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

On Ninth Anniversary of Macedonian President Trajkovski’s Death, New Details Emerge

By Chris Deliso

As Macedonians mark the ninth anniversary, of the death of President Boris Trajkovski and eight others in a plane crash in Bosnia, Balkanalysis.com can provides some intriguing supplementary information, which follows a lengthy report last week which discussed how Trajkovski’s death created a chasm that has widened in contemporary Macedonian politics.

The present article presents insider insights into Trajkovski’s political intentions at the time of his death, and his complicated relationship with American diplomacy of the day. Taken together, the cumulative data paints a very different picture of events than what has been previously understood, and most significantly points to a little-known fact: that before his death, Trajkovski had every intention of running for re-election later in 2004, despite what contemporaneous media accounts reported.

This news comes at a time when the Bosnian government is finishing up an investigation into the crash requested by its Macedonian counterparts (the head of the commission recently visiting Skopje to gather some final data). The new report, written by an investigative team composed of Bosnian, Macedonian and international aviation experts, will be released in a matter of months. This report, Balkanalysis.com can reveal, will cast into serious doubt the initial Macedonian report released not long after the crash, which returned a verdict of ‘pilot error.’ This result will certainly create significant renewed public interest in the issue, and may also have implications for certain foreign relations.

Trajkovski’s Presidency and Wartime Diplomacy

Boris Trajkovski became president in 1999, having run as the candidate for the then-ruling VMRO-DPMNE party under Ljubco Georgievski. Unlike his predecessor, Kiro Gligorov, Trajkovski was not a product of communist times, and nor was he particularly political by nature. Trajkovski’s outsider status was enhanced by the fact that he was not Orthodox, but rather a Methodist from the southeastern Strumica area. By a sort of historical accident Protestantism had been introduced to a few villages there 100 years earlier by American missionaries, and somehow it has lingered on. And so, while Trajkovski was a proud Macedonian, the well-worn foreign criticism of ‘Balkan Orthodox Slav nationalist’ could not be applied to him. This is a subtle detail but one worth keeping in mind as it affected both the president’s relationship with foreign diplomats, and it also meant he would not receive the kind of criticism other Macedonian leaders were getting at the time.

The outbreak of ethnic Albanian militancy in 2001 presented an unprecedented challenge for Macedonia’s leaders, and none more so than Boris Trajkovski. As commander-in-chief he had ostensible control over the armed forces while also being, on the state and international levels, the man tasked with restoring the peace through diplomacy.

However, the president’s ability to deliver was hampered by the unpredictable behavior of both the hostile party (the so-called National Liberation Army of Ali Ahmeti), and the fractious government coalition, which had police control and could do things like declare a state of emergency, martial law or escalate tensions through military action or even rhetoric. Thus statements and actions from all of these protagonists would make Trajkovski’s peacemaking efforts more complicated.

The 2001 conflict was relatively short though traumatic. It ended with summer’s Ohrid Framework Agreement, a document essentially written by Western powers and forced on the country’s ‘national unity’ government. This peace treaty was hugely unpopular among regular Macedonians, who considered its generous provisions for Albanians as essentially rewarding violence. Concessions across the board included increases in existing quota-based public sector hiring, expanded language and flag use stipulations and, most controversially, a territorial decentralization that would further fragment the country along ethnic lines.

Today, we are about to see the final domino fall in elections in a few weeks’ time. The deferred final rearrangement of municipalities will see Ahmeti’s power base of Kicevo get its first ethnic Albanian mayor. And so with very few exceptions from Struga in the south to the Kosovo border in the north, the vast majority of the west will be under total Albanian control, a requisite step for the future federalization or division of the country.

President Trajkovski was ultimately blamed for the outcome of the war, though the process was never one that he controlled. An anecdote illustrating this clearly comes from a professed former member of President Trajkovski’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ (that is, inner circle), American consultant Jason Miko. This longtime supporter of Macedonian issues recalls a tortuous meeting he attended in early May 2001 between Trajkovski and Joe Biden (then a senator, today, the US vice-president), in the latter’s Washington office.

At the meeting, which was devoted to finding ways to end the three-month-old conflict, President Trajkovski sought to appeal to the senator’s sense of justness by questioning, as many Macedonians were doing, whether the Albanians had been right in seeking to solve their demands through war. Miko tells Balkanalysis.com that Biden simply replied: “this is not about right or wrong, this is about what is possible.”

After the War: a President Forgotten

With a moral focus that on occasion made him appear politically naïve, President Trajkovski could not have been further from the Democrat senator and his realpolitik approach. But the president’s strong Christian values did however win him some very important American allies- most importantly, President George W. Bush, with whom he prayed at a White House chapel and with whom he became a close personal friend. Trajkovski was also on good terms with Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell.

This context is crucial for understanding the Macedonian president’s ambivalent relationship with US diplomacy between 2001 and 2004, a time in which conservatives dominated the administration but liberals (typically, holdovers from the Clinton years) were frequently found in diplomatic missions. It was in this odd, and somewhat schizophrenic historical moment that President Boris Trajkovski’s own drama played out, one in which he suffered a loss in public support due to outcomes that were beyond his control on all sides.

In September 2002 elections, the incumbent VMRO-DPMNE party was defeated by its left-wing rival, SDSM. The latter entered into a forced coalition with the hastily-assembled DUI- a group led by NLA leader Ali Ahmeti, who until the war had apparently been living in Switzerland. Longtime SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski became prime minister, having served in this capacity between 1994 and 1998.

Western powers, eager to uphold the fragile peace, heavily supported the new government. With new local protégés to mind, and the urgency of wartime diplomacy behind them, American diplomats demonstrated less support for President Trajkovski, several informed sources assert.

American Local Rivalries and President Trajkovski

At the time, the International Republican Institute was among the leading international NGOs in Macedonia. In March 2003, American lawyer Henry Jones was appointed as country director for the non-profit, which works in numerous countries on democracy-building initiatives.

Now, Jones reveals for Balkanalysis.com that from the beginning of his time in Skopje, “it was clear that there was a fairly significant rift between Trajkovski and the [US] embassy.” They also disliked the IRI. This seemed partly due to political prejudices: “most of the people in the embassy at that time were left-wing or far-left in orientation,” he notes. “Some of them automatically assumed that [the IRI] would work with Republicans only, which was not accurate.” He recalls that funding giant USAID was also hostile, and that it told him to “do more with women and youth issues.”

Further, he adds, “the embassy would harass us for not working with DUI, when actually we did reach out to them. Part of it was a disinformation campaign from DUI, who always preferred to work with NDI [the National Democratic Institute]- so we ended up having to work more with DPA.”

A counterpart to the IRI, the NDI is another democracy-builder active around the world. Nominally associated with the US Democratic Party, it is also functionally non-partisan. In the specific case of Macedonia in 2003, it seems that DUI’s decision to ally with the organization had less to do with ideology than with its reported ‘sexual diplomacy,’ that allowed it to penetrate high levels in the NDI as well as the EU mission in Skopje. This contributed to the Albanian party’s disproportionate leverage and influence among the ‘international community’ at the time, affecting the tone and quality of diplomacy and internal reports.

Unfortunately, one of the American officials who seemed to particularly dislike Trajkovski was the ambassador, Lawrence Butler. Today, Jones still remembers the ambassador’s behavior on the first occasion that he met President Trajkovski. “A number of us were waiting in line to be introduced to Boris, who could sometimes look a little goofy. And there was Butler, who didn’t know who I was yet, in line behind me. I actually saw him snickering at the president, which I thought was incredibly inappropriate behavior for a US diplomat.”

Ambassador Butler was a career diplomat who developed his Balkan portfolio during the previous liberal administration. He gradually moved from monitoring human rights for the OSCE in Kosovo in 1993 to becoming Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Serbia during the 1995 Dayton Accords, finally becoming Director for Europe on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1997-1999.

However, in Macedonia, Butler would become the most controversial US ambassador in the country’s short history. In fact, “the Bush administration was so happy with Butler’s performance, they gave him to the Europeans!” quips Jason Miko, referring to Butler’s 2005-2007 posting as Deputy High Representative in Bosnia’s international mission. Although Butler’s fortunes were later revived (he is presently Civilian Deputy to the Commander at EUCOM), there is no question that perceived failures in Macedonia – the graveyard of so many foreigners over the centuries – affected his career to some extent.

The reasons for this went beyond personal demeanor. Although Butler became too closely involved in Macedonian internal politics, the totally unexpected issue that got him into hot water with the White House was the odd, and somewhat amusing ‘gay billboards scandal’ that broke in the fall of 2003. This essentially involved dozens of billboards spread around Macedonia for an NGO gay-rights campaign; their erection had apparently been partly subsidized by the embassy in Skopje.

The ‘Gay Billboards Scandal’ Brings a Special Visitor

Henry Jones recalls the period clearly. His first reaction when passing one such billboard on the road from Skopje Airport was incredulity. “I saw the embassy’s seal and thought, ‘what the hell is this?’” With the Bush administration supporting a family-values agenda at home, here was a very different agenda being presented abroad.

When the story reached the White House, there was also surprise: “this was not out of any hostility towards gays,” Jones notes. “It was just that it was completely counter to the administration’s agenda.”  The real issue for the White House, however, was that the money used for the billboards campaign had apparently come from the ambassador’s discretionary spending budget, “and thus had not been approved by Washington first.” The administration was most angered, Jones says, because “when confronted about it, Butler first pretended he didn’t even know about the program… then he said there was one billboard, when in fact there were 60, all over the country. The whole concept of how they represented it was flawed.”

The story made waves with a National Review article on it in January 2004, and even reached conservative tax campaigner Grover Norquist, who apparently denounced Butler as “an enemy of the American taxpayer.” The whole bizarre affair became a subject of questions at State Department briefings for two or three days and titillated the Macedonian media, with locals finding it just an ephemeral amusement of no importance. But the whole furor, it is believed, severely rattled the ambassador.

Not long after the ‘scandal’ it became clear to Jones and colleagues that Ambassador Butler was taking an excessive interest in them. “Butler seemed to always have interesting info about us personally, and about IRI in general.” The attention and generally hostile relationship between the embassy and IRI led the White House to intercede.

In February 2004, Barry Jackson, a senior advisor to President Bush and Karl Rove’s deputy, was dispatched to Skopje. Henry Jones accompanied Jackson to the meeting, which was held at the ambassador’s residence.

Part of Jackson’s message concerned the recent scandal. As Miko notes with amusement, “Bruce was sent to read Larry [Butler] the riot act over the billboards.” However, there was another and more important aspect to the trip. Jones recalls that “the key message to Butler was that the White House wanted the embassy to throw in its support for Boris’ re-election- and at very least, for the embassy to just leave IRI alone. Jackson’s message to Butler was essentially: keep your hands off of IRI. We had significant resources, arguably the best in the world for Macedonia at that time. We offered world-class political consulting free of charge, available to every party and NGO in the country, regardless of political orientation. We were doing important work for the country’s progress.”

Very soon after the meeting, a perceptible change could be noted in Ambassador Butler’s behavior towards the IRI and particularly, President Trajkovski. Miko recalls a meeting soon after in which the ambassador specifically asked the president what the embassy could do to help him. But it was too late- Trajkovski’s tragic fate was rapidly approaching.

President Trajkovski before the Crash: ‘Happy and in High Spirits’

As has been said, after the war President Trajkovski was gradually marginalized as Western diplomats focused their support on the new government. The more controversial aspects of the Ohrid Agreement angered Macedonian voters who blamed all leaders involved with its passage, including Trajkovski. Particularly controversial was the planned territorial decentralization, which would reduce municipalities from 120 to 84- lumping the land together in ways that, as mentioned above, would consolidate ethnic Albanian municipal control over wide swathes of the country, and thus expedite future ethnic federalization.

According to people around him at the time like Jones and Miko, President Trajkovski felt a sense of betrayal from the US side. “Boris was saddened,” recalls Jones. “He remarked to me that he had done everything the US asked of him with the Ohrid Agreement, and that this should count for something. But these people [i.e., foreign diplomats] have a ten-second memory.”

While by late 2003 Crvenkovski and Ahmeti had managed to negotiate a settlement for the decentralization plan, Trajkovski famously refused to sign it, stating that it was counter to national interests and would not lead to ethnic harmony. This was another reason why Butler and his staff saw the president as an obstruction: “the embassy didn’t like it when people didn’t do what they said,” notes Jones. Trajkovski’s principled refusal also reportedly angered Crvenkovski.

This inside testimony on President Bush’s order to support Trajkovski’s re-election is compelling, since it contradicts local media reports at the time. They stated that Trajkovski would not run, as the VMRO-DPMNE was openly touting Sasko Kedev, a doctor, as its likely candidate. Trajkovski was planning to run again, even if it was as an independent, says Jones, but he first would have needed to “reintroduce himself socially, to restore his relevance and image in society.”

Despite the very low probability of Trajkovski winning in autumn 2004 elections as an independent, he was “happy and in high spirits during my last meeting with him, which was about a week before he died,” attests Jones.

Further, at the time of Trajkovski’s death, Macedonia’s conservative party had not actually made a final decision on its candidate. Media suggested Kedev would be the VMRO-DPMNE candidate (which indeed is what happened), but this had not been decided at the time of Trajkovski’s death.

One of the last people to have seen the president alive was Jason Miko, who took part in a brief but detailed strategy meeting with Trajkovski the day before his fateful flight to Bosnia on February 26, 2004. “What you’ve got to remember,” says Miko, “is that the presidential elections were not supposed to be held until the fall- and the date of the [VMRO-DPMNE] party nominating congress had not even been set yet.”

Adds Miko, “President Bush wanted to see Boris run as the VMRO-DPMNE party’s candidate, and to be re-elected. And Boris was optimistic- he was looking forward to making a strong run when we last spoke, the day before he died. He said that we would meet again soon, to discuss more campaign strategy, as soon as he returned from Bosnia.”

This evidence contradicts the accepted narrative that President Trajkovski was prepared to accept defeat and meekly ride off into the sunset when his term came to an end in autumn 2004. Now, we can only speculate on what would have happened had he lived long enough to run.

A Mysterious Tragedy

As soon as Macedonians heard the news that the presidential plane had crashed on February 26, 2004, killing Trajkovski, six of his cabinet members and the two pilots on board, speculation rapidly spread that he had been assassinated. This being the Balkans, such suspicions were to have been expected. But there were undoubtedly strange elements to this particular case. Critics questioned everything from various odd technical discrepancies to the extraordinarily long time (24 hours!) French SFOR troops manning the Mostar Airport claimed it had taken them to discover the wreckage. However, after a quick report by the incumbent SDSM government, the two (very experienced) pilots were blamed for the crash, and many odd inconsistencies remained unanswered.

The family members of those who died were justifiably angry at the findings, as some of them shared public suspicions and all of them were in grief. As in similar tragedies, there was a sentiment among them that they simply lacked closure.

Frustration over the debatable results of the first report led the families of the deceased to file a wrongful death suit on October 17, 2005 against the American producer of the presidential plane, Raytheon. A close relative of one of the crash victims now tells Balkanalysis.com that “we felt something was wrong with the first case, but we just didn’t know what to do… this decision was an expression of our anger and grief.”

This source concedes that filing suit against the American company had probably been ill-conceived, and there was internal disagreement about the victims’ families about whether to even go ahead: “some of us just wanted to leave the past behind, since nothing could bring back our loved ones.” The case was dismissed in 2008, based on various legal precedents (the details are available here). From the very beginning it had been a long shot anyway, since the plane was built over three decades before the crash.

Was Trajkovski’s Death an Accident or Assassination? Still No Motives

While the new evidence to be provided in the upcoming Bosnian report will show that these NATO troops deliberately lied about this and many other aspects of the case, it still does not establish any conclusive proof or motive for anyone to assassinate the president. Certainly, many people were happy that he was out of the way, but this does not mean that they would resort to assassination.

“The [US] embassy believed that Boris would have run as an independent, lost, and thus be out of the picture anyway,” notes Henry Jones. “So there wouldn’t be an intelligent reason for anyone to get rid of him. He did not represent a threat to anyone.”

Further, unlike certain other Balkan leaders and businessmen, the moral Trajkovski was not the sort of fellow to become involved in corruption or white-collar crime either, so there could not have been any scenario for a ‘gangland’ assassination.

There have been a variety of local conspiracy theories among Macedonians over the years. One has it that Trajkovski had incriminating information about corruption or crimes among certain international officials. Mysterious missile attacks have been proposed. The most outlandish theory has it that the president never actually boarded the plane and instead was secretly retired to some tropical island (possibly, to live out his days with Elvis).

However, more frequently the alleged culprit in most Macedonian conspiracy theories is SDSM chief and then-Prime Minister, Branko Crvenkovski. One variant of this theory claims that Crvenkovski sought to eliminate Trajkovski because the latter refused to sign the toxic territorial decentralization bill, heavily being pushed on the country by the West at the time.

This theory is also difficult to believe, because (as many have pointed out), the parliament could in time simply have overstepped any presidential veto after several rounds of voting. In short, Trajkovski could not have stopped the decentralization, was not expected to run for re-election, and thus did not represent a threat even to his political foes. It is also very hard to believe that the prime minister of a small country like Macedonia would, or even could have coordinated an assassination with international NATO forces in a third country, while orchestrating a seamless cover-up.

Balkanalysis.com sources state that the upcoming joint report is not expected to come up with any ‘smoking gun’ (unless the Bosnians have something explosive not yet known to us). The case is thus likely to retain its aura of mystery forever, though the result should give relatives of the victims a greater level of closure.

Suspicions will always remain, however. Anecdotal evidence does exist that would seem indicate certain warning signs of a planned assassination in the three months before Trajkovski’s death. However, as it would not be responsible to disclose such comments before the report is issued we will not specify these at this time.

Revelations to Come: the Second Committee’s Report

In February 2013, the chief investigator for the Bosnian side of the new international investigation team visited Skopje and gave several interviews for local media. He stated several details that had already been told to Balkanalysis.com by an informed source familiar with the investigation. The visiting official told media that the upcoming report of the committee – which contains Macedonian, Bosnian and international experts, including pilots and at least one American representative – will be released in a matter of months. He gave a very strong statement in which he said that the investigators were willing to do everything, including exhume the bodies of other victims of the crash, in order to dispel the confusion and solve the case once and for all.

