'Bombs,' protests, terrorist threats: What's going on in Macedonia?

The tiny nation is currently the site of Europe's biggest political scandal, involving secret tapes, mass protests, and threats of ethnic conflict.

Boris Grdanoski/AP
A man on a bicycle passes by tents, posted by the opposition supporters, in front of the Government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Tuesday. After the massive demonstrations on Sunday, the opposition protestors set tents and said won’t leave until Prime Minister’s resignation.

The tiny Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia tends not to be a newsmaker. But the Vermont-sized country, tucked away in the southern Balkans, is currently the site of Europe's biggest political scandal, involving secret tapes of government wrongdoing, mass protests in the capital, and threats of ethnic-Albanian terrorists plotting to attack civilian and state targets. Here's what you need to know.

Q. So what's the scandal?

Since February, the Macedonian opposition, led by Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev, has been accusing the country’s prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, of orchestrating a wiretapping program to spy on more than 20,000 people across the country. And Mr. Zaev has offered proof in the form of "the bombs," the nickname of a series of leaked conversations allegedly recorded by the program that reveal government involvement in a variety of misdeeds.

The "bombs," released over the past several months, show election fraud, abuse of the justice system, and even suggest the government covered up the murder of a young man by a police officer. The opposition says it obtained the tapes from sources within the Macedonian secret service.

Zaev and the SDSM argue that the tapes show a broad swathe of illegal activity by the government, and that Mr. Gruevski and his cabinet should resign. So far, three of prime minister’s closest associates – Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska, Transportation Minister Mile Janakieski, and Saso Mijalkov, the prime minister’s cousin and chief of the secret police – have resigned due to the tapes’ revelations.

Gruevski has not disputed the tapes' authenticity, but insists that they were produced by unnamed foreign intelligence agencies and were given to the opposition to destabilize the country. Macedonia’s state prosecutor indicted Mr. Zaev in early May on charges of wiretapping and anti-government activities.

Q. Why are a bunch of leaked tapes sparking talk of renewed ethnic conflict?

They aren't. But at the same time as the "bombs" were coming to light, there was, according to the government, a sudden uptick in separatist threats to Macedonia.

On May 9, eight police officers and fourteen gunmen were killed in clashes in the northern city of Kumanovo, close to the borders with Serbia and Kosovo. Authorities say they uncovered a group of ethnic Albanian terrorists plotting to attack strategic targets. Thirty people were charged with terrorism-related charges following the clashes. Of those arrested, 18 were Kosovars; 11 are Macedonian citizens, two of whom were living in Kosovo; and one is from Albania with residence in Germany, Macedonia’s prosecutor said in a statement.

The violence harkens back to 2001, when Macedonia’s government fought an insurgency led by members of the country's ethnic Albanian population, which makes up about 30 percent of Macedonia's 2 million people. US and European intervention eventually brokered a package of political reforms that expanded the rights of ethnic Albanians and led to the disarmament of rebel groups under NATO supervision.

In a separate incident in April, around 40 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo briefly took over a police station in the Macedonian village Gosince, demanding the creation of an Albanian state within Macedonia.

Q. What does that have to do with the tapes?

Opposition leaders say that the police operation in Kumanovo was a ploy to distract people from the political crisis. Macedonian and Albanian activists and civil society leaders have denied that the country is on the brink of renewed ethnic conflict.

“The current crisis in Macedonia is political and not ethnic. It stems from growing popular discontent with the government,” says James Ker-Lindsay, Eurobank senior research fellow on the politics of South East Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“There appears to be no widespread desire amongst the ethnic Albanians to see a resumption of conflict. Having said all of this, there is always the fear that even relatively small incidents can spark renewed ethnic tensions. This is why many people are nervous about the situation.”

Q. Does the prime minister have any public support?

Yes. On Monday, tens of thousands of Macedonians rallied in support of the prime minister.

In the center of the Macedonian capital Skopje, pro- and anti-government protesters have set up two separate camps in support of their causes. The hundreds of protesters occupying the opposition camp say they will remain until the prime minister resigns.

Q. What's being done to end the political crisis?

The European Union, led by European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, is currently mediating talks between Gruevski and Zaev. The negotiations, held in Strasbourg, ended early Wednesday morning without any solution to the crisis. Nevertheless, the members of the European parliament facilitating the dialogue said the discussions had been frank and that both leaders were committed to meeting again, Balkan Insight reported.

But while the opposition insists that the government's resignation is critical to ending the problem, some experts say that is not enough. Rather, they say, the most viable long-term solution is integration with the EU.

“The problems in Macedonia are very deep rooted. The political system is a mess. The government has been thoroughly discredited following all the revelations over corruption and wrongdoing. However, doubts are raised as to whether the opposition presents a credible alternative,” says Dr. Ker-Lindsay. “The most important step is to get the country’s EU accession process back on track."

But that may be difficult, due to a dispute with neighboring Greece over Macedonia’s name. Greece insists that the true Macedonia is Greece's own, eponymous northern province. Due to that region's ancient historical heritage tied to the name, it precluded the possibility of a state named Macedonia. That objection is why the official name for Macedonia is still the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." And the dispute has spurred Greece to block Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and the European Union.

For Macedonia to get back on course, says Ker-Lindsay, "Greece will need to lift its long-standing veto. This is in many ways the key question now.”

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