situation thus emerged in which the Macedonian Muslim population splintered as well between persons employed by DUI/Merko on the local level and PEI devotees. This was worsened by the 2011 parliamentary elections. After secret negotiations in Struga, it was decided that Canoski’s party would no longer be part of the renewed VMNRO-DPMNE and DUI coalition.

According to several sources, the news devastated Canoski, who had already entered into a fateful familial ‘marriage alliance’ between his son and a daughter of Velija Ramkovski, another (equally non-observant) Macedonian Muslim who, near the end of 2010, had been arrested for alleged tax evasion. Ramkovski’s business empire included the influential A1 TV, which had once supported the government, but in recent years sharply turned against it. Ramkovski had also shown political ambitions, running unsuccessfully for parliament at one point, trying to appeal largely to farmers. True to form, he used his television station to advertise his campaign, and some ethnic Albanian media half-jokingly began referring to him as the “Macedonian Berlusconi.”

The cross-connections continue on the national level. The most vocal supporter of the Ramkovski cause since November 2010 has been the opposition Macedonian party SDSM, which gambled on making a ‘media freedom’ issue out of this cause célèbre. However, despite an undeniably sympathetic international diplomatic corps, the SDSM stratagem failed to destabilize the government, as Ramkovski had managed to make enough business and political enemies to preclude such a possibility.

However, the war of attrition did in some way affect ethnic and religious politics. A1’s constant assault on the government helped send a few more MPs to the SDSM in summer 2011 elections; and this trimming of the margins increased DUI’s leverage in the new post-election cabinet.

Thus, in a historic appointment that was lauded by all the foreign ambassadors, Macedonia got its first ethnic Albanian defense minister, Fatmir Besimi from DUI- exactly 10 years after the war started by his party’s founders. Of course, average Albanians were somewhat unimpressed, as the defense ministry is no longer one of the most powerful. Indeed, the army is used most often for supporting NATO missions- despite that Macedonia is still being kept out of NATO due to Greek objections to the country’s name.

Creating a New Ethnicity

A side effect of all these events is that they have accelerated developments and trends within the Muslim parties’ public discourse. In 2011, a luxury residential building that PEI leader Canoski was building in Skopje was ordered to be toppled for allegedly violating its approved design parameters. (Although on 5 January Canoski did announce that he would rebuild it). Then, at an organized event in Skopje on September 28, 2011, Canoski appeared with leaders of a Struga-based NGO, Rumelija, to pronounce the existence of a new ethnicity in Macedonia: the Torbeshi, whose rights his party pledged to champion.

The term ‘Torbeshi’ has generally been used negatively, referring to the Macedonian Muslims’ conversion from Christianity under Ottoman times; the implication is that they were people whose core beliefs could be bought for whatever one put in their bag (torba).

This term has always been controversial and has never been universally accepted by Macedonian Muslims, such as the Gorani, who inhabit northwestern Macedonia and southern Kosovo. The penetration of DUI into Macedonian Muslim villages and the presence of Turkey in municipalities such as Plasnica and Centar Zupa (another legacy of the controversial decentralization) have also fractured unity among Macedonian Muslims, and have led many to identify themselves with these groups.

The manifesto that PEI created for the event, the Torbeshka Deklaracija, strongly resembles in linguistic tone and substance similar manifestos made by all other Balkan ethnic groups in the past 150 years. The book offers new explanation of the word Torbeshi, cleansing it of its negative connotations: rather than being a synonym for opportunism, the word simply referred to people who were known for traveling with a bag.

From the historical view, we find in the text that this new-old ethnicity has medieval origins in the Bogomils – the heretical Christian sect that was most popular in parts of Bulgaria and Bosnia- something that is interesting but that cannot be proven. Other, possibly more controversial claims are that the founder of modern Egypt and Turkish leader Attaturk had Torbeshi roots. At the same time, one can find voluminous histories written by other Macedonian Muslims who passionately claim that they are in fact Macedonians. The situation is opaque, confused, and highly prone to politicization.

The desire to create a new nationality does not rest merely on sentimental attraction, however. The book also calls for the Macedonian Constitution to include the Torbeshi as a constituent people. Arguments that head in this direction, particularly since the ethnic Albanian uprising of 2001, tend to suggest participation in a quota-based system of benefits and entitlements. Most importantly for the present article is that the major element used to give coherence to this new identity – one that is depicted as being separate from the Albanian, Macedonian, Bosnian or Turkish ones – is Islam.