The Macedonian government finished its second investigation into the crash eight months ago, after approximately two-and-a-half years of work. Part of the reason that the results will be released in a few months and not now, our informed sources says, is that it did not want this to become perceived as a politically motivated stunt before the March 24th local elections.

Indeed, while it is foreseeable that partisan domestic critics may blame the government’s decision to reopen the case as politically motivated, our source claims that “a totally different person, a high-level European close friend of Boris who shared many of his beliefs, personally petitioned for the case to be reopened,” even taking his plea to the highest levels of the US government. It seems that President Bush was not Trajkovski’s only influential supporter.

Unless the Bosnian side has some huge new piece of evidence of which we are unaware, Balkanalysis.com can predict that the upcoming report will not directly blame any single person or group for the crash. In short, it will not conclude that the crash was a political assassination.

However, sources say that the report will prove something almost as damning: that the first committee committed a joint cover-up with the NATO force in Bosnia to conceal acts of gross negligence absent of which the fatal accident would not have happened.

Since the technicalities of this are too long and complex to recite, we can say in general that the report will detail a combination of technical errors and oversights on the part of individuals and civic aviation bodies, including SFOR air traffic controllers in Bosnia (who were reportedly returned to France immediately after the crash, and who refused to cooperate with the second committee). These embarrassing facts would have made them partly liable for the crash.

One of the key points the Bosnian report will make has long been questioned by individuals (including Bosnian local witnesses)- SFOR’s claim that, despite all of their advanced equipment, maps and local knowledge, that they did not find the downed plane for a full 24 hours after it crashed. In fact, the report will contend that witnesses, including Bosnian intelligence, spotted NATO soldiers on the crash site less than two hours after it happened- and were told by them to leave immediately.

Another problematic question that will be raised involve issues pertaining to radar usage and signal lights at Mostar Airport’s radar at the time of the crash. Gross negligence on the side of NATO in its air traffic control capacity will thus be singled out.

On the Macedonian side, issues regarding the plane’s upkeep, problems with its black box, and other small but important technical deficiencies that should have been addressed before the flight will be discussed.

Therefore we can predict that the results of the report will be both sensational and widely respected, considering the international make-up of the investigative team. Internally, Bosnian leaders might be able to settle political scores with officials active in 2004 and involved in some way with the case. On the Macedonian side, the previous SDSM government and local NATO officers will be blamed for a cover-up of gross negligence, by not discussing in the first report some of the embarrassing details that should have been addressed.

Broadly speaking, this could lead to a worsening of relations between the major Macedonian parties and a brief spat between Macedonia and France. However, relations with France are not considered important as the latter has historically been viewed as playing favorites with the ethnic Albanian side.

In the end, no matter what is reported, it is going to be interesting to watch. Even nine years later, Macedonia’s greatest modern tragedy continues to affect the national psyche and perception of its political leaders.

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Trends in Contemporary Macedonian Politics and Society

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: The current article, based on a wealth of recent interviews with insiders and many years of field research, provides a situation report on Macedonia’s current political affairs. It also analyzes how important international players have reacted to Macedonia’s so-called ‘democratic crisis,’ and what this may imply for future policy towards the country.

With the situation on the ground changing daily, there is potential for some modifications of expected results, but even in such a case, the deep background analysis provided in the second half of the article is useful for anyone wishing to understand the broader dynamics at work.

By Chris Deliso*

Since December, outside observers of Macedonia have been entranced by a faux crisis orchestrated by a political faction seeking foreign support for its cause. By involving themselves heavily but ambivalently in this drama, foreign diplomats have played into this factional strategy, whereas by either ignoring it or exerting maximum leverage at the beginning they could have resolved it by now. However, with local leaders acting in bad faith, the internationals are growing increasingly frustrated with the situation, one month before local elections are to be held on 24 March.

In this case, the faction seeking international attention and support is Macedonia’s largest opposition party, the left-wing SDSM, which seeks to regain power after seven years of aimless wandering in the political wilderness.

Most specifically, the individual seeking power through fomenting political crisis in Macedonia is SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski, who first served as prime minister in 1992. In so doing, he has put his personal interests ahead of party interests, and the national interest as well. Once known for his political craftiness, Crvenkovski has however become increasingly erratic, changing his demands of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and firing his own personnel on an almost daily basis. As numerous media stories and interviews attest, Crvenkovski is coming dangerously close to destroying his own party.

Turbulent Times

Diplomats are keen to know who or what is driving Crvenkovski’s apparent obsession with remaining in politics. (Many Macedonians believe he has been working directly for the Greeks for years; though it is not easy to prove, his party has always made the same criticisms of the government that Greece makes). In any case, the SDSM leader is relatively unpopular and deeply controversial among the public, and even representatives of his party have disapproved of his obstructionist strategy, as it is negatively impacting on their own political futures. In the past two weeks the murmurs of internal discord have turned into a rumble, as some SDSM mayoral candidates are refusing to follow Crvenkovski’s orders to boycott the local elections. The opposition’s smallest coalition parties, which have very little sustainability on their own, are also concerned, and in Skopje large sections of the youth wing are breaking away.

Thus what we are now seeing is an internal breakdown of support from more capable SDSM mayors like Stevco Jakimovski of Skopje’s Karpos municipality. On 16 February, minutes before the candidacy registration expired, he announced that he would run for a smaller, ethnic Serbian party. Other candidates may do the same and there is talk of heated internal meetings and a large-scale defection from Crvenkovski’s ranks to come, as the captain appears determined to go down with the ship.

At the same time, another theory being voiced is that it is all a charade and ‘independent’ candidates who bust the boycott will return to SDSM after winning their races. But it looks like there is now too much bad blood for that to be true, and even if they do so, the party will further discredit itself as being deceptive, meaning that the trick will backfire.

The SDSM’s next party conference is slated for May, two months after the elections. At that event Crvenkovski could be replaced for good, allowing a new generation of leaders, until now largely prevented from assertive action, to take control. If this does not happen, the party historically known for its propensity to splinter may fall apart completely.

One high-ranking SDSM insider, who is careful to defend Crvenkovski for now, believes that certain individuals are pushing him to remain in politics. “It is just a small circle of advisers and people around Branko- they need him to stay on, because without them, they themselves have no future,” the official stated for Balkanalysis.com. It is impossible to confirm whether this is true, though it does sound possible, albeit it is hard to imagine any of the people specified having the leverage to force Crvenkovski to stay in power. There may be larger business or other associates behind the decision or certain other concerns, but these are also impossible to confirm at this time.

So far, competent and influential SDSM members like former party president Radmila Sekerinska and Strumica Mayor Zoran Zaev have kept quiet; it is likely that they are waiting for the dust to settle before taking more direct action. Both would have a motive for upending Crvenkovski as he has reportedly double-crossed them and other promising young leaders in the past in hs own bid to stay on top. Zaev particularly appears to have leverage. “Without Strumica, Branko is finished,” said the party insider for Balkanalysis.com, referring to southeastern Macedonia’s largest town and its traditional support for SDSM.

A Lack of Oxygen

The recent international excitement has centered on events since mid-December. These events have been understood in the context of upcoming local elections. Events thus discussed have included chronic protests from SDSM and a boycott on parliament and the local elections, ordered by Crvenkovski.

However, it is also being argued that these political shenanigans were actually part of Crvenkovski’s unorthodox campaign strategy all along- not some aberration indicating a democratic deficiency that required urgent attention. We expect the boycott threat is just that, and that SDSM will run. Whatever is the truth, international officials willingly took the bait. EU officials in particular have become heavily involved in a crisis that was largely rhetorical, blowing things out of all proportion. Now however, as Crvenkovski’s obstructionism has made it increasingly clear as to who is to blame, they have had to reappraise their initial ambivalent reactions, leaving the impression that they were til now asleep on the job or lacked proper information.

Historically, crisis has been the oxygen upon which Macedonia’s main leftist party breathes; when they were stronger and the situations more dire (as in 1994 and again during and after the 2001 war) the concept of crisis helped SDSM take power. Party leaders depicted themselves as sagacious and moderate, as the only ones capable of overcoming perceived threats to national survival. However, Macedonia’s unprecedented internal stability since 2006 (and particularly 2008) has deprived the opposition of its vital oxygen

“One of ‘Yesterday’s Men’”

Thus instead of reorienting itself towards a modern, issues-driven agenda, SDSM has spent the last seven years complaining to anyone who will listen that life is just not fair. This and many other internal party woes derive directly from the party rank-and-file’s chronic inability to diminish the influence of its longtime leader, though change is long overdue.

“Crvenkovski represents, as my grandfather used to call them, one of ‘yesterday’s men,’” said one veteran foreign observer of Macedonian affairs for Balkanalysis.com. “He learned his political gamesmanship from the previous [communist] system… now, he can’t seem to adapt to a changed world.”

Although Crvenkovski’s opponents tend to bore by overstating this, they do have a point. It is very important to remember that Crvenkovski became prime minister for the first time at the tender age of 30. Along with Albania’s Sali Berisha and Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović – two other controversial characters – he is the only major Balkan politician from that era still prominent today.

Thus, Crvenkovski’s entire worldview and political formation occurred in the now legendary and lurid time of ‘transition’ in which all role models developed from the then-recent Yugoslav way of doing business. In his capacities both as prime minister or president, between 1992 and 2009 the SDSM kingpin was in power for a staggering 13 of 17 years. Having known no other lifestyle than political dominance, and no other operating method than that espoused by Tito, it is not a surprise that since 2009 Crvenkovski seems to be disturbed at this disruption of the ‘natural order,’ and has resorted to all methods to try and claw his way back into power.

Since December 2012, Crvenkovski has worked through provocations and obstructionism to win sympathy and to monopolize media exposure. These tactics have involved protests designed to incur a heavy-handed police response, verbal provocations meant to elicit combative rhetoric from their political rivals. However, this has failed almost completely, as the government has consistently said all the right things, calling for dialogue, international observation and transparency, while the police have been extremely restrained in handling protests. At the same time, these efforts are increasingly alienating important figures inside the SDSM, weakening Crvenkovski’s hold. For the first time, his political end might be on the horizon.

Event Focus, Result and Significance

The opposition has from late December focused all of its attention on immortalizing a single event, because the provocation strategy has resulted in literally nothing else worth highlighting since. This has failed to galvanize public support, though it amusingly captivated several naïve true believers from the international media and diplomatic worlds.

The grand event thus immortalized is now referred to simply as ‘the events of December 24th.’ By the solemnity in which the date is invoked by some, one would think it to have been on par with the collapse of the Berlin Wall or perhaps a famous battle that you could name a street after. It was neither.

This one partially successful provocation incident occurred after SDSM members on the parliamentary budget committee had for several days attempted, sometimes violently, to paralyze state administrative function and pension payments by blocking the 2013 budget. Such a result could conceivably have caused domestic unrest. This failed when the government met the opposition’s stated demands, conceding a record number of amendments, and the budget was thus passed on 24 December. This contextual aspect of the matter has been conveniently forgotten already by SDSM’s supporters.

A frustrated SDSM then provoked an incident in parliament leading to members and journalists being removed by security (this was filmed by a party member and circulated to party-friendly media). The party went into overdrive on the diplomatic circuit, depicting the incident before foreign representatives as yet another sign of totalitarian rule. This provided a pretext for Crvenkovski to denounce the government and announce street protests and his party’s boycott of parliament, and the elections.

Predictably, this grand drama set off a flurry of concerned diplomatic missives, fulsome media pieces and eventually visits from Brussels officials. The international media excitement was such that the British Foreign Office even called its local embassy to ask whether the country was still intact; local diplomats enjoyed a good chuckle and privately reassured them that yes, things were pretty much normal as always.

The Europeans Wake Up

Through his obstructionism Crvenkovski was attempting to achieve one key goal in his longer-term plan of destabilizing the government: to ensure that Macedonia’s next EU progress report would be negative. The EU is now certain to reference the current political drama as a sign of backsliding; the big question, however, is to what extent the report will ascribe responsibility to SDSM, or to the country in general. Whatever the case, Greece will then cite the apparent incompetence of the ‘Skopiani’ to deflect pressure on Athens to negotiate on the name issue. And once again the EU will place the burden of resolution squarely on Macedonia, rather than on Greece.

If the ploy will have been successful, SDSM will therefore argue that the government is incapable of guiding Macedonia towards EU membership as it cannot resolve the name issue. Combined with a campaign of public violence that some SDSM leaders have already hinted at, Crvenkovski could hypothetically realize his destabilization dream (at least until very recent developments put that in doubt). However, even if he does, he lacks the internal capacity and unity to fill any void left by upheaval and could not likely create conditions for any sustainable alternative government.

However, after intense US diplomatic efforts to deal with the situation, the Europeans have shown uncharacteristic mettle and in recent days have indicated that they will in fact hold Crvenkovski liable, and not the country in general, at least for now. This represents a diplomatic defeat not only for Crvenkovski, but also for Greece. In a statement made on 19 February, the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok ‘condemned’ Crvenkovski’s boycott. “SDSM’s position is irresponsible towards its own country,” said Brok, according to MIA. “The whole country is made hostage by this party due to its own political reasons. In my opinion, the Macedonian government is not unprepared, but SDSM is.”

In the big picture view, Brok noted that “the domestic political goals of this party should not diminish the EU perspectives of the country. The socialists in Albania and their leader Edi Rama should not serve as an example.”

In addition, the MEP most often focused on the Balkans, Doris Pack, said that “the opposition’s behaviour is unacceptable and irresponsible. It ruins the image of the country serving as a proof that political maturity is lacking.” Other statements strongly critical of SDSM were made also by European MPs Richard Howitt, Monica Macovei, Eduard Kukan, Tunne-Väldo Kelam and Rainer Stinner.

This kind of determined stance is unprecedented for the usually weak-willed Europeans. It may indicate a growing EU desperation about the stalled enlargement process and the bloc’s external credibility. However, it may just be necessary to give them a little time to get confused again: the latest statement from Enlargement Commissioner Fule (21 February) spoke of an unspecified need for Macedonia’s political leaders to “compromise,” whatever that might mean. By issuing ambivalent and divided statements, Europe will only risk its ability to act in a credible way, though it would certainly not be the first time.

Like many other Europeans, Macedonians have doubts about whether the EU itself will continue to exist in the long-term in its present capacity, which helps explain why they have been so opposed to bartering away their national identity and name as Greece demands. Thus, as elsewhere in Europe, future political and social trends in Macedonia broadly benefit parties that focus on real ‘daily life’ internal issues over vague internationalized agendas. Except for in localized areas, Macedonian voters have not given SDSM a mandate since 2002 and it is unlikely that they would do so nationally, as the party has not offered anything more appealing than what the governing coalition has already implemented. The apparent inability to understand this reality continues to leave certain foreign diplomats frustrated and confused at what they perceive as mental deficiencies in the Macedonian electorate.

The Domestic Political Scene: Opposition Strategy Broadly Benefits Ruling Party

For the Europeans to take such a stance indicates the existence of incontrovertible and visible evidence, as they are not typically known for bravery or deep interest in local situations. The events they have observed since December 24th follow.

After the SDSM boycott began, Crvenkovski became increasingly petulant and reckless, with his list of demands for returning to parliament growing ever stranger and more extravagant. It initially included the replacement of specific government ministers and even the head of national television with people approved by SDSM. He also demanded early parliamentary elections in conjunction with the scheduled local ones (though the result would be the same as in 2011, when Crvenkovski demanded early elections, was called on his bluff, and predictably enough lost). More recently, he demanded that the desired early parliamentary elections be postponed until April, to be followed by early parliamentary elections in June. Most recently, he demanded that the government must solve the name issue if they want him to drop his demand for early parliamentary elections. This kind of statement goes a long way to explaining why many Macedonians regard Crvenkovski as a paid Greek lobbyist.

The other tactic in this war of attrition, small-scale street protests organized by SDSM have been irritating commuters held up in traffic since late December. The opposition’s credibility was diminished early on with supposedly angry protesters laughing and joking with counter-protesters and police. Macedonians are just too easygoing to make decent protesters, it seems. Then there was footage of the SDSM leader marching in solidarity with former mortal enemy Ljubco Georgievski, prime minister from 1998 to 2002. The SDSM leader’s endless list of demands and protests in front of private businesses has inspired widespread ridicule. These mishaps have been presented on satirical shows and in Youtube mash-ups like this.

Crvenkovski and his perplexing array of demands and allies have benefited the ruling VMRO-DPMNE domestically, and now internationally. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been consistent in stating that early parliamentary elections will not be held, and that the date of local elections agreed by parliament cannot be moved. In a statement for MIA way back on 14 January, Gruevski pledged that his government is “fully prepared for the next local elections to be monitored by OSCE and ODIHR, and for the observing process to be enhanced as much as SDSM wish for and these organizations will agree upon. We are fully ready, if they still believe that something has not been done yet or is being uncompleted in regard to the Voters’ List, to be wrapped up, leaving no doubt about a possibility of unethical, illegal actions.”

Since then, the prime minister has presented himself as going out of his way to accommodate Crvenkovski’s wishes, even offering to prolong the deadline for party candidate registrations in the hope of coaxing SDSM to return to parliament last week. These kind of measured statements and actions do not give SDSM a whole lot to work with when accusing Gruevski of being a tyrannical dictator.

One vignette for future historians is that at the time of Gruevski’s pledge in January, American diplomats had concerns that despite the government’s good intentions in this regard, the OSCE’s election budget could end up being blocked at higher levels by Russia. This concern gave American diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis throughout January more urgency. In such a scenario, it was feared, the opposition might discredit the elections by citing alleged irregularities that could not be independently confirmed or denied due to an insufficient number of observers. However, the possibility of such a turn of events faded when the OSCE observer budget was passed on 7 February. So everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that a large number of temporary staff knowing little about the country will soon be paid exorbitant sums to come and watch the fun.

VMRO-DPMNE also consented to a proposal from national president Gjorge Ivanov, by which a mixed committee would be formed to investigate the “events of December 24th” an idea which the internationals also supported.  Crvenkovski, on the other hand, refused the president’s proposal. And so while Crvenkovski’s media face-time has involved bombastic speeches on the streets, Gruevski has acted so calmly and diplomatically that some observers have wondered whether he has hired a new PR team.

However, as the situation has become more pressing, he has also used more heated rhetoric, recently accusing Crvenkovski of being “more Greek than [Greek leader Antonis] Samaras” in his obstructionism of national interests. This kind of discourse is not unusual for campaign season and probably would have been used anyway, considering the two decade-long nationalist suspicion that Crvenkovski and his minions are surreptitiously working for Greek interests. Many observers note that a personal animosity between Gruevski and his older rival appears to have developed in recent years, and believe that this is making an agreement increasingly difficult to achieve.

The International Political Scene:  US Reactions and Internal Dynamics

The international mission that has acted most promptly and most responsibly during the target period has been the United States Embassy, which has throughout called on SDSM to return unconditionally and immediately to parliament. Although an initial statement on 24 December was a bit vague, an e-mailed joint statement of 11 January from the US Embassy and EU delegation in Macedonia was more forthright. It stated that “parliament is the primary forum for addressing and resolving issues and debate in a parliamentary democracy… we therefore encourage the opposition to return to Parliament to represent the large number of citizens who cast ballots in support of opposition parties in the most recent parliamentary elections.”

Referring to the government, the statement simply read “we equally encourage the government to take all possible steps to restore political dialogue, and to create the conditions for effective and transparent activity in Parliament.”

Crvenkovski had hoped for a public international response that would oblige the government to fulfill his conditionality demands for returning to parliament. This did not happen. Rather, the American response became more pointed, albeit in diplomatic fashion. On 12 February, US Ambassador Paul Wohlers implicitly referred to Crvenkovski in an official statement reported by MIA. “All sides involved, parties and individuals need to be looking carefully at what is in the best interest of the country as a whole and take steps in that regard to help the country, not necessarily what would help an individual party or an individual person,” the ambassador noted.

Much of the credit for even-handed US diplomacy at present can probably be attributed to Ambassador Wohlers, who comes from a diplomatic family and has a military background, as well as prior experience in the Balkans (including as DCM in Macedonia). He has displayed a quiet confidence since coming to Macedonia in August 2011 and (unlike several of his predecessors) does not allow emotional reactions to cloud his judgment or affect policy. Insiders say that Ambassador Wohlers (who most recently worked directly under ex-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as Deputy Executive Secretary), had been seeking out ways to convince Clinton to visit Macedonia on her final Balkan tour, which happened shortly before SDSM began its current obstructionism. However, Clinton did not find time to visit Macedonia despite visiting Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania on her trip. Now it can only be speculated as to whether a visit from such a high-ranking American official could have convinced Macedonian politicians to cooperate. Historically, the outgoing secretary’s non-appearance in Skopje will go down as a lamentable omission on her part.

Although diplomats have not commented on why Clinton did not visit, it is likely that there was resistance in the State Department from officials who simply do not like the Gruevski government, and who fear that it would depict any appearances with high-level American leaders as a tacit endorsement for their administration. The infrequency of high-level meetings between the two sides means that much of the VMRO-DPMNE government’s photo album is devoted to shots taken with leaders of (not insignificant) countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar and so on, as these are the states that receive top Macedonian leaders and who send their leaders to visit the country.

The present opposition to the government, Washington insiders say, has created an ambivalent attitude in US diplomatic orientation towards Macedonia. It will be interesting to see how this plays out during John Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state. Kerry is considered more moderate and is definitely more experienced with the Balkans than was the original candidate for the job, Susan Rice, but the Greek lobby has had more access to him in past than the Macedonian one. It remains to be seen what interest he will take (if any, considering the plethora of more pressing global concerns) in Macedonian affairs.

In any case, Kerry’s opinion will inevitably be affected by the interpretation of events presented by involved officials in the State Department. On the ground in Skopje, however, it seems clear that the even-keeled Ambassador Wohlers is fully in control of affairs and, as several Macedonian and American sources attest, that despite the ambassador’s quiet demeanor his influence in the State Department is considerable. When the ambassador says (as he did at a press conference after Obama’s re-election) that “Macedonia has no better friend than the United States,” it is clear that he is believes that he can back up that pledge.

Finally, it is important to clarify what seems to concern US diplomats, regardless of whatever internal intrigues may be going on. One of SDSM’s talking points about the ruling party is that it is tyrannical and a threat to democracy. US diplomats on the ground are not seeing signs of this on any meaningful scale at this time. What they are actually concerned about is that SDSM’s self-destruction would create a vacuum, resulting in the disappearance of any viable opposition party. Such a situation could perhaps resemble the 1994-1998 period in which SDSM was in power and VMRO-DPMNE kept up a boycott. Those were arguably the most disastrous years in the country’s short history.

“The loss of a credible opposition party, that kind of situation would mean that down the road, maybe in three to five years, power could end up centralized more than it is now and this could increase some people’s temptation to become more authoritarian,” one diplomat states for Balkanalysis.com. “This is why it is important that a viable opposition party exist, as a check on possible abuses in the system, and for the existence of other policy views. This is a message we want to send, for the good of all, though it is hard to do so directly without appearing partisan.”

The International Political Scene: European Approaches

The totally dissimilar dynamics between the American and European relationship with Macedonia have historically been reflected by their respective activities in the country; today, this can be seen in the quality of their respective reactions to the current political impasse. Despite some internal disagreements, the US can formulate a coherent policy based on a small handful of strategic interests (chiefly, ensuring regional stability). The fractious Europeans, however, have combustible common interests (economy, immigration, etc.) that impact on their perception of Macedonia and its place in the ‘European family.’ Unlike the US, Europe also sponsors partisan political relationships within the country; a plethora of MEP partnerships with local parties are related to the country’s imagined future accession to the European Union. This gives lobbying for and against particular Macedonian parties and issues a totally different dynamic when it comes to the Europeans.

It should also be remembered that with its historic obligation to oversee developing countries, the US puts itself in the line of fire whereas all other countries escape this attention. Whenever something controversial ‘happens,’ the US Embassy is duty-bound to make a statement, which inevitably leaves one of the sides thus scolded feeling put out. They tend to make these statements in tandem with the EU delegation (and, when things are really serious, like the other day, with NATO and the OSCE).

This means that there is a wall of isolation protecting countries like France and Germany – two countries most interested in internal affairs – which allows them to avoid having to take a public stance on anything. This is even more the case for outside powers like Russia, China and Turkey, which never comment on or criticize internal affairs, but more wisely just cash in on their investments, remaining friendly with all the locals. In such a situation, being the world’s sole superpower can seem to be a lonely and thankless task.

The situation with the Europeans is thus much more complex, and this has exacerbated the crisis, as there are different countries and political factions supporting either the government or the opposition.

Also (and unlike with the American relationship), Macedonian parliamentarians and partisan figures can and do go to the European Parliament and attempt to discredit their domestic opponents, getting support from their partisan MEP colleagues from other countries, which helps sustain the fractiousness of the relationship and delays common action. The amount of negotiating that goes into formulating a common response thus becomes more tedious and time-consuming for the Europeans (especially tough in the case of Macedonia, considering the extra factor of constant Greek obstructionism).

It has always been extraordinary that despite their geographical proximity to the Balkans, European diplomats have often seemed less objective and less informed than the Americans about local realities. Part of this is due to the negative stereotyping and sense of superiority that Western European diplomats often exhibit towards Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs, Turks and the rest. There has also been a stronger ideological component than with the American approach, as high-profile European diplomats in Macedonia with a strong affinity for left-wing ideology have displayed in recent years in supporting SDSM, such as the former EU representative in Skopje, Erwan Fouere, who was very supportive of the left-wing party, but despised by the general public. While conservatives have a major effect on in domestic politics in Europe, it seems that most of the diplomats the EU exports are liberals.

Here it is worth mentioning that there was a time, peaking between 2008 and 2011, during which the most active international diplomats in Skopje were heavily in the SDSM camp and wanted the party to take power. The amount of spite they felt for the Gruevski government, well, you could hear it in their words and see it in their eyes. The only problem was that the majority of ordinary Macedonians did not share their preference.

Learning from Turkey

Another interesting evolution in the Macedonian political dynamic is the degree to which its government has been influenced by the example of Turkey under Erdogan, whose own rise directly parallels that of Gruevski. This period has also seen an unprecedented expansion in political, business and cultural ties between the two countries.

European politics has produced an excess of true believers in a common EU future for Balkan countries, and this helps explain their historic frustration with Macedonia. All of the recent pleas for national unity and overcoming the ‘political crisis’ have been predicated on the stark warning that a failure to do so will imperil Macedonia’s EU future. The Europeans are frustrated, thinking this warning has fallen on deaf ears. Rather, Macedonians simply do not believe that their country will ever join the European Union, and they are presently taking their future into their own hands, as has Turkey, whose citizens have already given up on the EU. At the same time, both the Macedonia and Turkish governments continue to take advantage of the political and economic assistance coming out of Brussels, careful to not turn their back completely on the idea of accession.

At the same time, they are preparing to create their own distinct futures as Europe lacks the unity required to accept them. That the Gruevski government has learned from and is emulating the Erdogan government’s behavior in this area is the most important, though most unreported phenomenon in the common political development of both states in recent years. In the big picture, there has never been a time in recorded history when either of these geographical areas was ruled by Brussels and it is not likely to start now.

Euroskepticism Misunderstood

The EU’s perceived partisanship and failure to get Greece to negotiate in good faith has not gone unobserved by the Macedonian public, nor has the sort of language its representatives use in public discourse (‘your country,’ ‘FYROM,’ ‘the neighboring country’- anything to avoid saying the word ‘Macedonia’).

It has become all too clear that EU leaders – and they will tell you this openly –do not have, and have never had a Plan B for the Balkans other than EU absorption. The idea of making (or even discussing) other contingency plans is a kind of taboo in Brussels, though not privately among the national European leaderships that only pretend to have higher, unity-based ideals in mind. This impasse has continuously prevented the EU from implementing any kind of proactive diplomacy that would take local realities into consideration. And it means that the impending enlargement failure is going to result in some messy situations down the road.

In the case of Macedonia, the tunnel-vision approach of Brussels officials has influenced political perception in recent years. As one official in the EU delegation in Skopje tells Balkanalysis.com: “after 2006, the EU was shocked that the Gruevski government did not just bow down and worship them… they had become so accustomed to leaders from these small states obediently doing anything they might ask for.”

In most cases of accession countries, this perceived defiance has had less urgency. Macedonia (whether under Gruevski or Crvenkovski before him) has diligently sought to implement all requested EU reforms to the extent that the country exceeds present EU members on implementation of certain reforms (for one example, smoking in public spaces has been almost eliminated in Macedonia whereas it is still widespread in member states like Romania).

The single issue that separates Macedonia from all other aspirants is the name issue with Greece. Some EU technocrats can simply not process why the country’s citizens would want to retain their name and identity at the price of not joining their club. Perhaps they need to look more objectively at the state of their union, and their own personal national sentiments, and reconsider why Macedonians feel as they do.

Context: Post-Independence Political Development

In the end, regardless of one’s opinion on any of these actors or issues, one fundamental question remains: how did Macedonian political life get to where it is now?

Several key political divergences over time have caused the current situation. After Macedonia declared independence on 8 September 1991, the situation was similar to other contemporaneous ex-socialist or ex-communist states: while there were strong public sentiments for change from the previous system, the new nationalist movements were ill-organized and lacked capacity compared to the embedded communist leadership, which had personnel, connections and an overall superiority in leveraging power across the board. In the case of ex-Yugoslav Macedonia, there were also carry-over linkages with Milosevic in Serbia for a number of years.

In some contemporaneous cases, emerging nationalist and anti-communist parties were heavily supported by the West, particularly in places where communism had been most extreme (like Albania and Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party), thus allowing system override. In other, more obscure post-communist states like Georgia, unprepared new nationalist leaderships led to protests and even war. Caught somewhere in the grey area in between was Macedonia, the only ex-Yugoslav republic to break away peacefully- but during a period of wars all around it, and a diplomatic dispute with Greece that created a chronic low-pressure crisis dynamic in the country, one that lingers today.

Appearing near the end of Yugoslav rule in Macedonia was the new conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which fashioned itself nostalgically along the lines of the turn-of-the-century Macedonian liberation movement. However, while it had some public support it did not have the capacity or political experience to manage power. And so, in 1992 the 30-year-old Crvenkovski was appointed prime minister by parliament, following a technical government. In 1994, his SDSM won new parliamentary elections: these were very important elections because they were boycotted by VMRO-DPMNE, which was then led by Ljubco Georgievski.

The VMRO-DPMNE boycott decision may not have been responsible, but it would have a lasting impact on the future public imagination of the transition period. It meant that the nationalists would remain uninvolved with – and thus not be criticized for – all the contentious events that happened during that period. These included the 1995 UN negotiations that led to the humiliating interim accord with Greece, a raft of dubious privatizations that bankrupted state-owned entities, impoverishing thousands, the attempted assassination of President Gligorov, sanctions-busting fuel smuggling to Serbia, the TAT Bank pyramid scheme scandal and issues surrounding rising ethnic Albanian nationalism.

Crvenkovski and key SDSM insiders, like interior (and later, foreign) minister Ljubomir Frckovski have long been presented by their rivals as the key villains in these turbulent episodes, as sort of the scheming Burns-and-Smithers of modern Macedonia history. To this day, the VMRO-DPMNE references controversial events of the 1990s in its criticism of Crvenkovski and the SDSM in general. While many of the more lurid accusations against them will never be proven, at very least it can be said that during the period in question Crvenkovski built a formidable apparatus of business, political, judicial, academic, media and other allies that would prove greatly beneficial to his political ambitions.

Caught Up in Crises: 1998-2003

While the 1994 boycott thus gave the opposition plenty of ammunition, the VMRO-DPMNE electoral victory in 1998 under Georgievski proved a mixed blessing. The party still lacked capacity and strategic awareness, as was seen most disastrously in the short-lived diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, which led China to veto the UN border mission with Kosovo. This enabled ethnic Albanian paramilitaries to more easily smuggle arms and people across the borders, which would expedite their military capacities ahead of the 2001 war in Macedonia itself.

The government’s inability to end the war quickly, as well as divisive comments by both Georgievski and Albanian coalition ally Arben Xhaferi of DPA, led the West into the NLA’s welcoming arms. The result of the war was Macedonia’s total capitulation to Albanian demands and a quick makeover of the NLA into the DUI party that is still in government today. (Indeed, while SDSM accuses VMRO-DPMNE of running a ‘one-party state,’ it is actually DUI that qualifies more for this honor; it has enjoyed coalitions with both parties, and has now been in power for an incredible 11 of the last 13 years, counting the war).

After losing September 2002 parliamentary elections, the VMRO-DPMNE underwent a period of change capped off by the May 2003 election of Nikola Gruevski, the former finance minister, as party president. He took over from former party boss (and prime minister) Georgievski. The West, it should be remembered, was pleased about this development as diplomats considered Gruevski a typical easily-controllable technocrat with less of a nationalist sentiment than Georgievski.

At the time, there were concerns that Gruevski – who initially showed no leadership qualities and reportedly was not sure he even wanted to stay in politics – would be unable to keep the party in line. Challenges from his more experienced former boss, many diplomats feared, would cause the kind of splintering that could lead to more radical developments, or a repeat of SDSM total dominance. However, with time Gruevski asserted himself and pro-Georgievski elements within the party were replaced.

With Western leaders happy to see the peaceful inclusion of the NLA in the government and a functional opposition party under Gruevski, the path seemed cleared for the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement and eventual NATO and EU membership, even though the name dispute with Greece had not been resolved. It should be remembered that those were the years of Rumsfeld’s ‘new Europe’ and the ‘coalition of the willing;’ Macedonia had gladly contributed to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, winning it points with the Bush administration.

Yet just as VMRO-DPMNE had inherited problematic issues in 1998, SDSM experienced the disadvantage of leading a forced coalition together with the ethnic Albanian characters who had caused the war. This arrangement angered many Macedonians who saw the unholy alliance as further proof of capitulation to Western and Albanian demands. It also irked the ethnic Albanian opposition parties, who of course would have preferred to be in power. This prompted an occasionally violent relationship between the major Albanian blocs over the next few years, resulting in tactically flawed security operations by the government against breakaway Albanian militant groups.

Also taking criticism for the Ohrid Agreement was the late President Boris Trajkovski (the VMRO-DPMNE candidate in 1999) whose peacemaking efforts had put him in a very difficult position. His death in a mysterious plane crash on February 26, 2004, it can be argued, was the single most important formative event for today’s contemporary political development, because of the leadership displacement and structural imbalance it would lead to.

2004: The Decision that Would Change Everything

At the time President Trajkovski died, regular presidential elections were supposed to be held in autumn 2004. But with VMRO-DPMNE openly promoting a doctor, Sasko Kedev, as their likely candidate, media speculated that Trajkovski would not be running for re-election. The president’s unexpected death pushed things forward, resulting in an emergency election for which the incumbent SDSM was better prepared, especially considering that Kedev was a political unknown and would have needed months to be introduced to the public. SDSM leader Crvenkovski jumped at the chance to become president of Macedonia, and that fateful decision is what led to his party’s lasting malaise.

In Macedonia, an incoming president is supposed to relinquish leadership of or activity in any political party. Crvenkovski, however, quit in name only, never relinquishing his iron grip behind the scenes. Throughout the rest of SDSM’s troubled mandate, the government was characterized by infighting, frequent cabinet shake-ups and open disputes, which benefited only the nationalist opposition and Crvenkovski himself. Broadly speaking, the political dynamic between 2002 and 2006 saw a confused growth and retraction process, as SDSM stalwarts and other left-oriented politicians came and went, forming and dissolving splinter parties, being excommunicated and allowed to return to the fold- a phenomenon still being witnessed right now. While the party’s bickering was very much in the public eye, President Crvenkovski could wash his hands of the whole matter, as he was (nominally, at least) no longer involved in party politics.