Politics, Ethnicity and Religion: the Creation of a Hybrid Population in Struga

The situation in Struga is not, as has been reported, a simple ‘Christian Macedonian vs. Muslim Albanian’ scenario, a sort of 2001-redux with a stronger religious element. What it actually demonstrates are intra-ethnic and intra-religious tensions- not inter-ethnic or inter-religious ones. In fact, the rivalry, discourse and cooperation of the diverse Muslim interests in Macedonia has increasingly involved manipulating the one thing they have in common, religion.

Essentially, the intermingling between the Albanian DUI and the Macedonian Muslims is creating a unique hybrid population in Macedonia. It is a very unique mix: a party created along fierce Albanian nationalist lines, with a tough paramilitary core and Muslim culture, alongside a traditionally peaceful but extremely conservative rural population characterized by arranged marriages and diaspora labor, and identifying itself strongly with Islam.

Every political party in the world seeks to expand its base and to seize more power. In order for DUI to do this in southwestern Macedonia, it has had to do two things. First, it has had to take on as local leaders and members of its local branches persons who are authoritative and respected in their own villages- meaning that some of the most devout Islamists in the Albanian party are not (or, were not) actually Albanian. Secondly, as the phrase goes, in politics you have to give the people what they want: for a population that identifies itself primarily with Islam, the campaigning and overtures to locals have also been Islam-oriented.

Thus a sort of Islamic arms race has ensued in the last seven years, with local officials from both the Albanian and Macedonian Muslim sides competing to donate money, building permissions, jobs, scholarships and more for persons, structures and activities connected with Islam, while the rhetoric is growing increasingly strong as well. And the muftis are absolutely delighted with this largesse.

The symbiotic relationship is being used by local leaders looking to prolong their grip on power, who have been taking increasingly bold stands. A prominent example was the controversial case of a 2010 mosque project in the depopulated Vlach village of Gorna Belica, above the Muslim villages in the Jablanica range. Although the government said the construction was illegal, Mayor Merko pushed hard for this Wahhabi-initiated project. According to Nova Makedonija on November 9, 2010, he stated that “no one is allowed to touch God’s house.” Before the mosque, the summer houses in the village had been used as impromptu prayer and Islamic teaching centers by Muslim youth groups.

Political Interference, Intelligence Failures, Bad Publicity and the Role of Institutions

Examined within this fuller context, the recent events in and around Struga become more striking. The protest was organized together with Struga mufti Ferhat Polisi, and received the blessings of Mayor Merko – currently of DUI, but with an uncertain future – and involved the participation of Macedonian Muslims (including members of PEI). Ethnic Albanians also participated, and some intelligence sources even place members of the Tirana-based ultranationalist Red and Black Alliance as having been in Struga at the time.

This group, which advocates a Greater (or, ‘Natural’) Albania arose in opposition to Albania’s national census, claiming that the Greek minority was being artificially enhanced. It is led by Kreshnik Spahiu who, according to Balkan Insight, recently resigned after having served for four years as deputy chairman of Albania’s High Council of Justice, because of an investigation into his activism. This group is believed to have strong connections with the Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) nationalist party in Kosovo, which grew out of a similar youth protest movement. The Alliance also has local affiliates in Macedonia, including key supporters within DUI and DPA. Thus Macedonian investigators of the protest are trying to distinguish between the possible participants, and whether they may have had different motives.

It should be noted that due to the sudden politicization of the whole issue – which now involves the participation of the OSCE and the major embassies – a criminal investigation will likely be sacrificed for a political solution that would guarantee ‘stability.’ This is absolutely the worst result but as said above, it is not accidental. It was guaranteed the moment that the local and international media depicted the whole issue as an inter-ethnic incident. It therefore became necessary to give equal hearing to ‘both sides of the story,’ so that people who had advocated for violence were given moral equivalence with people guilty of making a joke.

Regardless of how the issue is politically ‘solved,’ investigators will be obliged to proceed professionally. There are still many unanswered questions, regarding violent attacks against churches and the replacing of a Macedonian flag with an Islamic one in Struga. The lack of answers to these important questions has frustrated many. Some senior officials are concerned that the police suffered an intelligence failure in the two weeks between the carnival and the protest.

Apparently, there had been rumblings in the mosques and a plan was being drawn up, but nothing was done to prepare for it. It was decided that the protest would be held on Saturday (market day in Struga, ensuring maximum turnout from the nearby villages), and announced in the mosques beforehand. And, somewhere in the villages, someone was able to print and bind (not just photocopy) dozens of copies of violent, 12-page propaganda pamphlets specifically referencing the Vevchani Carnival. These revealing texts were not mentioned in the media.