This period was so decisive for events today, though no one has made this point, because the death of President Trajkovski forced something unnatural in Macedonia’s political progression. Whereas with most previous election the relevant parties underwent the typical transformations, leadership changes and reassessments that one would expect in a democratic state, this did not happen in the case of SDSM. Crvenkovski’s 2004 decision to prolong his personal political career through at least 2009 by becoming Macedonian president, and the ambiguity that this decision would have for party leadership, deferred indefinitely the sort of transformative period that is required for parties to remain relevant, anywhere in the world.

The Conservative Transformation after 2003

On the other hand, the purged VMRO-DPMNE under Gruevski became a totally different party than before. Although it had previously been partly reformed in 1998, with some foreign assistance, the 2003-2006 transformation was much more organized and focused, and its growth coincided with larger world developments.

The year after losing the 2002 elections, the International Republican Institute (along with the National Democratic Institute and several European peers, at the time the biggest democracy-building NGO in Macedonia) was involved with a study entitled Why We Lost. The booklet implied suggestions for the nationalist party’s future course. The new VMRO-DPMNE leadership, cleansed of the stigma of nationalist charges that had plagued the Georgievski government, developed its relations with conservative parties and NGOs in the US and Germany. Helpfully, George W. Bush, a Republican, was in office and had been a strong supporter and personal friend of the late President Trajkovski. With ideological allies in Europe and America, and a fractious incumbent government that did not make similar alliances with counterpart foreign political organizations on any meaningful level, the stars were aligned for a competitive center-right party to emerge in Macedonia.

Key Aspects of a Transformed Party

This internal transformation was marked by three key aspects. Understanding these points is vital for any understanding of how the ruling and opposition parties haven taken such wildly differing paths since 2003.

The first point was internal party discipline. The contemporaneous Bush administration was famous for its compartmentalization, discipline and lack of leaks. VMRO-DPMNE (no doubt, also noting how the incumbent SDSM was leaking like a sieve) saw the benefit of this. This defining characteristic has marked the party during its current period of rule since 2006. This has been aided by a relatively low personnel turnover in key positions. Despite having held three parliamentary elections since then, cabinet shuffles have been fewer in comparison to the upheaval that SDSM underwent in a single four-year mandate.

The second key aspect was that of political platform- arguably, the most important of all. This is where American structural input proved essential, together with indispensable German advice on where a center-right party in a state aspiring to join the EU should stand on issues. Previously, VMRO-DPMNE had lacked solidly fixed positions and made occasional disastrous policy mistakes (like the recognition of Taiwan) that affected their credibility. But as the party transformed into its new incarnation from 2003 onwards, it developed a platform with typical conservative positions on family, abortion, religion, national security, foreign investment, financial policy, taxation and so on. This was a platform that won the party few friends among American and European liberals, but it was at least a platform, which was an improvement. For the first time, the party offered a comprehensible and specific issues-based agenda that could demonstrably be compared with those of similar parties in other democratic countries.

SDSM, on the other hand, remained mired in its leadership and personnel intrigue and was stuck with the thankless task of implementing the toxic Ohrid Agreement. It succeeded in following EU reform instructions but did not successfully create a recognizable political platform, and has not to this day. Knowing what the party stands for specifically or who is in or out of it changes seemingly by the week. This is not a successful formula for political competition.

The third key aspect VMRO-DPMNE learned from its high-level foreign interactions was the benefit of using and interpreting polls and statistics, as well as media saturation with a constant repetition of their platform. These are tactics which are taught in college courses and accepted as common tools in a political party’s arsenal everywhere on earth. In conspiracy-prone Macedonia, on the other hand, it is depicted by opponents as a sign of some dark and ominous campaign to propagandize the citizenry. But while often criticized as boring, the party’s recitation of its achievements compared with its agenda through the media does tell the public that they are getting what they voted for.

The Party Tested: 2006 Elections and Beyond

The cumulative result of this was the foregone conclusion that Branko Crvenkovski no doubt saw clearly in 2004, when he jumped ship on his own party in the only way that was both honorable and profitable (i.e., becoming president of Macedonia). He would thus be spared the ignominy of having to lead his party to a second defeat in parliamentary elections that loomed only two years ahead. It should be remembered that a second defeat since 1998 would have put his leadership of SDSM going forward into question, as newer and arguably more adept challengers were then emerging and were supported by certain Western diplomats.

In the 2006 campaign, VMRO-DPMNE ran on its agenda, and blamed the SDSM for the perceived lack of economic and political progress in the country. The incumbents, for their part, did not have a discernable agenda and were hampered by the widespread view among Macedonians that aspects of the Ohrid Agreement – most contentiously, the territorial decentralization bill that the late President Trajkovski had refused to sign – were detrimental to the state, and would lead to eventual ethnic federalization or worse. The unpopularity of DUI’s retired ‘freedom fighters’ among average Macedonians also made it difficult for SDSM to campaign credibly with their incumbent coalition partners. And, as so often happens, people just wanted a change.

Assuring Security

The new government led by VMRO-DPMNE included a number of smaller parties and the ethnic Albanian DPA (whose members had engaged in violent election clashes with DUI members, blemishing the country’s international reputation). The ruling party put into practice everything that had marked its reformation. Unlike their SDSM predecessors, the Gruevski government ran a tight ship, was highly efficient, and minimized leaks, learning from the example set by the Bush administration in America. Crucially for his own safety, Gruevski gave high positions in the counterintelligence and customs administrations to cousins Saso and Vladimir Mijalkov. Crvenkovski, on the other hand, had always chosen party friends or other allies for such positions. In a small and tribal Balkan society, trust is a rare and valuable commodity, and it is unsurprising that Gruevski would make such a decision. SDSM has frequently characterized such appointments as nepotism, but no one has ever considered the logic of the decision in the specific context of Macedonia.

A popular-culture narrative perception of trend deriving from specific historical events may have influenced Gruevski’s decision, though this has never been confirmed. The Mijalkov brothers’ father, Jordan Mijalkov, had been Macedonia’s first interior minister when he died in a mysterious 1991 car crash in Serbia. Four years later, President Gligorov was almost assassinated by a bomb that left him blind in one eye. In 2004, President Trajkovski died in a plane crash which many Macedonians suspected and still suspect was no accident. And God knows how many other Balkan political leaders have been targeted (Milosevic, by MI6) or killed (Djindjic, by criminals). In this context, it is not hard to understand why anyone stepping into power in such a place would immediately move to ensure their personal safety.

It is not known whether Gruevski also shared the popular perception of a narrative of violence against leaders in Macedonia. But it is fact that in 2006, the incoming prime minister was up against two potentially dangerous forces: Crvenkovski, popularly dubbed “a wolf in fox’s clothing,” who as president oversaw the foreign intelligence agency and had numerous powerful business and political allies elsewhere; and DUI, the former Albanian paramilitary party with strong Kosovo connections, a group who were very angry that Gruevski had chosen ethnic rivals DPA for the new coalition, despite that the latter had won fewer votes than had the DUI.

In this context, it becomes very reasonable to assume that a fledgling Macedonian prime minister who had available guaranteed resources to assure personal and national security would utilize these. Since 2006, Macedonia has generally enjoyed domestic stability, multi-ethnic police operations have occurred, (now) two ethnic Albanians have served as defense ministers, and there is increasing cooperation with Western countries and agencies in military, intelligence and police capacities.

The Agenda in Practice

After 2006 elections, the new prime minister concentrated on executing the bold new agenda. It also quickly became apparent that he would not be nearly as malleable as the West had assumed when observing his ascendancy to VMRO-DPMNE party leadership in 2003.

Again following conservative American and German examples, the VMRO-DPMNE became highly focused, compartmentalized and more adept in using statistics, poll data and media saturation to remind the public of their agenda. Perhaps following the example of Tony Blair in Britain, Gruevski emphasized his supposed frugality and down-to-earth character by dwelling in a small apartment. His hard-working nature was also played up, with the public shown how he would typically work until at least midnight every day. Most of all, the specific issue that the prime minister and his cabinet focused on was attracting foreign investment, and this has remained the same today. Since 2006, Gruevski has wagered his entire government on the investment-first policy, which was a daring venture since results would need time to manifest. This impetus has led to some hasty decisions and mistakes but overall as of 2013 the government still finds the results more positive than negative and promotes the policy heavily.

A large part of this policy was the announcement of the Invest in Macedonia campaign, which resulted in the creation of new offices in strategic world cities. The conduct of this campaign and its expense has been criticized by the opposition, so the government tends to cite new investors when they pop up to show that the policy is working. At very least, the outreach has led to numerous new contacts in previously unexploited investor markets, which can have political implications too in terms of foreign support for the government.

This is manifesting today in heavily-promoted investment schemes from countries as distant as America, Qatar and India. Turkey is also an increasingly important investor, China provided the city’s imitation London double-decker buses, and Russian leaders talk of including Macedonia in the South Stream pipeline project. At the same time, Western aid programs and NGO funders are leaving for the more lucrative markets of the war-torn Middle East and Africa. It is clear that in the current global financial climate, Macedonia’s economic development is going to be influenced by non-Western powers, and this cannot fail to have some political ramifications as well.

Along with developing more economic ties and institutionalizing the investment agency, the nationalist party also acted to its advantage by passing a law creating three parliamentary seats for persons from the diaspora. Since such people are (in the case of any country) often more nationalistic than the nationalists at home, this essentially guaranteed that VMRO-DPMNE candidates will win these seats for the foreseeable future. To this the opposition could only argue over technicalities, since it would have been unpatriotic to prevent diaspora Macedonians and Albanians from voting.

The Development of a Macedonian Lobby

The ruling party has also benefited from these foreign connections with the contemporaneous development of an effective Macedonian diaspora organization. The United Macedonian Diaspora has in only a few short years proved invaluable in getting Macedonian issues on the agendas of lawmakers and diplomats around the world. Initially, the group received a partial three-year grant from (and currently shares an office with) the Turkish Coalition of America in Washington. For the Turkey lobby, their Macedonian allies are useful self-starters who can help counterbalance the power of their own rivals (the Greek, Cypriot and Armenian lobbies). The Turks have worked together with the Macedonians on educational issues. The UMD lobbying activities are bearing results in the steady increase in membership of the new Macedonian congressional caucus in the US, and the frequent announcement of new regional branches.

While it has less influence than the long-established Greek lobby, the Macedonian diaspora is putting constant attention on its interests and (as an unabashed nationalist organization) can frequently do so in ways that are more right of the ruling right-wing party in Skopje. An example was the UMD’s call for the abolition of the 1995 Interim Agreement with Greece, after the latter violated it by vetoing Macedonian NATO membership in 2008. As has historically been the case with Macedonian conservative parties, the lobby also tends to have strong Republican contacts, though it is aware of the need to attract bipartisan support. By banding together with Turkey, it can afford to do things previously impossible and that even the government would have difficulty doing, such as when it brought several congressional staffers to Skopje in 2012 as part of a larger trip to Turkey. (In a press release of early 2013, the TCA announced that it had become the fourth-largest funder of Congressional travel in 2012).

The existence of a diaspora lobby development thus broadly favors the ruling party’s interests as they are similar with what patriotic diaspora Macedonians support. At the same time, however, the lobby’s national unity principles mean that it is obliged on the domestic front to call for dialogue and moderation, as in the current political crisis. This is broadly contiguous with the State Department’s modus operundi, meaning that the latter don’t quite know what to do with these nationalist-but-moderate diaspora Macedonians. It is a frustrating conundrum for State Department officials personally opposed to the Gruevski government.

History, Archeology and Urban Construction

As a center-right party, the VMRO-DPMNE also took an interest in something that is associated more with European conservative parties than with American ones- history and archeology (possibly, this discrepancy is because America’s history is so short). Again, in the interest of context, it should be remembered that when SDSM came to power in 2002, the incoming culture minister, a theater director, openly declared that his mandate would focus on culture that was ‘living, not dead.’ Thus until 2006 archeologists were largely sidelined and Macedonia’s rich historical past ignored. Perceiving the need to restore balance thus definitely played a part in the government’s 2006 decision to promote national heritage by devoting unprecedented funds for archeological digs. Since focusing on history would be normal for any European conservative party, this should come as no surprise- especially considering Macedonia’s unique case, by which its historical heritage and identity remains challenged by neighbors Greece and Bulgaria on a daily basis.

This unique situation proved beneficial for the conservative party. It could then proceed to execute contiguous projects like the Skopje 2014 urban transformation, which has generated controversy, withering attacks from the left, and a tendency among bemused foreign sociologists and pundits to infer symbolic meaning and interpret the unique psyche of this strange sample population. The project has led to plenty of lazy journalism, inspired searching PhD theses, spawned nervous seminars on architectural rightness and led foreign diplomats to fits of hyperventilation. But while people focus on, say, symbolic ownership of terrain with statues of Alexander the Great, they ignore marks of real ownership, as with the towering new T-Mobile building nearby. Nor are historical newspaper clippings from the time of other European historical construction urban plans of the past ever referenced, though such an endeavor might reveal similar patterns of discourse from opposition parties (cost of project, aesthetic taste of project, relative value, of project, etc.) in those places at times of urban renewal.

Instead, foreign journalists have become so accustomed to displaying their own sense of social superiority in prose that they have ignored the real issues associated with Skopje 2014, such as the more expensive accompanying ‘Albanian’ square which is presently being built across the river (in Macedonia, ethnic coalitions always share). It will cross over a major artery and reach the university and national library. Assessing what this means for future traffic patterns, potential symbolic and other constructions there, and the potential for protests reaching past the church, the Vero mall, the National Bank, the bus/train stations and into the Aerodrom neighborhood are not yet of interest to intelligence agencies, let alone journalists.

Again for some context, it should be remembered that the whole concept of a symbolic statue program was in fact started by the Albanians, and Macedonian nationalists thus see a corrective element in their current actions. Not long after the war, a whole NLA memorial site was built near the village of Slupcane, north of Kumanovo, which offended Macedonians ethnically cleansed from the area by the NLA. Little children going to school in Tearce, near Tetovo, are greeted every morning by a statue of a heavily-armed NLA ‘freedom fighter.’ The soon to be ex-mayor of Struga, Ramiz Merko of DUI, began his mandate by promising to erect a statue of a dubious ‘Commander Djoni’ whose actual military experience was uncertain at best (the UNDP head at the time reportedly told Merko that all funding for his city would be cut if the project went ahead). Most famously, in 2005, DUI erected the statue of national hero Skenderbeg on horseback, near the Mavrovka shopping mall and the area that will become the new ‘Albanian’ square.

The Battle for Strategic Influence

At bottom, what this all amounts to is a phenomenon that predated the current government and that will outlive it, and in time be known as the largely silent but determined struggle to achieve strategic objectives in the city of Skopje. Involved are not only Macedonians and Albanians, but also foreign companies and governments. Taken together, the cumulative developments in this light are of a much broader nature, far more significant than the current government’s project on its own. Thus assessing the latter alone without this larger context risks missing the bigger picture of what is at stake.

Part of this seems driven by other historical precedents. The new United States Embassy, for example, is a massive structure overlooking the city from an isolated ridge- just down from where the Turks once reigned at the Kale Fortress. Over the years locals and foreigners alike have constantly remarked at its size and locations, with staff cracking jokes about the supposed ‘15 underground floors’ rumored by conspiratorial local media. The official explanation is that its bulk owes to a post-9/11 directive from the Bush administration to create more secure embassies. Certainly, in the case of future ethnic turbulence, the US will have achieved that objective.

The expansion of large shopping malls is another phenomenon noted in recent years, with the first of those (Turkish-owned Ramstor) actually predating the current government. Although it is not clear where all the new shoppers will come from, this is apparently seen as a good enough business that larger European entities (most recently, Carrefour) have decided to move in to the newest construction, Skopje City Mall in Karpos. Alas, rumors of Starbuck’s entering the country – which cynics would see as guaranteeing Macedonia’s future stability – did not materialize there. The Greek supermarket chain Vero, the first to have come on the scene years ago, now has four locations in Skopje. The municipality of Aerodrom awaits a promised Turkish investment of unprecedented scale- a 30-story shopping and commercial mall.

Part of the government’s building program of the past few years has also looked to national strategic interests in building prestige. Previous to the construction of the president’s expansive Villa Vodno, the national president had occupied the proverbial broom closet in the parliament. And the ministry of foreign affairs had been in an uninspiring rented building. Developing the new presidential palace and the under-construction MFA building is a means of leveraging influence and increasing national visibility. Currently, President Ivanov hosts numerous foreign delegations at the Villa on a regular basis and this setting leaves a much better impression on the country (and results in better press photos, too). But since so much of the focus of criticizing construction in Skopje has centered on ‘antiquization’ and historical issues, people tend to ignore the subtle but functional underlying aspects.

A social trend with significance for the future is the pattern of expansion of Albanian and Macedonian presences across the city. The tired depiction of Skopje as a city ‘ethnically-divided by a river’ is less relevant today than ever. Albanian voices can be heard everywhere, and increasingly affluent Albanians looking to escape the chaotic clutter of their own run-down neighborhoods move or work in traditionally Macedonian areas. At the same time, Skopje’s Ottoman old town, the Carsija, has become more contested in recent years. In the 1990s, this picturesque area was popular for dining and nightlife but after the war became less frequented by Macedonians, and while not unsafe at night, it was also not very lively.

This changed when a Macedonian-Canadian businessman opened several drinking and music establishments around 2008 that helped make the area a fun option for Macedonians and foreign tourists alike. And more and more Turkish culture and music can be heard in the area now too. As of 2012 there was even an American-owned bakery in the Albanian-majority neighborhood. Local Albanians are starting to come around to the idea of tourism development too, with some investment from the local (DUI-controlled) government.

These developments challenge the notion that the two ethnicities cannot coexist peacefully, with the ‘danger of ethnic tensions’ long having been one of the SDSM’s favorite talking points for justifying why it should be returned to power. The only really important question is whether the pace of modernization will be sufficiently quick to bring the city’s Albanian population to a point where aggressive nationalist protests no longer can attract significant followings. This depends largely on trends in technology, education, urbanization and consumerism, and whether the Albanian political parties and Islamic factions choose to display more maturity in how they manage their internecine power struggles. It has basically nothing to do with the Macedonians.

Outsmarting the Opposition: Absorption of Leftist Issues

Returning to political developments after 2006, it is important to remember that the VMRO-DPMNE not only advanced its own issues, it also appropriated those more commonly associated with the left such as the environment, youth issues, social benefits for women and the elderly, and even economic policy. In short, almost everything typically associated with a left-wing party like SDSM was instead appropriated by its conservative rivals, in ways that made it incredibly difficult for the opposition to attack without making it appear as if it was acting against national interests.

This reality has caused incredible frustration among SDSM members who feel that whatever they say they will be depicted as unpatriotic; the political mistake they typically make then is to attack the concept of patriotism itself rather than critically assess why they failed to capitalize on specific issues that should have been theirs from the beginning.

This trend has thus continually backfired on SDSM in recent years and added to the party’s pre-existing reputation for cynicism and blue-blooded elitism. The SDSM criticized the government’s plan to give mothers with three children or more an annual stipend, but did not give any better ideas for alleviating rural poverty. The government also took on youth issues through modernizing orphanages, refurbishing the city zoo, and particularly through a focus on sport, with the building of the modern Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall, the refurbishment of Skopje’s swimming pools, and an increased highlighting of the national teams in different sports.

The last has become one of the biggest derivative successes of the ruling party’s policy because the opposition, in publicly disavowing the Skopje 2014 project as excessive nationalism, has also disassociated itself from displays of national pride associated with sports. Thus opportunities were handed to the government to take advantage of positive outbursts of public sentiment, for example when organizing the parade and celebration for the men’s basketball team when it finished fourth in the European Championships (and would have done better, save for some dubious calls by the referees). While the opposition party offered congratulations it could not take credit, and was yet again frozen out of Macedonian life’s great feast.

Additionally, while there have been plenty of specific cases about which the left wing could have attacked the weakness of any particular investment project for environmental reasons, they have failed to do so. On the other hand, the ruling party was receptive to ideas such as that of renowned opera singer Boris Trajanov, who envisioned an annual tree-planning event for the sake of ecology several years back. The whole thing was particularly amusing because even leftist ambassadors who despised the government had to grit their teeth and get on board, because this was the kind of cause they were supposed to support ideologically.

Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, the government has merged economic policies associated with both conservatives (such as low taxation and foreign investment incentives) as well as liberals (like state subsidies for industry and public spending to fuel growth) in implementing its agenda and steering clear of the economic malaise all around it. In a campaign comment, Prime Minister Gruevski recently said that the Skopje 2014 project would be ‘extended to 2017’ in the sense that urban renewal of smaller cities and towns will be executed. In short, there are no typically conservative ‘austerity measures’ here (the kind that are ruining EU countries at the moment). Already, the overhaul in Skopje has proved infectious, with mayors in Prilep, Bitola and Strumica vying to outdo one another by beautifying public spaces.

The government defends this economic policy by arguing that public spending on construction and other initiatives is pumping more cash into the economy as workers spend it, and that subsidies for farmers have helped boost exports. Whether this is sustainable in the long-term is unknown, though up to now Macedonia has escaped the crisis largely unscathed, while just to the south previously affluent Greeks are foraging for scrap metal to sell to crime rackets in order to survive. The Macedonia government’s investment outreach to non-European countries may help it diversify exports and investments and make sure that it remains stable going forward.

SDSM Policy and Leadership Failure

To put it simply, since 2006 elections SDSM has engaged in only two things on a regular basis: opposing governmental policies and proposals out of hand, and complaining to international diplomats and media. Having plenty of free time on their hands has allowed opposition figures to make some progress on this front, especially with leftist true believers. However, the continued volatility of the party has seen members come and go to the extent that it is not only unclear what SDSM stands for, it very often is not clear who is even in the party at any given moment. As such, ideas for possible corrective initiatives (such as the very British tradition of opposition parties forming a ‘shadow cabinet’ to highlight their platforms) remain impossible to implement, though they have been discussed.

Again, to a large extent this result is the outcome of the events of 2004. Whereas VMRO-DPMNE shed its skin and emerged as a new party, SDSM was kept in a sort of purgatory; while nominal leaders came and went, it remained under Crvenkovski’s tacit control while he occupied the national presidential office until 2009. During the local and parliamentary elections of 2005, 2006 and 2008, Crvenkovski was not (at least not officially) in charge of the party. This was precisely the period in which the young leadership of the SDSM should have displaced the old guard.

Instead, Crvenkovski’s ‘absent presence’ ensured that there would be no clear successor, and thus that he could return to the party in 2009; knowing that he would not likely win a national presidential re-election campaign by that point, he would not even try. In the interim elections, some people were put in charge of races or campaigns in which there was little chance of SDSM winning, to damage their credibility but keep them without other options.

That is what happened to people like Radmila Sekerinska, who for a time seemed to represent a new generational leader. Another young hopeful, the popular Strumica mayor Zoran Zaev, who unquestionably has done good things for his city, was given the ‘kiss of death’ by Crvenkovski when he received a presidential pardon from corruption charges levied by the government, thus preventing him from having to publicly clear his name and probably become more popular in the process. These are the tactics of internal political control used in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and today Crvenkovski is among the last practitioners of the craft.

And so not only did Crvenkovski’s ascendancy to state president in 2004 hinder his party’s transformation then, it has also traumatized and damaged the first generation of young leaders after him, reifying the total cynicism that has always marked it, meaning that the party now has to look even further down in its depth chart. However, after years of isolation from power and the Balkan patronage system that typically replenishes party viability, SDSM has no depth. It has fewer members, less money, and as such is forced to make various compromises, to rely on local personalities with dubious underworld ties, and to be defended by hacks who have always been public apologists for the party and thus have zero credibility among average Macedonians.

Tactical Successes and Failures in Media Issues

During the 2006-2013 period, the SDSM’s tendency to criticize government decisions out of hand and to side with anyone who is opposed to the government has succeeded with foreign media and diplomats, largely because the people they approach share their ideology and prejudices. In the big picture, the SDSM has been much more successful at winning support internationally because it has had a head start since the 1990s (several prominent foreign Balkan pundits over a certain age tend to sympathize with it), and because historically it has spent more energy on the foreign media than has its nationalist rivals. The leftists have developed good contacts abroad and generally continue to show greater interest in foreign-language media than the ruling party, though the gap might shrink due to the efforts of the aforementioned diaspora lobby, which advocates for Macedonia as a country and therefore supports whatever the country’s government of the day has on its platform. And, as stated above, the lobby has not tried to adjudicate in the domestic party squabbles but rather taken the high road by urging all parties to work together for national unity.

Nevertheless, the foreign media efforts of the ruling party itself continue to be characterized by caution and to focus particularly on business- and investment-related topics. The prime minister and other top leaders do not seem keen on wide-ranging interviews in foreign media, and comments from officials are carefully monitored. Perhaps this has something to do with the original formula for government unity based on Bush Administration strategy, but the drawback is that it does make the party seem rather dour. There may be a confidence issue here, as government officials seem much more relaxed when speaking before domestic media and in their own language than they had abroad and in English.

Domestically, SDSM’s tendency has backfired several times in the local media, where its support has gradually dwindled to a few party hacks. One of them recently admitted what everyone already knew – that the neo-liberal Soros Foundation directly subsidizes NGOs and related interests (the longtime head of the Soros Foundation in Macedonia, Vladimir Milcin, was previously on the SDSM executive board). An interesting contemporary issue with Soros-funded NGOs and media throughout the Balkans is the current frustration from a generation of persons who have over the years developed a sense of entitlement, having received constant funding infusions from the NGO internationale.

However, now that there are more lucrative conflict zones elsewhere in the world, these bodies are leaving their Balkan protégés high and dry. This is being perceived in direct political terms, and ironically not always by the nationalists; as one SDSM Central Committee official tells Balkanalysis.com, “if Soros wanted, he could help us overthrow the regime… but he only gives one million euros a year now!”

The most significant single miscalculation of public support that SDSM has made involved the case of A1 TV media mogul Velija Ramkoski. Turning the controversial businessman’s alleged tax evasion troubles into a sort of crusade for free speech, the party held protests and vigils in front of his station headquarters and the government, while petitioning all the foreign diplomats. Sympathetic reporters were sent to press conferences outside the government building where they would bark wildly at Prime Minister Gruevski, inches from his face, about the supposed lack of free media. Then they reported all this through… the media.

The party overestimated the support that Ramkoski had both with the public and crucially, international diplomats. What SDSM failed to understand was that the majority of people recognized Ramkoski as a businessman, not an ideals-driven martyr for free speech. They also failed to appreciate that he had made enough enemies among local and foreign businessmen that few outside of his own family were prepared to defend him. Regular people could not take the whole thing seriously, recalling Ramkoski’s failed run for parliament and that he had seemed to have been on the side of the government, running emotive black-and-white photos of the 19th-century Macedonian revolutionaries when national fervor was at its peak, after the Greek veto at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit. Whatever falling out the two sides may have subsequently had was assuredly not related to lofty issues of free speech.

In retrospect, it appears that SDSM was partially banking on the popularity of A1 as an entertainment medium, and thus that loss of access to it would anger the public. What actually happened was that the wildly popular Turkish soap operas that had become the station’s flagship programs over the previous two years simply migrated to other stations. The big advertisers like the telecom companies and international brands moved to other stations too. And allegedly persecuted A1 journalists simply found jobs in other media or, in two cases, became ‘independent’ parliamentarians. The only things that stopped were the advertisements for Ramkoski-related business interests.

The typical coverage of the whole A1 episode has missed some subtle but important points. The station was indeed the most-watched in Macedonia at the time. But this was arguably due to its often sensationalistic news coverage, better-than-average Hollywood film selection, prominent European football matches and the all-important Turkish shows. Today, the generally pro-government (but less sensationalistic) Sitel TV airs the most popular Turkish serials. As was the case with A1, it typically bookends evening news programs with these programs, drawing more people of a certain demographic to watch their news programs, because they want to be on the right channel when the show starts.

In the bigger picture, it is thus the entertainment tastes of the larger Macedonian public that dictates the impact of news media and pricing of advertising. This is not some profound mystery and it has nothing to do with media freedom. In fact, since the demise of A1 (which was reborn as a website), innumerable new TV stations have been opened and the popular TV and internet packages offered by companies like Germany’s T-Home provide access to dozens of channels from numerous countries, far more than at any time before. Adding the internet into the picture as a source of news, it becomes clear that media influence in Macedonia will depend less and less on any single media body in the future. As it becomes more and more dissipated, media influence will also become less easy for political parties to control.

Finally, it should be said in this context that there has been significant foreign interference in domestic media over the years from outside parties, including the EU, US and individual countries. All of these attempts have failed to professionalize journalism, though they have allowed foreign powers a certain degree of local influence. This has created a situation in which the free market does not dictate the viability of a publication, as many (such as the former German WAZ holdings) have operated at a substantial loss. As one now retired European diplomat professed for Balkanalysis.com, “our embassy funded a total of 43 programs for local media over the years. All of them failed.” This is less an indictment of local media capability than of those who believe that it should be manipulated for their own outside interests.

Conclusions

Macedonia’s contemporary political and social developments did not happen overnight and one must be careful to separate the real formative trends from emotive and uninformed characterizations of short-term phenomena or events.

Foreigners especially have long had a tendency to believe that Balkan history begins at the time of their personal interaction with it. It is something we have all experienced over time, yet serious analysts consider and try to learn from this observation.

Since the previous two months have seen some of the all-around dumbest foreign media pieces on Macedonia in recent memory, it is hoped that the present study will provide educational for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Macedonia, and possibly therefore to understand where it is headed and why.

……………….………………………………………….……..

*The author is director of Balkanalysis.com and has monitored Macedonian political developments as the Economist Intelligence Unit field expert in Macedonia, on a monthly basis, for the past nine years.

 

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A Balkan Trial by Fire

By Chris Deliso

Brief overnight showers in Macedonia offered a temporary reprieve from weeks of relentless heat that have contributed to a surge in forest fires, as is common in summer- both here and in other regional countries. While overcast skies last week seemed to augur rainfall most nights, in the end there was no precipitation- only lightning strikes that were blamed by authorities for at least one blaze.

During several days this week, the skies over Skopje were busy with military and police helicopters en route to battling blazes in border villages and inaccessible mountain ranges. However, while the fires have reportedly started to abate, shifting and intense winds keep firefighters occupied, and vast acres of desolation are left where forests once stood, here and in other regional countries.

Despite the typically arid weather that makes the Balkans eternally susceptible to forest fires, the majority of cases can be blamed on the human factor. Both intentionally and unintentionally, people still cause fires in the region, something that has implications for everything from the environment and economy to human security and international politics.

The failure to proactively address this problem, on a national and international level, remains a frustration which tends to dissipate as temperatures cool, though it is a chronic and persistent one. It is bemoaned and lamented in summer, quickly forgotten in fall, and ignored altogether until the next year by the general public.

Nevertheless, fires do represent a common security threat, the combating of which everyone would agree to be in the common interest, any national, religious or party differences aside. In this light, fighting fires does provide one possibility for regional security cooperation, one that could unite sometimes antagonistic neighbors and help to diminish existing differences over time.

The Damage

In the summer of 2012, hundreds of fires have been registered in countries including Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Croatia. In mid-July, a large fire was also put out near the central Bulgarian historic town of Veliko Tarnovo, by Bulgarian and Macedonian firefighters. Around the same time, fires also vexed near the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, and in Bosnia.

On July 18, Greece declared a state of emergency for the country’s third-largest city, Patras in the Peloponnese, where fires led to evacuations and came within 6 miles of the city. In southern Greece and in Crete, some 75 fires were reported at that time, with planes grounded in the cash-strapped country and the government forced to ask for help from the EU. By July 20, other blazes had impacted the capital itself, and the new Minister for Citizen Protection, Nikos Dendias, was cited as saying that Greece “was not ready for the forest fire season and faced a shortage of operational aircraft,” while “the government has already asked for water-bombing aircraft from Spain and Italy to help control the wildfires.”

On July 24, two Macedonian firemen died trying to put out a blaze near Strumica, which burned 50 acres of land. Another firefighter was killed in the line of duty in Croatia, where fires were burning in Istria, on Rab and Mljet islands, near Pula in the northern Adriatic and Sibenik in Dalmatia, reported the Croatian Times. All in all, in Croatia 1,400 tourists had to be evacuated, adding to the multi-million-euro economic losses.

On August 3, fires continued near the Macedonian villages of Dolno Dupeni, Grupcin and Nivicino. On August 8, three hotels had to be evacuated in Kardamaina, on the Greek island of Kos, opposite Turkey, when a fire broke out. Fires at the same time also erupted in Korinthos and Megalopoli in the agricultural Peloponnese, forcing highway closures, and on the northern Greek peninsula of Athos (as will be discussed further below). At the same time in Bulgaria, over 300 fires, mostly in the southern Rhodopi Mountain area, were reported by police as having been put out.

Although Macedonia has taken efforts to re-organize its fire protection services, this could not help prevent the most tragic of recent blazes, in the nature reserve of Jasen, from the southern (Makedonski Brod) side. This vast wilderness area houses rare endemic species and attracts tourists and hunters, while also doubling as a rural retreat for the president and high-level guests. The park is one of the most actively-managed in the country. In introducing new measures to combat fires, the government has announced that people must avoid certain wooded areas.  As of August 17, planes were still trying to douse the flames here and elsewhere in the country.

Causes and Implications

As elsewhere in the world, simple carelessness – such as a dropped cigarette butt – is a factor in many fires in the Balkans. Insufficient education and poor practices, such as the custom of burning trash (including plastics) can cause great unintended damage when fires grow out of control, as was seen in the Strumica fire.Yet there is no Balkan Smoky the Bear, no media or educational campaigns on any meaningful level today.

Farmers burning fields for crops can also cause problems if winds change and fire spreads. Macedonian authorities also accuse people wishing to cover up illegal logging sites by burning land, and even using fire to hasten the growth of a certain kind of valuable mushroom, which can then be sold.

Fires are also set for deliberate reasons, unfortunately. These range from simple malevolence to calculated gain- such as burning forested areas to make space for construction later on. The latter has been frequently pointed out in the case of Greece in recent years.

Wildfires in the Balkans cause millions of euros in damages each year. Another economic aspect of forest fires in the Balkans is their perceived usefulness for business growth or, in other words, greed. A few years ago, back when Costas Karamanlis was still in power, dramatic wildfires that raged in the hills over Athens and singed the edges of the city were presented as the work of greedy property developers looking to clear space for construction in high-value areas near the Greek capital.

At the time, the prime minister vowed that the land would be restored to its original existence as a forest. However, with Greece in the throes of austerity measures and an uncertain economic future, in which a cheap land grab from outside investors is expected through 2013, it is unclear whether Karamanlis’ promise will be respected.

Diplomatic and National Security Implications

There are more high-level state security aspects to fire and its legendary nature in the Balkans, too. At the end of 2011, a former Turkish prime minister made waves when he hinted that Turkish intelligence had used arson as a tactical weapon against Greek islands during the tense period in 1995-96 between the countries.

The former prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, told the Turkish media Birgun that this had occurred, but later claimed he had been misinterpreted. As was recounted in the Balkanalysis.com 2011 Year in Review e-book, this disclosure caused a wave of indignation from Athens, but also a cryptic warning from Leonidas Vasilikopoulos, the former Greek intelligence chief, who noted that the timing of the statement should be factored in as well when assessing the claim. Yet Vasilikopoulos did state that the NIS had suspected Turkish attacks at the time but had no proof.