There are different possible reasons for the failure to predict, contain or foil the protest. Internal relocation of intelligence officers knowledgeable about Islamist groups, prioritization issues, and simply other distractions may have been to blame. It should not be forgotten that during the month of January the government was intensively preparing for two much-hyped and high-profile events: the five-day visit of a large British investment delegation headed by Prince Michael of Kent (from 28 January through 1 February), along with a six-city tour of Turkey by Macedonian officials, seeking to drum up investment interest from this major ally (from 29 January-3 February).

These two events most certainly required significant and time-consuming police work on protocol, logistics and security cooperation that would easily have taken precedence over any goings-on in a backwater like Struga, especially if nothing out of the ordinary was expected to happen there. Thus, if there ever was a moment in which someone could secretly gin up trouble for a distracted Macedonian leadership, and embarrass it at the same time, that moment would have certainly been January 2012.

Absolutely the last thing President Ivanov needed during an official British visit was to be taking time to entreat Reis Rexhepi to get his followers to cool down, and it was certainly not ideal timing either for Macedonian officials to have to deal with charges of ‘Islamophobia’ in the world media while trying to build friendships in Muslim Turkey. Indeed, just when the government had expected to be highlighting foreign investment interest before two key allies, world media was instead showing churches in flames and angry Muslim mobs protesting with Arabic flags in the street. Not auspicious.

Despite the temptation to proceed more quickly, senior officials are letting the police investigation run its course. This is due to respect for the legal responsibilities institutions have in such cases, and undoubtedly it is also a nod to the ‘confidence-building’ measures that accompany every similarly politicized case in Macedonia in which the ‘international community’ gets involved. Yet the hands-off approach is also due to the need to oversee what the final outcome will be: the actual information trail may end up telling a more interesting story than could be imagined, in terms of the sources, information and disinformation, and the way the whole system is used to arrive at an intelligence result.

Knowledge Gaps and the Hidden Hand: Tablighi Jamaat in Macedonia

Perhaps we can help speed things up a bit, however. In October of 2011, a meeting was held in Labunista by visiting members of the global Islamist missionary group Tablighi Jamaat, according to secret intelligence obtained by Balkanalysis.com. All of the men were Macedonian Muslims originally from the Struga villages, but living in Switzerland and Austria. One of the topics of discussion was future collaboration between the sect’s Macedonian and Bosnian Muslims (at home and in the West) and the chiefly Albanian tekfiri militant wing, based in Skopje, which is believed to have contacts with Bosniak tekfiri groups in Austria.

Although plenty of ‘famous’ local Islamists have been mentioned in local media, the leader of this wing is known to very few, and the structure itself remains elusive. Senior officials attest that this is largely due to the age bracket of the membership (17-25) and the many operational difficulties that arise due to this serious limiting factor.

Barring a major and chronic security problem in the host country, the US tends to use institutional partnership and delegate non-essential intelligence tasks. The host country is usually eager to participate, but may not have the requisite capabilities. This becomes problematic when a target is too elusive but a report needs to be submitted anyway, since no one likes to admit failure or weakness. Since not even the US invests in cross-checking data in this particular theater of activity, no one is the wiser if the information turns out to be flawed or insufficient.

For two examples, American officials did not know about crucial splits within the tekfiri and Salafi leadership until six weeks ago, and they did not know at all about the attempted creation of a weapons training center by local Muslims in Labunista in summer 2010 (or that the counter-intelligence service was investigating its possible links to Albanian militants) until almost a year later. Both facts are very interesting for several reasons. And while a careful reading of the leaked US cables discussing Islamism in Macedonia indicates knowledge of some of the most prominent Islamic personalities in the country, it does not indicate awareness of those figures who are truly dangerous. For that you have to do your own research rather than delegate it.

The new details regarding the solidification of Tablighi involvement in Macedonia are highly interesting, as it indicates increasing cooperation between young extremists from a multi-ethnic background. Balkanalysis.com, probably alone among world media, has for the past six or seven years focused on the activities of the missionary group in Macedonia. Yet only now can the fuller story be told.

According to senior officials, the movement’s roots in the country date back to 1993. At that time, a (still active) ethnic Albanian from Tetovo, who had been living in Scandinavia in the late 1980s, became involved with the missionary group in Pakistan and developed good connections among Tablighi members, there and in Afghanistan. (It should be remembered that at that time, the “Arab-Afghan” jihadis were being redirected from the former war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to the war against Serbs and Croats in Bosnia). This figure provided the key local connections for Albanian and Macedonian Muslims who had gone to study in the Middle East. It is estimated that 30-50 Macedonian nationals were thus trained in the mujahideen camps in Pakistan due to this connection.