The Greeks have previously accused Turkey of setting fires in Greek territory to cause economic losses, out of intimidation or sheer spite. Facing the islands, the outlying Anatolian peninsulas are heavily if covertly militarized, though there is no real need for complicated covert operations in order to cause trouble. It would be a relatively simple procedure for a Turkish ‘tourist’ to take the daily ferry to, say, Samos, set fires and return home in time for dinner, simply traveling on regular civilian ferries. Greek experts have also alleged that Turkey pays illegal immigrants to set fires in Greece, however, this is also hard to prove.

National security issues may also be involved with Greece’s latest big blaze, on August 8 near the town of Ouranoupoli, at the base of the third leg of the Halkidiki Peninsula (Athos), though with possible different antagonists involved. Fire Brigade statements cited by the Associated Press claimed that the fire started near the Serbian-sponsored Hilandariou Monastery, which suffered extensive fire damage in 2004 and is still being renovated. The present fire destroyed at least 3,700 acres of forest.

According to GreekReporter.com on August 11, authorities “were searching for a suspected arsonist from Lithuania” who had been staying at one of the Mt Athos monasteries and had disappeared. Fortunately, the fire did not damage the historic monasteries but it did cause damage in the Ouranoupoli area and resulted in temporary evacuations.

Subsequent information gathered by Balkanalysis.com indicates that the man was a seasonal worker staying on Athos, and that his motive remains unknown, while police are also on the lookout for a Georgian citizen also believed to be involved with the fire, which blotted out the sun and left a smoky scent in the air as far west as Kassandra (the first of the three Halkidiki pensinsulas).

Greek authorities have not stated whether either of the men were directly responsible or what their motivation could have been. While religious pilgrims are given one free night of accommodation per monastery with a mandated stay of four days (though this can be extended with the permission of the individual monasteries), seasonal workers are typically occupied at a specific monastery for odd jobs over a longer period of time.

Entry to the monastic part of the Athonite Peninsula is strictly regulated, with all who enter having to provide full passport information in advance in order to get the diamonitirion (entrance permit).

Entry is made by ferry only and, given the depth of woods, it is unlikely that a perpetrator would try to escape overland after setting a fire. The ferry stop for Hilandariou is one of the closest to the Ouranoupoli side of the peninsula, meaning that it would afford the quickest means of escape back to ‘civilization’ on one of the daily ferries, though one first has to take the bumpy access road to get to from the monastery to its port.

Diplomatic, Security and Political Aspects of Balkan Wildfires

The relative inability of individual states to deal proactively with forest fires on their own has also left room for other international actors to use the issue as an opportunity to project power in the region.

For example, a recent SETimes.com article noted that Russia is using its air force in Serbia at a joint base for ‘civilian protection’ to aid in fire-fighting efforts. It quoted PM Ivica Dacic as saying “the Serbian-Russian Centre for quick response in case of fire, flood and earthquake is open for all countries in the region that have a need for co-operation in order to fight emergencies,” and noted that a Russian military aircraft would be stationed there from August 18. Dacic also noted that it would use “Russian ‘Kamov’ helicopters, which carry 5 to 7 tonnes of water.”

The creation of this base is old news, but the fact that Russia is contributing on a higher civilian and military level with Serbia – even though largely as a symbolic gesture – is one of those things that jolts Western diplomats; in short, it provides a very low-cost power investment for Russia in the Balkans that can be presented as an utterly magnanimous gesture.

Dealing with fires also highlights existing diplomatic differences, in sometimes unhelpful ways. For example, while Macedonia customarily pledges help to Greece in the case of fires there, such offers are declined or ignored for diplomatic reasons, even though offered aid from non-bordering states further afield – such as Serbia, Russia or Cyprus – is warmly accepted by Athens. This reaffirmation of diplomatic disdain over logistical efficiency indicates the effect of politics over the common good on a regional level.

This also has meant that non-NATO member states are playing a visible role in providing fire security, despite the fact that all the regional countries that have not already joined the alliance aspire to do so. Whether the present KFOR detachment in Kosovo would be violating its local ‘mandate’ if it were to assist in putting out regional fires is not clear, though such assistance could certainly not come at the expense of its duties in Kosovo, considering that the country has generally stabilized.

Conclusions

From the above, it can be concluded that for at least 30% of the time in any given year, national and regional security in the Balkans involves protection from fires. These fires are only predictable in general terms (i.e., that they have and will continue to occur) though not geographically. It can also be concluded that even in 2012, this clear public safety threat is still intimately linked with human greed, political and diplomatic influence, and possibly even asymmetrical warfare in some cases.

Despite the uncertainty of where and when fires will occur, therefore, the past and present pattern of activity indicates that regional states have some degree of capability, should they be so inclined, in dealing with the threat. Developing communications networks and industrial and technological capacities can help to forecast, gather intelligence and ideally pre-empt fire threats. And, while certain countries such as Serbia seek to be the epicenter of regional crisis response, long-standing rivalries and individual egos indicate that such plans would have limited success and possibly continue diplomatic divisions. A more neutral, internationalized body, or else a decentralized model, could provide a mechanism for increasing security against fires- a common enemy of anyone present in any of the regional countries.

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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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Once Classified Report Sheds Light on CIA Estimates of Cold War Yugoslavia

By Chris Deliso

A brief analysis of a once top-secret CIA report, written in 1949, provides a glimpse of US understanding of communist Yugoslavia at a pivotal moment in the Cold War- after Tito’s famous break with Stalin the year before.

In the broad sweep of contemporary history, the views expressed therein can be assessed favorably as indicating an accurate judgment of the situation at the time. The report (.PDF), dated June 20, 1949 is titled Estimate of the Yugoslav Regime’s Ability to Resist Soviet Pressure During 1949. Unfortunately, there are no references to sources, methods or US capabilities that went into crafting the report. However, those seeking in-depth reading on the American views at the time and larger context can read Coleman Armstrong Mehta’s lengthy thesis (.PDF) on CIA assessments from 1948-1950.

The 12-page estimate highlights seven key findings regarding Yugoslav security, economy and political stability. It was published for internal use only and addressed to the intelligence heads of the army, navy and air force, and the Joint Staff’s Deputy Director for Intelligence, the Special Assistance to the Secretary of State for Research and Intelligence, the Director of Security and Intelligence of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as the CIA’s Assistant Director for Collection and Dissemination. In true Cold War style, there is also a ‘burn after reading’ suggestion.

Security Findings

Tito’s break with Stalin occurred in summer 1948 and was due in part to dissimilar views on the nature of a socialist state, doubts on the transposability of certain Soviet economic models, and not least, the proud Tito’s disinterest in looking to Moscow as the seat of supreme leadership.

In this light, after the break and chill in relations (which would not thaw until Stalin’s death), there were concerns about how the Soviet strongman might act towards Yugoslavia. The most important short-term conclusion of this report was that the Soviets, and satellite states, were not expected by the CIA to engage in any direct military action against Yugoslavia during 1949, but that “border incidents against Yugoslavia will probably increase.”

The CIA also expected “a more hostile, but probably ineffective propaganda campaign” against the Yugoslavs, and added by stating that “no large-scale guerrilla warfare” would be likely to occur in 1949. In conclusion, the CIA expected that Tito’s regime “would meet no insurmountable obstacle during 1949.”

This conclusion is reached following an examination of the perceived three courses of action Stalin could follow, should he wish to topple the new Yugoslav regime. These were: use of satellite states in direct war; a Soviet invasion; or support for “organized guerrilla warfare,” which would constitute a “war of attrition.” The third was considered the most serious possibility, though still not likely.

In this context, it is striking to note that the eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s occurred with wars that began with (or featured aspects of) guerrilla fighting, particularly in the case of Kosovo. It was only the uncharted waters of the new, post-Cold War environment that made option one (in the modern example, aerial bombardment by NATO) even conceivable.

The possibility of an attack on Yugoslavia by neighboring states was dismissed by the CIA, as the Yugoslav Army was “the second-largest and second-most competent in Eastern Europe,” and could “defeat any combination of bordering satellite armies.” And the assessment also noted that a direct Soviet invasion would not succeed; “prior to any direct attack upon it, the Yugoslav Army would probably have from thirty to sixty days to regroup in the mountainous region south of the Sava and Danube rivers, thus preventing its annihilation by the USSR forces.” It was probably the intention of the authors to imply that Soviet commanders understood this as well, though it is not explicitly stated.

In 1949, the CIA estimated that Stalin would not support guerrilla fighting as it would be taken as a declaration of war by Tito. Quite interestingly, the report suggests that Tito would take “vigorous counter-measures” against any threat to his rule, including sponsoring guerrilla wars in Albania and Bulgaria, which would create “seriously difficulties, and especially for the “insecure Hoxha Government in Albania.”

Tito’s capability to withstand less dramatic, but equally hostile efforts from the Soviets was also considered in the report. The Soviets could hypothetically “infiltrate” small anti-Tito “bands” in neighboring states in order to “disseminate anti-Tito propaganda, enlist recruits, incite local insurrections, perform acts of sabotage, disrupt communications, and prepare the way for assassination of Tito and his aides.”

To this robust list of alleged capabilities, it was posited that arms, supplies and propaganda leaflets could also be dropped in by Soviet aircraft. Much from this menu of sabotage and guerrilla activities listed had in fact been used by Tito’s Partisans successfully against the Nazis.

Perceptions of the Communist Threat: Coloring Views of Macedonian Secessionism

Looking back, probably the most important theme conveyed in the CIA report seems to be that in 1949 the US understood all resistance or possible resistance to Tito in some relationship to Communism- even the ethnic and nationalist threats. This view would color the US perception of these groups for decades, leaving it from the 1960s to experts from ostensibly unrelated fields, like sociologists (something that today would be called ‘interdisciplinary’ input) to identify the ethnic and nationalist character of the opposition to Tito, that would outlive the dictator and re-emerge in dramatic fashion a decade after his death.

Rather, the 1949 report states that the primary danger of minorities in Yugoslavia was that these groups could allegedly be propagandized by the Soviets, “to overthrow the Tito regime in return for promised preferential treatment.” In other words, secessionist nationalist would somehow prefer client-state status under hardcore communism with a nationalist veneer to Tito’s light communism, which also allowed a symbolic amount of nationalism.

The once top-secret report notes that “certain minority groups” in Macedonia, Montenegro and other Yugoslav republics might aspire to overthrow Tito’s regime. The Macedonians are specifically named, though others, such as Albanians, Croats and Serbs, are not. In this light, one of the more intriguing elements of the report is the estimate that “the proclamation of an ‘independent Macedonia’ would have little success in gaining the support of any significant number of Yugoslav Macedonians.”

The CIA concluded, however, that such a proclamation was unlikely to be made, in the immediate future at least. It does not expand on where such a proclamation could be expected to come from, even if it did- from an internal Macedonian group, or from one in Bulgaria or Greece. The report also does not detail why Macedonians would not support the creation of an independent state, which leaves in doubt the reason for why it was seen as unlikely.

The CIA report also comes to a chillingly prescient conclusion: “if seriously threatened at any time in 1949 by the formation of a Macedonian state, Tito could engineer mass deportations of unreliable Macedonians to other areas in Yugoslavia. He could also cut off Yugoslav aid to the Greek guerrillas and might even come to some understanding with the Greek National Government.” The final two of these policies did occur in precise form as predicted, while the first, ‘mass deportations,’ was actually being done by the Greek Right, and accepted by Tito.

Looking at the situation through the lens of the communist threat also reveals why the CIA report dismissed any major support for a Macedonian state, from another point of view: it assessed that the Soviets’ image had been losing credibility in general among the Yugoslav public. It implies that if the nationalist-based secessionist threat was indeed fundamentally inspired by communists, perception damage suffered by the latter would adversely affect enthusiasm for the former. Of course, the historic relationship between national liberation and communist parties in this case is very complex and contentious.

The 1949 report notes that “since the beginning of the year, Yugoslav-Soviet relations have increased in hostility.” Yet despite extensive Cominform propaganda campaigns, the Soviet rhetoric was perceived as appearing more “hollow and ineffective” to the Yugoslav audience. In fact, it was argued that Soviet propaganda, ironically enough, had the effect of “rallying the extensive non-Communist population to Tito’s camp.”

Internal Communist Threats to Tito, and Secret Police Countermeasures

The CIA report estimates that, along with nationalist secessionists, Tito was also confronted with a potential threat from approximately 8,000 enemies within (2 percent of the party’s total membership)- most of whom, once again, exemplified the ‘Communist threat.’ These were comprised of: “old-line” Communists with experience in Russia, sympathetic to the Kremlin; Partisan fighters dissatisfied with their post-war rewards/jobs; and Communists who had fled (Royalist) Yugoslavia as dissident refugees before WWII, and who were repatriated after it, and thus had not participated in the Partisan resistance and lacked any loyalty to Tito.

The report goes on to reveal that such disenchanted elements “are allegedly attempting to organize active opposition to the Tito regime by concentrating on wresting control away from the army.” Tito’s countermeasures were said to include retiring disloyal persons “as a group” and “replacing known unreliables with young stalwarts.”

Intriguingly, the report adds that the UDB secret service played an instrumental role in preserving Tito’s authority, and that it in fact used some of the same tactics that were perceived as potentially being used against the regime. UDB members were “considered loyal and will provide stern counteraction to any campaign to infiltrate Cominform agents extensively, perpetrate widespread acts of sabotage, foment disturbances or insurrections, or organize assassination plots.”

In regards to any Soviet attempts to use proxy guerrilla groups from satellite states, the report also confirmed that “Tito can thwart the potential threat of such groups through his security police.” Throughout the Cold War, the UDB would gain a fearsome reputation for its efficient activities against perceived enemies of the state, both at home and in the extensive Yugoslav diaspora communities around the world.

Economic Issues and Military Assistance Projections

The CIA report, which concludes with a detailed assessment of the Yugoslav economy, also drew conclusions regarding Yugoslav economy and trade, noting that while the Soviets might entertain a strategy to force the collapse of the Yugoslav economy, any such attempt would fail due to “prevailing internal and external conditions.”

The report assessed that in any case the Soviets would not apply economic sanctions against Yugoslavia in 1949, as this would adversely affect their own imports of “strategic metals” from the country. In any case, sanctions would not “impair seriously” Yugoslavia’s general economy even if they were applied. The report noted that in the three years since 1946, Yugoslavia’s economy was rebuilding, and that grain production had approached pre-war levels, as had that of steel, non-ferrous metals, electricity, textiles and timber, with food shortages expected to be alleviated during 1949.

More negatively, however, Tito’s ‘Five-Year Plan’ for industrial expansion was viewed as “unrealistic,” with a lack of capital, Western technical assistance and trained workers hindering it, while gold reserves were low. An appetite for Western loans was noted as something expected to be increasing in the coming period.

Finally, should an emergency situation arise due to Soviet military attack, the report concludes that Western aid might be required. However, any military equipment for Yugoslavia would ideally be better provided by the West, the CIA believed, than “the means for production of such equipment.” It is not clear from this whether the report’s authors were making a case for efficiency, or outlining a long-term goal of preventing a competitive Yugoslav arms manufacture industry.

A Portrait of Tito

The CIA report also discusses Tito as a leader, though indirectly and partially. It is revealing in that its estimation of him was essentially accurate and held true far beyond 1949- thus showing that the aspiring leader would not significantly change his leadership style or chosen overarching Cold War role into the future. This assessment no doubt helped the Americans to predict the limitations of behavior and outlook of what would turn out to be an autocratic rule for decades, until Tito’s death in 1980.

In his life, Tito would become known for craftily playing “both sides,” trying to highlight his country’s advantages of being somewhere between both East and West, which would mature into the non-aligned movement. According to the 1949 report, he is “confident of Western determination to maintain him as a constant irritant to the Kremlin.”

This status, it was argued, meant also that Tito could feel assured of continued economic assistance from the West and steady imports of needed Western industrial goods. However, “following a policy of self-protection and economic self-interest, he will continue to trade with the East in certain strategic items,” it was added.

International Business Forum Brings Together Macedonian, Israeli and Regional Interests

By Chris Deliso

On 14 December, a one-day business forum organized by the Macedonian-Israeli Business Club, and featuring officials from Macedonia and other countries was held in Skopje. Along with presentations from some of the organizers and visitors, the event allowed an opportunity for businessmen to discuss their offerings together in more detail.

Although Macedonian-Israeli business ties are already developed and date back to the 1990s, the event marked the first formal meeting of its type in Skopje. There are hopes that it will become an annual event, while Macedonian participation in similar events in Israel is also expected.

The event was opened by a speech from Dejan Dejanov, President of the Macedonian-Israeli Business Club. Also speaking for the organization was Gjiorgji Jancevski, President of the club’s Supervisory Board. Looking back on the progress made in the past year, he noted that over 50 businesses and individuals have joined the group since last March, when the club was founded. Adding that it and its activities are “based on the traditionally good relations between Macedonia and Israel,” Jancevski concluded that the event showed “that our endeavors have been successful.”

Speaking for the Macedonian government, Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Pesevski pointed out the high number of guests who packed one hall in Skopje’s trade fair, SAEM, calling it “an unexpected and positive surprise.” Characterizing the economic development of Israel as “a model for Macedonia and other countries in the region,” Pesevski pointed out that Macedonia has established “very good relations with MASHAV [the Israeli Agency for International Cooperation and Development], stating that “a MASHAV representative will be permanently present” in Skopje. Until now, the most visible such organizations in Macedonia have been the American USAID followed by various smaller EU bodies, and Turkey’s TIKA.

Indeed, later in the event, MASHAV’s Director for International Projects and Public Private Partnerships, Efraim Ben Matityahu spoke, as did Daniel Werner of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The latter gave an overview of MASHAV products in Macedonia, while Ben Matityahu discussed MASHAV’s general activities and its background.

The roots of the development agency can be traced back to the foresight of David Ben Gurion, “who sought to share Israel’s experience in the developing world.” The director also noted that so far only Israel and South Korea have been recognized for making the transition from the classification of developing to developed country. Further, the cooperation of MASHAV with local companies is meant to “push the private sector to a higher level.”

Of course, despite best intentions, this economic cooperation will not always be easy. During the present period marked by global financial crisis and uncertainty surrounding the future of the euro, Macedonia has thus far been largely spared. However, the effects are expected to be felt during the coming year and the more the country becomes open to foreign trade, the more it will be susceptible in future to fluctuations in global markets.