Since the late 1990s, Tablighi members have been showing up in the Struga villages. A Labunista local tells Balkanalysis.com that they made a favorable impression on him at first sight, back in 1999. “They were very nice, and you could see they were real believers and educated,” he said of the white-robed missionaries, who said they were in the village to see local friends who had studied Islamic theology in the Middle East. “They were cool- they didn’t care about anything [political].”

The Tablighi movement started in 1926 in Pakistan as a reaction to Hindu missionary activity, and has its European headquarters in England, from where much of its outreach to the Balkans has come. The group’s plans to build a ‘mega-mosque’ there have caused great controversy. Despite claiming to be entirely apolitical, this broad network of believers has drawn significant attention from various governments, as several individuals connected to high-profile terrorist plots or attempted plots have been known to frequent Tablighi mosques.

There is a vast literature on the movement, so there is no need to go into great detail here. But it is interesting to note a couple of defining features of the movement. Like missionary groups from other religions, it tends to target socially disadvantaged or excluded populations; in Macedonia, this includes not only the long-suffering Macedonian Muslims but impoverished Roma populations, as well as non-Muslims with mental or drug-related problems. The second interesting feature, and the one most relevant to the current investigation, is the group’s apolitical identity, and decentralized, secretive and network-based character. In ‘emerging market’ countries like Macedonia, the movement can keep a low profile, never being associated directly with anything, but often being involved behind the scenes by manipulating the pre-existing internal conflicts and political infighting within Muslim communities for their own ends. It cannot be proven that this is what occurred in Struga in January 2012, but it would fit the profile.

In 2005, the Macedonian counterintelligence service, DBK (now UBK) discovered that Pakistani and British Pakistani missionaries had recently visited the Struga villages, which indicates that the pattern was still going on at that time. Local Muslims told Balkanalysis.com a few months later that a small number of young believers would go for periods of 3-4 months to Pakistan and Afghanistan for spiritual training. From the latest information, it now appears that Macedonian Muslims in the diaspora (chiefly Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia) have assumed more prominent decision-making roles due to their connections and activities, meaning that direct cooperation with such foreigners is no longer necessary.

An intense but limited period of foreign intelligence activity occurred from 2004-2006 in the Struga villages, first from the French and then Italian intelligence services. Official secret documents obtained by Balkanalysis.com thereafter indicate that diaspora members of these villages were very much engaged with some of the most radical Islamist leaders in Bosnia and Austria, helping to organize their visits in the area. Arab, Albanian and other foreign Islamist leaders were also included in this network.

A bit earlier, in the spring of 2005, Macedonian military intelligence had received a proposal from  a third friendly nation, to insert a trusted person from a Middle Eastern country into the villages. Although it would have been a ‘clean’ operation, with no possible connection to anyone in the country, the plan was ultimately rejected as too risky by an organization not accustomed to managing such missions.

By 2006 and early 2007, the Italians had grown so concerned that they expelled two Macedonian citizens and briefly detained over 30 more on suspicions of radicalism. (Another local Muslim who knew some of these men, however, told us that this must have been a mistake as they were not radical. Since this is a standard reply in similarly tight-knit communities, it is impossible to confirm or deny the claim).

The recent information is so concerning because until now, no one could have expected Macedonian Muslims to be violent: conservative yes, but violent- never. The strategic significance of the recent protests may thus have more dangerous implications than the 2001 inter-ethnic war: for in Struga, Macedonians of different religions were presented as enemies for the first time. We can only hope that this is not a sign of things to come, but with the continuous infighting for votes and influence within Macedonia’s diverse Muslim populations being manifested in increasingly vociferous displays of political Islam, the divisions could worsen over time.

One of the most likely triggers will be the national census: deferred twice in 2011 due to ethnic Albanian objections, it will bring all of the simmering disputes over ethnicity and the internally-debated identity of Muslims to the surface. The next round of elections in Macedonia in 2013 will also bring with them opportunities for new incidents. It seems likely that non-Muslims will continue to be caught in the crossfire of the internal war between Muslim parties, in those areas of the country where the rivalries are strongest.

Brief Chronology

*Note: this timeline is not meant to imply any connection of events. It simply lists the order of recent contemporaneous events that are mentioned in this article or that may have relevance to it, in reverse chronological order.