In this light, Vice Prime-Minister Pesevski noted his government’s awareness of the present economic climate, and stated that it is prepared for challenges stemming from the “disturbing situation in Europe,” adding however that “in such times, opportunities can arise.”

Macedonian businessmen do see plenty of opportunities in working more closely with Israel, which may also have something to share about surviving the crisis. The Israeli Ambassador to Macedonia, David Cohen provided an overview of the Israeli economy, noting that Israel posted 4.7% economic growth in the first quarter of 2011, recovering quickly from the crisis due to the robust involvement of the state. Ambassador Cohen professed his sentiment that “we all work to extend our multilateral trade relations” and that Macedonia and Israel “share a common set of values and interests.”

Israel is well known for its high-tech industry. Learning from the “Israeli success story” here was specified by speakers such as Ognen Orovcanec, President of the Assembly of the Macedonian-Israeli Business Club, who specified high-tech as one of the areas for future growth in Macedonian-Israeli cooperation.

In this light, Ambassador Cohen also pointed to the high level of R&D investment in Israel by many multinationals. Despite strong competition from Asian countries, many firms have established themselves in Israel, including Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and Dell. Being first in the world in R& investment, stated Cohen, “has made Israel a center of technology and innovation.” A result of this, he continued, is that many technological breakthroughs have been made by Israeli companies- like VOIP technology, which enables people to speak over the Internet.

Along with Macedonian and Israeli speakers, the business forum also included presentations from the president of the Kosovo Business Alliance, Agim Shahini, Enver Ferizaj of Albania’s KASH, and the vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce of Republika Srpska, Mihajlo Vidica.

These foreign guest presenters stressed business-friendly reforms made by their governments, such as favorable tax regimes, low-cost labor forces, infrastructure upgrades and opportunities in specific sectors such as agriculture. These points were also made in the Macedonian context by Ekaterina Dimitrovska, Executive Director of the Macedonian-Israeli Business Club. Dimitrovska also pointed out Macedonia’s recent track record as an internationally-recognized leading reformer, as well as its impending development of industrial zones around the country.

The major sponsor of the December 14th business forum was Crimson Capital, a finance corporation headquartered in Prague with offices in Skopje and Pristina. Speaking for Balkanalysis.com, Managing Director Michael Gold discussed the company and its operations, explaining that it lends “to businesses which have a hard time getting money from the banks,” such as promising start-ups, women-owned companies and so on. For Mr Gold, small and developing countries such as Macedonian and Kosovo present unique opportunities for finance. For example, while 3% of these countries’ loan portfolios go to agriculture, “approximately 30% of our loans are dedicated to agriculture”- an area that will become more important as issues of food security grow more acute in the future.

According to Mr Gold, “the best opportunity for Macedonia to cooperate with Israeli companies is in terms of new technology and methods to improve productivity and quality, as well as marketing.” Pointing out that “a lot of companies are good at producing,” the Crimson Capital managing director noted however that “they don’t always know how to sell what they produce… the experience of Israel, which was challenged by a need to find markets, will be valuable for Macedonia.”

There are bound to be some positive surprises in the future, noted Mr Gold, who expressed his confidence, indicating that Macedonian companies have a lot of opportunities ahead. In general, “their capabilities are a lot greater than outsiders know- and greater than even they themselves know!”

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Upcoming Anniversaries in the Balkans: 2012-2016

Balkanalysis.com Research Service While potentially violent ethnic nationalism and related ideologies in the Balkans may diminish in the long term, they are not likely to do so during the next few years.

A minefield of upcoming anniversaries in the coming period will serve to enhance heated local and international rhetoric over the validity of competing ideologies and narratives. If the post-Communist period in the region can be defined as the years of ‘transition,’ the coming period may someday be remembered as the years of regression, a time when retrograde, obscurest and tribal views influenced the balance of power, economy, social and religious life, and ultimately the continuously evolving identity of the region.

Perhaps not incidentally, a conspicuous number of these events involve the deep influence left by the Ottoman Empire, even more important given modern Turkey’s ascent to regional power, and the issue of Macedonia, almost as vexed now as it was during the turbulent times of a century ago. The reappraisal of the Balkans’ mixed legacy represents an ongoing info-war for cultural hegemony that, while not violent, is being waged with grim determination using a variety of means.

The world over, humans have long embraced the practice of associating meaning to rather arbitrary, decimal-system time notations- and to sustain them, have often exerted great energy into organizing events and proclamations having political, economic, media, social and other import. The following is a partial list of such decimal-system anniversaries between 2012-2016, many of which will elicit the stated type of reactions, and become ‘events’ in themselves.

2012

February 28, 2012: 15th anniversary of the ‘soft’ military coup in Turkey that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party- the forerunner of today’s ruling AK Party

March 30, 2012: 580th anniversary of the birth of Mehmet II, Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople

April 5, 2012: 20th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia

August 30, 2012: 90th anniversary of the final battle in Dumlupınar, ending the Turkish Independence War in 1922 (Victory Day)

October 8, 1912: Centennial of initial hostilities between the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia) declared war on the Ottoman Empire

October 18, 2012: Centennial anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, and end of the Italo-Turkish War; Italy was awarded the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica (today’s Libya)

October 28, 2012: Centennial anniversary of the Greek liberation of Thessaloniki from the Ottoman Empire

November 8, 2012: 35th anniversary of the discovery of the royal tomb of Phillip II of Macedon in Vergina, Greece

November 28, 2012: Centennial anniversary of Albania’s declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire (Flag Day)

2013

March 4, 2013: Centennial anniversary of the Battle of Vizani and Greek liberation of Ioannina from the Ottoman Empire

March 11, 2013: 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews of Macedonia to Treblinka by the Bulgarian army in WWII

March 12, 2013: 10th anniversary of the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić

May 4, 2013: 110th anniversary of the death of Gotse Delchev, Macedonian-independence revolutionary leader against the Turks

May 29, 2013: 560th anniversary of Ottoman capture of Constantinople

May 30, 2013: Centennial anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of London, ending the First Balkan War

June 16, 2013: Centennial anniversary of the Second Balkan War (Bulgaria’s declaration of war against erstwhile allies Greece and Serbia)

July 26, 2013: 50th anniversary of the great earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia

August 2, 2013: 110th anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising in Krusevo, Macedonia, against the Ottomans

August 10, 2013: Centennial anniversary of the controversial Treaty of Bucharest and official end of the Balkan Wars

September 9, 2013: 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Medak Pocket in Croatia

October 19, 2013: 10th anniversary of the death of Alija Izetbegović, first president of the post-Yugoslav Bosnian Federation

October 29, 2013: 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic by Ataturk (Republic Day)

November 9, 2013: 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Bridge of Mostar during the Croat-Bosniak War

November 10, 2013: 75th anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkish national leader

November 17, 2013: 40th anniversary of the major student protests in Greece against the ruling junta (Polytechneio)

December 1, 2013: 95th anniversary of the declaration of the union of Transylvania with Romania (the National Day of Romania)

2014

February 7, 2014: 150th anniversary of the death of pioneering Serbian linguist and author Vuk Stefanović Karadžić

February 15, 2014: 15th anniversary of the capture of Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish special services in Kenya

February 26, 2014: 10th anniversary of the death of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in an airplane crash near Mostar

March 3, 2014: 90th anniversary of the constitutional abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey

March 17, 2014: 10th anniversary of the March riots of Kosovo Albanians against Serbs and internationals in Kosovo

March 24, 2014: 15th anniversary of the beginning of NATO bombings against Serbia

April 2, 2014: 10-year anniversary of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to NATO

May 21, 2014: 150th anniversary of the unification of the Ionian islands with Greece

June 28, 2014: Centennial anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, leading to WWI

July 20, 2014: 40th anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus

July 28, 2014: Centennial anniversary of the invasion of Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Army, starting hostilities in WWI

July 29, 2014: Millennial anniversary of the Battle of Kleidion/Belasica, in which Byzantine Emperor Basil II decisively defeated the Bulgarian army of Tsar Samoil

August 2, 2014: Centennial anniversary of the secret Turkish-German treaty that brought the Ottoman Powers into WWI on the side of the Central Powers

August 23, 2014: 150th anniversary of the birth of Eleftherios Venizelos, future Greek national leader

September 14, 2014: 200th anniversary of the formation of the famous Greek secret society, the Filiki Etairia

2015

April 24, 2015: Centennial anniversary of the symbolic start of the ‘Armenian Genocide’ in eastern Anatolia, by the Ottoman authorities

April 25, 2015: Centennial anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Gallipoli between Commonwealth and Ottoman troops in WWI (ANZAC Day)

May 6, 2015: 610th anniversary of the birth of Albanian national hero Georgi Kastrioti Skanderbeg

July 11, 2015: 20th anniversary of the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Bosniak Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces during the war in Bosnian

August 5, 2015: 20th anniversary of the Battle of Knin, ending the Serbian Republic of Krajina in Croatia (Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders)

September 6, 2015: 130th  anniversary of the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria (Unification Day)

September 13, 2015: 20th anniversary of the signing of the Interim Accord between Greece and Macedonia

October 5, 2015: 15th anniversary of mass Belgrade protests resulting in the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević

October 28, 1915: 75th anniversary of Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas’ rejection of Mussolini’s capitulation ultimatum during WWII (Ohi Day)

December 9, 2015: 25th anniversary of election of Slobodan Milošević as Yugoslav president

December 14, 2015: 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, ending the war in Bosnia

2016

March 31, 2016: 25th anniversary of the first multi-party elections in Albania

May 20, 2016: 75th anniversary of the Battle of Crete in WWII

May 21, 2016: 10th anniversary of Montenegro’s successful referendum for independence from the state union with Serbia

June 25, 2016: 25th anniversary of Croatia and Slovenia’s declarations of independence from Yugoslavia

July 10, 2016: 150th anniversary of the birth of world-famous Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla

September 8, 2016: 25th anniversary of Macedonia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia

November 8, 2016: 150th anniversary of the massacre at Arkadi Monastery in Crete, during a revolt against the Turks

November 19, 2016: Centennial anniversary of the WWI Battle of Bitola, in which Serbian troops captured the city from the Central Powers

Exclusive: Internal EU Document Reveals Post-Visa Liberalization Development of Policy in Macedonia

By Chris Deliso in Skopje

Editor’s note: With fears of a North African immigrant inundation leading the French and Italian presidents to call for reform in the EU’s Schengen visa system, and newer EU members Romania and Bulgaria preparing to join the Schengen Zone, more scrutiny is falling on the perceived role of Western Balkan countries – most of which now enjoy liberalized non-visa access to Schengen member states – in contributing to illegal immigration.

With a population of only 2 million, Macedonia would seem an unlikely threat to EU stability in this light. However, worries over how to handle a possible “alarming” future illegal migration trend persist, as the following Balkanalysis.com exclusive report reveals.

EU Document Description

A draft document leaked by an official of the EU delegation in Skopje, meant for internal use only and to be completed by Monday May 9th, examines the impact of visa liberalization on Macedonia.

The draft document, provisionally entitled Local Schengen Cooperation (LSC) Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 2010-2011 Report, gives an overview of activities carried out since visas were abolished in December 2009, and points out some of the challenges perceived to lie ahead for the EU in this area. (Note that since it is a draft document, some items may be deleted, amended or expanded upon in the final version; direct quotes cited herein may thus not appear in the final version).

The internal document notes that five LSC meetings (four in 2010 and one in 2011) “have been held since the entry into force of the Visa Code.” On December 19, 2009, visas were abolished for Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, meaning that any of their citizens having biometric passports could travel in Schengen countries without a visa for up to 90 days per six-month period (though they could not seek employment). Albania and Bosnia were granted similar privileges the next year, while Kosovo alone remains frozen out.

Interestingly, while 16 EU member states have consular offices in Macedonia (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, United Kingdom), “no representational arrangements are known to have been concluded between member states for the purpose of examining applications and issuing visa[s] on behalf of a member state not present in the country.”

Thus, with no “external service providers” for application collections, the European Union Delegation has been tasked with coordinating local Schengen cooperation meetings, the report adds.

Structure of Work, Priority Meetings and Relevance for Intelligence Interpretation

The draft document goes on to describe the structure of LSE meetings in Macedonia. It notes that the meetings, regularly-held at the EUD headquarters and chaired by the EUD’s Head of the Political and JHA issues, Information and Communication section, are “generally well attended.” Given Macedonia’s small size, such meetings are never required outside of the capital, Skopje, it adds.

Another point regarding EU structure and methods to note here is that while “some member states share these minutes with their capitals… some draw up their own reports for their headquarters.”

In this regard, identifying which specific missions tend to fall into which category would be of use for any intelligence analysts trying to interpret the degree of text interventions – and motivation behind such actions, in order to better understand the relationship between the local missions and ministry-level decision-makers, and the motivations of each in depicting local scenarios for policy and sometimes personal goals.

Significantly, the last LSC meeting (held on 3 March 2011) “was partly dedicated to the issue of the high flow of asylum-seekers from the country into Schengen states. Officials from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were invited to present the measures taken by local authorities to reverse this trend.”

This again indicates the EU’s overarching concern with visa-liberalization abuses by locals. In this context, it has to be remembered that in the immediate aftermath of Macedonian visa-free travel, Belgium was inundated by busloads of primarily ethnic Albanians and Roma who had been falsely told that they merely had to demand asylum upon arrival in order to receive lavish social benefits in the EU.

Although Macedonian authorities quickly discovered the lucrative scam behind the operation – which was well-publicized by local media, leading to a sharp decrease in asylum-seekers – the events so alarmed the EU that Belgian officials were dispatched to the wilds of the Lipkovo region – a truly historic, unprecedented event – in order to personally explain to the locals that they could no longer pretend to be in need of asylum, in order to simply escape their rural existence.

EU Local Practices in Dealing with Monitoring Post-Liberalization Developments

Since April 2010, the internal document continues, regular LSC meetings conducted between the 16 member states in Macedonia and the EU Delegation allowed these parties “to discuss and exchange information on implementation of the visa free regime, migratory risks, number of asylum applications of country’s citizen registered, ways of transport, etc.”

Exchanges of monthly statistics on visas issues have been exchanged between EU states- another security loophole in what is already the leakiest ship in this landlocked country.

Further, “monthly statistics on types of visas issued and/or refused in a unified format are exchanged on a monthly basis and compiled by the EUD. It was agreed that MS consulates will exchange information within LSC on selection of external service providers, accreditation of commercial intermediaries and withdrawal of such accreditation, cooperation with transport companies, etc. on ad hoc basis. Information on cases of false or forged documents is exchanged.”

In addition, “valuable information is exchanged within LSC on asylum claims made by the country’s citizens in member states. Different aspects of this issue such as number of procedures launched, return procedures, ways of transportation, places of origin and socio-cultural profile of asylum-seekers have been discussed. Concerned member states informed about their respective asylum procedures including social benefits offered to asylum-seekers and their particular and ad-hoc return procedures during LSC meetings.

EU Future Plans: Profiling Macedonian Citizens, Exchanging Information, and Forestalling “Alarming Trends”

The most significant part of the document is the fourth and final section, titled “Challenges in 2011-2012.”

It begins by noting that following the abolishment of visas, what the EU considers “a high number of the country’s citizens” applied for asylum in EU and Schengen countries: in 2010 alone, some 7,550 Macedonian citizens applied for asylum in EU member states, “thus ranking as the 9th main country of origin of asylum-seekers.”

However, as was mentioned above, and in fairness to the country, this figure may well be distorted by the initial spike in asylum-seekers drawn in by early scams, and thus not representative of current or future trends.

Regardless, the EU is taking no chances with a country the total population of which would constitute a mere suburb of many large European cities.

The report calls for “further monitoring and exchange of information on the implementation of the visa liberalisation” as being “the main challenges for LSC in 2011-2012.”

This policy is expected to include “exchange of information on some issues (statistics of registered asylum applications on a regular basis, overstays and other breaches of the visa free regime, differences in benefits offered for voluntary return procedures,” as well as “more information on the profile of asylum-seekers.”

These efforts, according to the recommendation presented in the internal document, “should be strengthened in order to improve the capacity to rapidly detect and react to any new alarming trend.”

Final Analysis: Implied Goals, Perceptions, and Possible Oversights in the Security Realm

An objective analysis of this internal EU draft document, in the context of both local diplomatic trends and wider EU policy-making, reveals several things. First, it provides further evidence that the EU, and its member states present in Skopje, have made a dedicated, organized and ongoing effort to deal with issues related to abuse of visa liberalization by Macedonian citizens, and that they will continue to do so.

The document, however, seems to implicitly link, without going into explicit detail, the one-off abuses of liberalization following December 19, 2009 with a long-term possible trend- one that is, in fact, not likely to continue (at least not in the form seen previously).

This has had political ramifications, however: the EU gave Macedonia as a state an embarrassing slap on the wrist, due to the actions of a few, tarnishing its image and slowing its progress towards EU membership. Rectifying this situation became an unwanted political headache, and required time-consuming diplomatic assurances from both the Macedonian foreign minister, Antonio Milososki and Gordana Jankulovska, the interior minister.

However, the document, interestingly enough, makes no mention of terrorism fears or use of the country as a transit zone for radical or criminal elements seeking to enter Europe illegally, nor of the occasional Macedonian complaints of “immigrant-dumping” by Greece.

Nor does it consider the expected new trend – previously predicted by Balkanalysis.com – of a long-term shift in illegal migrant movements into the EU from Turkey-Greece (where the EU’s FRONTEX mission has been making a serious difference) to Turkey-Bulgaria, where border security capacities are weaker. Issues of Bulgarian-Macedonian border susceptibility are not addressed, though admittedly it is possibly not in the purview of the present document to discuss this scenario.

Rather, it seems that in the case of Macedonia, the EU is most concerned with the social issues (abuse of social welfare and medical care, etc.)- issues that have strongly political connotations for the internal debates in fractious and partisan EU countries today.