February 11, 2012: The mayors of Struga and Vevchani hold a five-hour meeting, coming out after it with a joint declaration of future friendship and cooperation

February 1, 2012: Macedonian-language graffiti found on mosque in southern city of Bitola reading ‘death to Shiptarite (Albanians)’- perpetrators unknown, but some media pointed out that the unusual combination of Cyrillic and Latin letters in text might point at a non-native speaker

January 31, 2012: Church of Sveti Gjorgi in the Tetovo-area village of Mala Recica – headquarters of the incumbent ethnic Albanian DUI party – suffers arson attack by unknown persons; local Albanians help to put out fire

January 31, 2012: Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov brings together Orthodox and Muslim chief leaders, his personal good relations with the Reis, Sulejman Rexhepi, result in a strong call for peace and restraint from Rexhepi

January 30 and 31, 2012: The Associated Press and Reuters publish three damaging articles that soon spread to major US newspapers and websites, sensationalizing the events and placing them within an ‘inter-ethnic’ context evocative of the 2001 war

January 30, 2012: The Church of Sveti Nikola in Muslim-majority village of Labunista is hit with a nighttime arson attack; police find no suspects, and some local Muslims suggest that ‘Christians’ were somehow responsible

January 29, 2012: Macedonian government officials leave for a six-day trip to Turkey to highlight investment opportunities for Turkish businessmen in Macedonia

January 28, 2012: A large delegation of British businessmen led by Prince Michael of Kent arrives on a five-day visit, to meet high-level officials and learn about investment opportunities throughout the country

January 28, 2012: A minibus containing Vevchani passengers is stoned by angry Muslims in Struga; a cross on a church in Macedonian Muslim-majority village of Labunista is attacked, as is the village’s medical center, reportedly because people from Vevchani are employed there

January 28, 2012: A large and pre-organized Islamic protest occurs in Struga; Muslim masses chanting Allahu Akbar wave Albanian and Islamic flags, and condemn the Vevchani Carnival for insulting Islam

January 24, 2012: Committee of Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament adopts a draft resolution, following topics raised by a British MEP supportive of Macedonia; resolution proposes implementation of the second phase of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, and references the International Court of Justice’s verdict of 5 December, which was critical of Greece

January 19, 2012: The Greek government lodges an official protest note against the Vevchani Carnival over its satire of Greece’s financial woes

January 15, 2012: Alfa TV from Skopje reports that the Struga VMRO-DPMNE branch will seek Constitutional Court input over the municipal budget, illegally passed 10 days earlier by Mayor Merko’s supporters

January 13-14, 2011: The annual Vevchani Carnival is held in the Macedonian Orthodox village of the same name; local and international media discuss it in a positive light soon after

January 13, 2011: The Macedonian government announces that an important British trade delegation led by Prince Michael of Kent will visit the country in two weeks’ time

January 5, 2012: Struga’s council illegally passes a 13.5-million euro 2012 municipal budget, five days after the deadline, with Mayor Merko’s DUI party getting extra votes from SDSM councilors; VMRO-DPMNE and PEI local councilors abstain from the voting

December 31, 2011: Deadline expires for Struga to pass the 2012 budget. By law, the Ministry of Finance in Skopje must intercede- meaning monetary control would leave the hands of local leaders

December 5, 2011: The International Court of Justice rules on a case brought by Macedonia, upholding Macedonian charges that Greece violated the 1995 Interim Accord by blocking Macedonia’s NATO membership at Bucharest in 2008; although the ruling does not specify punitive measures, the Greek MFA instructs its diplomats that they should follow a more aggressive policy of criticizing alleged Macedonian violations of the Accord, as frequently as possible

November 11, 2011: The Skopje-based British Business Group organizes Macedonian leaders’ investment presentation in London before potential investors, along with a meeting with Prince Michael of Kent, amid plans to arrange a British visit to Macedonia; the event would be followed in mid-December by two unofficial scouting trips to Skopje from an investor representative

November, 2011: DUI leaders reportedly decide that incumbent Struga Mayor Ramiz Merko will not be allowed to run on their ticket in the 2013 local elections; local doctor Artim Labunisti is suggested as a possible candidate

October, 2011: A meeting is held in Labunista by local Muslims visiting from the diaspora, members of the global Islamist missionary group Tablighi Jamaat; one of the discussion topics of discussion is future collaboration with a Skopje-based tekfir militant group

September 28, 2011: At a public event in Skopje hosted by Rumelija, an NGO close to Macedonian Muslim businessman and MP Fiat Canoski, the ‘Torbeshi Declaration’ is announced, voicing support for the creation of a new national ethnic group, the Muslim Torbeshi. Printed estimates are that between 100,00-150,000 citizens could be thus identified, which would make the Torbeshi the second-largest national minority

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