From the point of view of security, the most interesting detail to emerge from the draft document may well be the admission that “harmonising the list of supporting documents has not been assessed as a priority need in the context of visa free regime with only an insignificant number of non-biometric passport holders. So far, no steps have been taken towards preparing a harmonised list of supporting documents.”

This is interesting because in a country like Macedonia, where the EU and other international actors are constantly pointing out corruption in the public sector and bureaucracy, there are is a plethora of supporting documents out there to regulate.

Control over the dissemination of such documents is thus a weak point. Also, their locally (not universally) recognizable character and basic construction (only passports and personal, state-issued IDs use any degree of technological sophistication) means that the rest can be easily forged by anyone with the requisite skill and determination. This is not even to go into the issue – one that has been highly politicized in the past – of passports said to have been illegally given to non-citizens over the years.

In conclusion, while the EU in Macedonia appears to be trying to find consensus on how to handle visa liberalization-related issues affecting the country, the presently discussed leaked document seems to be marked by an imprecise analysis and several possible oversights.

However, as of Thursday, May 5th, it was still being circulated to EU embassies and consulates in Skopje with requests for additions, and its final form may thus well reflect a broader range of views and topics than those presented in the draft version.

EU, EBRD Announce Major New Round of Funding for Local Consulting Sector and SMEs in Macedonia

By Chris Deliso in Skopje

On April 19, the Delegation of the European Union in Macedonia hosted a public event for business figures and the media to mark the official launch of the EU-funded Business Advisory Services (BAS) Programme, at the EU InfoCentre in Skopje.

Run by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), this technical assistance program will provide funding for the local consulting and advisory sector, for at least 96 local business projects, to be overseen by the EBRD Skopje office.

The BAS Programme, which has operated for over 15 years in 31 countries, including Macedonia, gives local SMEs access to external advisory services on a cost-sharing basis, while also providing “direct assistance at the enterprise level with systemic market development interventions to develop a sustainable local infrastructure of SME support,” according to the organization. The EBRD Shareholders’ Special Fund is now funding a portion of BAS’ projects, whereas these were formerly completely donor-funded.

At the event, participants were provided with a solid overview of the EBRD’s mission and planned continuation of activities with the BAS in Macedonia. The Bank’s projects will have a significant impact for the consulting/business advisory sector in Macedonia, while promoting the potential for economically- and strategically-important business developments in areas such as renewable energy, as will be seen below.

The Proceedings

The morning event began with an opening speech by Dieter Thiel, Head of Operations for the EU Delegation in Macedonia, and was followed by an address by Minister for Economy Fatmir Besimi. Overviews of EBRD activity in the country were also provided by Elena Urumovska, head of the EBRD’s Resident Office in Skopje and BAS National Programme Manager Jovan Gavrilovski, who gave a detailed recap of the BAS’ efforts in the country since 2002.

These totals so far amount to 487 projects with individual projects, involving over 4.3 million euros of donor financing, matched by over 2 million euros from client contributions. The largest share (35 percent) of total BAS consulting projects in Macedonia have been in the sector of environment, while 33 percent have been in the areas of quality management and certification.

Finally, an overview of the BAS Programme and its potential effects for Macedonia were provided by Valeria Della Rosa, the BAS Programme Manager, who came from the Bank’s London headquarters for the occasion.

The BAS Programme- Who Benefits?

An intrinsic goal of the BAS Programme is to stimulate interest and demand for qualified business advisory services, first of all by raising awareness among firms regarding the benefits of having such input; concomitantly, this also ideally leads to an increase in the supply of qualified and experienced local advisory services.

So, who will benefit from the EBRD’s new initiative? Speaking for Balkanalysis.com, BAS Programme Manager Della Rosa stated that in Macedonia “the primary beneficiaries are going to be the local small- and medium-sized businesses, and local consultants.” While EU-funded projects often involve considerable involvement from foreign consultants, for the current initiative in Macedonia “99 percent of consultants engaged with these projects are local.”

Conditions and Supported Consulting Sectors

For BAS projects, local consultants are typically hired for short-term (4-6 months) assignments. The relevant SME is provided with a grant covering up to 75% of advisory costs (with costs capped at 10,000 euros). The grant is only paid, however, following the successful completion of the project, with a mandatory project evaluation one year after, according to the Bank.

The types of advisory services supported consist of specialized areas within five categories: market performance; management effectiveness; cost reduction; quality management and environmental management. The specific opportunities available to local consultants across these categories include analysis, development planning, feasibility studies, restructuring, impact assessments, computerization and ISO certification advisory.

To apply, SMEs must have less than 250 employees, be majority private- and locally-owned, and have little or no experience with having used external consultancy previously. Companies must be willing to pay 25-75% of the net project costs, and must have a debt structure acceptable to the Bank, a demonstrated potential for growth, and a “genuine need” for business advice and ability to absorb and implement it.

Macedonia: Existing Capacity?

One question that comes up with respect to the BAS’ ambitious plans is to what extent Macedonia at present has the domestic consulting capacity required for executing almost 100 to-be-determined projects. However, Programme Manager Della Rosa is not concerned.

“Considerable progress in advisory development has been made since the EBRD started in 2002, and a base has been built,” she noted, pointing to the success of the MCA2000 (Macedonian Consultant’s Association). The larger projects have helped entrepreneurs conform with EU directives, while providing a chance for the local advisory sector to be involved with more work resulting in higher levels of professionalism.

“I’m very optimistic,” Della Rosa stated, noting that Macedonian has been “quite far ahead in some areas, such as energy efficiency and environment in recent years, for example with projects such as the Integrated Project on Pollution Control (IPPC).”

Targeted Industries?

Considering the large number of projects for which the ERBD has planned to devote funds, another question that emerges is whether there is a specific foreseen breakdown of number of projects per industry.

This is not the case, according to the programme manager. “Projects are demand-driven,” she stated. “We don’t target particular industries or businesses, and we don’t exclude any applicants, except for [those outside the EBRD mandate].”

Such industries specifically not funded are the defense industry, gambling, tobacco, banking and financial services. In Macedonia, which is largely agricultural, it is expected that the foods and food-processing industries will be well-represented among applicants, though there is plenty of opportunity for other sectors. Energy and environment projects seem to be of special interest to the EU in the period ahead.

Future Funding: EBRD Development of Green Energy Sector

For investors and European governments today, the alternative energy sector in the Western Balkans stands out, for both geo-strategic and strictly business reasons.

Since 2002, projects related to energy efficiency have comprised only 1 percent of BAS projects in Macedonia, so it is clear that more efforts will be given to this sector in the near future.

Indeed, according to the most recent official EBRD data sheet on Macedonia, the Bank’s overarching strategic plans for the next year in Macedonia include providing long-term funding to local banks under the EU/EBRD Sustainable Energy Credit Line Facility (WeBSECLEF).

According to the Bank, this investment facility has been set up “to provide debt financing for energy efficiency projects and small renewable energy projects implemented by private entities (in industry or in buildings used for commercial services in the Western Balkans.” It is expected to “act as a catalyst to unlock the great potential in the region to reduce energy intensity and promote diverse sources of green energy.”

What’s Next- 2011 and Beyond

The currently planned phase of BAS activity in Macedonia, running through 2013, will include a minimum of 96 projects and involve a budgeted financing of 1.63 million euros, the vast majority of this coming directly from the European Union.

As part of the overall plan, 4 Market Development Activities will be implemented towards developing the needed sustainable local consulting infrastructure. It is expected that the first 60 BAS projects will be achieved during 2011.

Also during this year, at least 2 trainings will be conducted for local consultants or industry sector in specifically the wines sector, energy auditors in the building sector, and the Macedonian Consultants Association (MCA2000), with a view towards accrediting this entity for full membership in the International Council of Management Consulting Institutes (ICMCI). The 2011 plan also includes some promotional and local media visibility efforts.

Fast Facts: EBRD Activity in Macedonia

According to the most recent Bank-published information (cumulative, as of January 2011), the EBRD has completed in Macedonia 68 projects, with a net business volume of 715.9 million euros. The total project value is equivalent to 1.4 billion euros, while gross disbursements equal 458.3 million euros.

The EBRD’s current portfolio in Macedonia amounts to 300.9 million euros, equaling a portfolio share in the private sector of 55 percent. A major recent investment that the Bank is keen to point out is the 5 million euro credit line extended to Ohridska Banka, Macedonia’s fourth-largest bank (since 2007, a subsidiary of the French Societe Generale Group). The credit line is meant to boost Ohridska Banka’s lending portfolio to local SMEs and make it more competitive with the larger banks operating in the country.

The Bank’s report provides an overview of the country’s economy, interestingly pointing out the perceived need for adhering to the “tight fiscal and prudent monetary policies that have delivered stability to the economy throughout the past decade.” It also notes that the 2009 global financial crisis had “very moderate” impact on the Macedonian economy and caused “no delay in the signing or implementation of projects.”

Indeed, it appears that domestic rather than global factors have shaped EBRD activity in Macedonia. A quick look at the EBRD’s in-country project numbers over time indicates a predictable sharp dip during times of uncertainty, such as the 2001 war and again in 2005.

However, since 2006 project totals have consistently risen, with a sharp spike in activity noted from 2008-2010. Provided that outside donors, investors and key governments continue to predict general stability on the domestic and regional level, this trend should continue to increase.

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In Skopje, Macedonian Jewish Legacy Commemorated with Events and New Holocaust Memorial Center

Text and photos by Chris Deliso in Skopje

Each year on March 11, Macedonia’s small Jewish community, bolstered by guests local and foreign alike, gathers for a solemn commemoration of the Holocaust. On that date in 1943, 7,148 Macedonian Jews – 98 percent of the country’s Jewish population – were deported to the Treblinka death camps by occupying Bulgarian forces. However, this year’s commemoration was somewhat bigger.

Indeed, the series of events held in Skopje, Bitola and Stip (two other former Jewish centers of life), coordinated by the Macedonian and Israeli governments, along with Macedonia’s Holocaust Fund and its small Jewish Community, spanned almost the course of an entire week.

The reason for the unprecedented attention was the opening – at long last – of the much-anticipated Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia, fittingly located on the site of Skopje’s former Jewish quarter, along the north bank of the River Vardar.

Although the entirety of the $23-million complex, which will also include an adjoining hotel (to provide sustainable revenue for the Center’s future well-being) and perhaps an arts/cultural center, is not yet complete, an impressive three floors of exhibits, multi-media presentations and historical information on Jewish life over the ages were opened just in time for the ceremonial opening.

For all those who have worked long and hard for the initiative to succeed, this achievement is especially satisfying (for a lengthy discussion of the Jewish heritage in Macedonia, including original photos from 2005-2007 of the early phases of construction, see an earlier Balkanalysis.com piece here).

Guests heading to the Holocaust Memorial Center’s opening ceremony cross Skopje’s historic Stone Bridge (photo: Chris Deliso)

The week’s events started off on the Tuesday (March 8th) with a commemorative session at the Macedonian Academy of Sciences & Arts (MANU), followed that evening by simultaneous exhibitions of historical photographs documenting Macedonian Jewish life at the city museums of Skopje, Bitola and Stip. On the following day at noon, the honorary guard of the Macedonian Army started from Bitola and Stip, conveying the ceremonial urns from these cities to the capital.

On Wednesday evening, several hundred local and foreign guests gathered at the Macedonian Opera and Ballet for an event held under the patronage of President Gjorge Ivanov. It included a commemorative concert by the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra, which was preceded by several speeches – including a congratulatory message relayed via video from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, an event unexpected by most in attendance, which was met by warm applause.

One of the most powerful messages of the night was delivered by World Jewish Congress Research Director Laurence Weinbaum. After conveying the regards of WJC President Ronald Lauder, he commended Macedonia for its principled and determined approach to property restitution for descendents of Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the Jewish Community in general.

In so honoring “the dead and the living,” said Mr Weinbaum, Macedonia has “set an example to which other nations should aspire. There are nations that are larger, richer, better known and more powerful than Macedonia, but none more decent, gracious, good-hearted and noble.” Mr Weinbaum also expressed his appreciation for the Macedonian government’s strong friendship and support for Israel.

Israeli VP Moshe Ya’alon speaking at the ceremony. He is backed by Macedonian Honorary Guard soldiers bearing the ceremonial urns of Macedonian Holocaust victims (photo: Chris Deliso)

In his heartfelt keynote address, President Ivanov noted the many contributions Macedonia’s Jews had made to the country during the past century, including Jewish participation in the struggle for freedom, first from the Ottoman Empire and later from other occupying forces. And, though the modern-day Jewish community in Macedonia essentially dates from Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews who migrated to the area from Spain during Ottoman times, President Ivanov reminded guests that the expansive archeological site of Stobi (a former Roman city, in the center of the country), holds the remains of one the oldest synagogue in Europe- proof that the Jewish heritage here is much older.

On the following day, Thursday, the major dedication ceremony for the new commemorative center was held under the patronage of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The event began with a solemn procession led by the military guard, transporting the urns from the Skopje City Museum, down the pedestrianized Ulica Makedonija, and across the historic Stone Bridge to the site of the new complex- set amidst a veritable construction zone of new buildings, statues and other structures now being developed as part of the Skopje 2014 architectural program.

Here, several hundred seated guests from the diplomatic corps (including leaders of neighboring states Bamir Topi of Albania, and Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro) were flanked by throngs of well-wishers and numerous journalists. Several speakers, beginning with Macedonian Holocaust Fund Director Liljana Misrahi, spoke of the importance the new center will have for perpetuating the legacy of Jewish life in Macedonia, and educating locals and visitors alike about the identity, role and significance of the Jews of Macedonia.

Several times during the week it was noted, as by the Macedonian Jewish Community’s president, Bjanka Subotic that most Jewish survivors of WWII have since died, and with their immediate descendents being but few, the present generations have a duty to carry on their memory. For Misrahi, the new commemorative center will serve as an answer to the rhetorical question of “but mother, who are we?” to come from future generations of Jewish children. The detailed exhibits, histories, photographs and other materials inside the center go a considerable way towards answering these questions.

Macedonian PM Nikola Gruevski addresses the guests near the end of the ceremony (photo: Chris Deliso)

Representing the state of Israel, Vice Prime-Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a strong speech which highlighted the importance of Macedonia’s Holocaust memorial center – one of only four in the world – in the context of current realities of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe, and even in developed EU countries such as Holland, Denmark and Britain. Reminding the audience that the seeds of the Holocaust were planted in the years preceding the Second World War, when anti-Semitism grew unchecked and was met by “indifference,” Ya’alon also spoke of the need for the West to confront powers that both deny the Holocaust and seek to destroy the state of Israel, specifying President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Another prominent international speaker, the Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Affairs for the American-Jewish Committee and President of the International Advisory Board of the Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia, reinforced the severity of what the Macedonian Jews suffered and the importance of what their descendents have now achieved. “The tragedy of the Jews of Macedonia during the Holocaust is a particularly painful one, even when placed amidst the many other horrific accounts of deportation and murder,” he stated.

For many, the most moving part of the ceremony was the final recitation of the Jewish prayers Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim. Recited under clear blue skies, the ethereal, elegiac sound of the prayers emanating from the former Jewish quarter felt both appropriate and unreal, since the sounds emanating from the city’s “old town” today are primarily the cacophony of mosques and occasional clang of a church bell.

Even though things will never be as they once were in a country where little more than 200 Jews survive, at least for a moment one could feel something of what the culturally richer Skopje of old must have been like. Plagued as it still is by inter-ethnic and inter-religious mistrust, Macedonia today would be a significantly better place had its Jewish population survived to enhance the culture and diversity of daily life. This painful point was one that none of the speakers mentioned directly, though it is certainly obvious when countenanced from the point of view of current-day events here.

A recitation of elegiac Hebrew prayers near the end of the dedication ceremony was partially accompanied by many in the audience (photo: Chris Deliso)

Following the ceremony, guests were invited to take a complementary tour of the new Holocaust Memorial Center. It became immediately clear that, despite the absence of much news about progress over the past few years, planners had indeed been very active in developing what is certainly the most modern museum in the country, and one of the most engrossing and unique in the region.

Upon entering, guests are treated to old photos of some of the Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust (this reporter was moved to see one elderly man point to one of these photos, sighing and telling his friend, ‘ah, here’s my father’). A huge chandelier of sorts, made up of 7,148 delicate strands (one for each of the victims) hangs from the center of the facility, from the third floor through the open center, interspersed with a Macedonian phrase calling for remembrance.

Curious visitors get a first glimpse at the Holocaust Memorial Center’s fascinating displays (photo: Chris Deliso)

Further on, visitors can learn through maps, photos and other displays historical, social and cultural details of the Jews of Macedonia and the Balkans. These carefully prepared exhibits are remarkable, and not only because (unlike with many museums in the region) the English translations are excellent. Moving onwards through the center, one not only goes backwards in time but also gains an appreciation and understanding of a once vital, and now all but lost part of the Macedonian population. The quality and tasteful presentation of the whole entity will surely serve as an example for similar cultural centers in Macedonia and beyond.

In the buzz of all these new happenings, the main annual event – the March 11th commemoration of the Holocaust at Butel Cemetery in Skopje – was unfortunately omitted from most media coverage. This melancholy annual gathering allows the survivors – each year, fewer and fewer – and their descendants, well-wishers and foreign diplomats – to gather and ensure that their suffering is never forgotten.

A luminous series of fine strands with lettering urging viewers to remember the victims of the Holocaust is the eye-catching centerpiece of the new structure, visible from above and below (photo: Chris Deliso)

However, with the major steps that the Jewish Community has achieved over a long period of hard work and long cooperation with the state of Israel, international Jewish organizations and other supporters, they have now finally achieved something remarkable, and something that will put this small Balkan country on ‘the map’ of international Jewish sights- as it well deserves.

In the form of the Holocaust Memorial Center, a symbol of the legacy of Macedonia’s Jews will endure far into the future, a testimony which would certainly have made their ancestors proud.

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Readers who enjoyed this article may also like the present author’s 2006 essay “Letter from Macedonia,” on the history and modern-day experience of the Jewish community in the country, with unique, first-hand testimony from community members.

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