The Macedonian police blocked streets leading to the parliament in Skopje on April 28, in expectation of new protests following bloody incidents the previous evening.
Over 100 people including opposition leader Zoran Zaev and other MPs were injured when angry demonstrators broke into the parliament on April 27.
The violence started after the parliamentary majority, led by Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) elected Talat Xhaferi from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) as speaker. His election would pave the way for a new SDSM government to take power after more than a decade of rule by the conservative VMRO-DPMNE.
The situation in Skopje is back to normal now, but police officers started to increase their presence in the central streets at around 11.00 local time on April 28, carrying weapons and shields. Around a hundred policemen were seen on the streets.
One of the police officers told bne IntelliNews that the blockade was needed due to the expectation of major gatherings by VMRO-DPMNE supporters and citizens who are against the formation of a new government led by SDSM.
Macedonia has been without a government and functional institutions since the December 11 election, and VMRO-DPMNE and President Gjorge Ivanov have repeatedly attempted to block the SDSM from forming a government.
VMRO-DPMNE, despite narrowly winning the December 2016 election did not manage to put together a new government. Instead, the SDSM has formed a majority with the support of three parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority. Together, the SDSM and the three ethnic Albanian parties have 67 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Xhaferi was elected in an unconventional procedure in the middle of the parliament hall, as the speaker’s chair was occupied by MPs from VMRO-DPMNE, who tried to prevent his election.
Zaev has been blamed for jeopardising national unity by agreeing to a platform drawn up by the ethnic Albanian parties, as a condition for their support for his government. The platform, which would increase the rights of ethnic Albanians, is considered to be harmful for the Macedonian national interest by VMRO-DPMNE, Ivanov (who is close to the party) and many citizens.
Party influence blamed for police failure
Meanwhile, Macedonia’s Interim Minister of Interior, Agim Nuhiu, accused internal police structures close to VMRO-DPMNE of not acting effectively to resolve the situation in the parliament, saying they will bear responsibility for this failure.
Nuhiu, in a live broadcast by 24vesti, said that Mitko Cavkov, former interior minister from the VMRO-DPMNE ranks, was head of the operative group responsible for dealing with the April 27 incidents, but he failed to handle the situation.
Nuhiu explained that several operative groups were established previously to deal with different scenarios. One of these was possible unrest during the election of a speaker, with Cavkov in charge.
Media reported only a modest police presence during the previous night’s turbulence in the parliament. Special police started an operation to disperse the crowd only later in the evening after many people had been injured.
“Cavkov was not available on the phone until 20.00 local time,” Nuhiu said, pointing out that the ministry is still influenced by VMRO-DPMNE structures.
Nuhiu claimed some interior ministry employees did not respect the law and instead acted on orders of political leaders.
"Legal actions and sanctions will be taken against all responsible, as the ministry should guarantee the peace and stability in the country,” he said.
Nuhiu announced he will resign as he feels morally responsible for failing to liberate the ministry from political control.
Then, he read the same statement in the Albanian language.
Around 5,000 people participated in the protest on April 27, which started in front of the government building, but only 500-1,000 took part in the gathering in front of the parliament. The crowd was dispersed at around 02.30 on April 28, but still a dozen remained in front of the assembly pitching five small tents in the grass area.
"Destroying the country"
They were still in front of the parliament in the morning of April 28, in the expectation that other citizens would join them to protest against those who they claimed are destroying the country.
“The people want to safeguard the country from the Tirana platform,” said one of the demonstrators, who stormed the parliament the previous night, told bne IntelliNews.
The crisis in Macedonia started in 2015 with a wiretapping scandal which revealed high-level crime, but now revolves around the so-called “Tirana platform”, as the platform drawn up by the ethnic Albanian parties has been dubbed. It was reportedly signed in Tirana with input from the Albanian and Kosovan leaders.
The small group in front of the parliament supports the civil association For United Macedonia, which has been protesting for more than two months. The association fears there are plans for “Greater Albania” - a political concept of an Albanian state encompassing parts of neighbouring countries including Macedonia where ethnic Albanians are a majority. They also believe ethnic Albanian politicians are guilty of provocations.
“Flags with a map of Greater Albania have been flying in the Cair municipality of Skopje for months,” one of the demonstrators said. The Cair municipality is mostly populated with ethnic Albanians, which make up a quarter of the overall population in the country.
The group said people will stay in front of the parliament as long as needed “to defend the country”.
Their demands are similar to those of VMRO-DPMNE, including a request for new elections, even though they said they are not party members and are acting independently.
“Why did Siptars [pejorative name for ethnic Albanians] present the platform following the election?” one of the demonstrators said.
“A new election should be held, and the platform should be part of the campaign. If citizens vote for it, we will also accept it,” he added, sounding disturbed.
For the protesting group, the demands in the platform are illogical and provocative. They include making the Albanian language official in the whole country, and changes to the anthem, flag and other symbols.
They are also disappointed that the speaker was elected despite what they called the people’s revolt, manifested by protests for 60 days.
The day of the incident was symbolic, as it is the anniversary of when eight Macedonian soldiers and policemen were brutally killed by ethnic Albanian rebels in Vejce, near the northwestern city of Tetovo, during the ethnic conflict in 2001, a demonstrator recalled.
Asked about the violence in the parliament, he said that two shots were fired by one of Zaev’s bodyguards, which angered some of the protestors who then attacked MPs from the SDSM’s ranks. One of the demonstrators was slightly injured by one of the shots.
The sounds of stun grenades were heard during the night, when the special police units were trying to evacuate SDSM MPs and journalists, demonstrators said.
EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn and the US embassy in Skopje were quick to condemn the violence.
Amnesty International also reacted to the violent attacks on MPs in Skopje. “With the blood still fresh on the floor of the assembly and more protests expected in the coming days, it is vital to send a strong signal that such politically motivated violence has no place in Macedonia,” Amnesty International’s Balkans researcher, Sian Jones, said.
However, in an April 28 statement the Russian foreign ministry cast the blame on the SDSM.
“The opposition, which lost the December 11 election actually made an attempt to seize the power in the country and elected a chairman by violating procedures,” the ministry in Moscow said.
This was not the first statement by Russian ministry on the Macedonian crisis, all of them supporting VMRO-DPMNE.
The Russian foreign ministry said the fact that the EU and the US welcomed the appointment of a new speaker confirms the thesis that the main cause of the crisis in Macedonia is interference by the West in the tiny country’s internal affairs.
The ministry believes that the crisis should be resolved only by internal dialogue, not by western mediation.
Despite the support from Moscow, the protestors said they don’t feel any Russian influence in Macedonia, although they would be happier if Macedonia was more inclined towards Russia instead of the EU and the US.
Zaev expects to obtain mandate
Zaev held a news conference on April 28, telling journalists that the election of the parliament speaker was the first step towards the formation of a new government. He said he expects to obtain the mandate from Ivanov in the next two to three days, even though the president has refused to give him a mandate for the last two months.
Zaev appeared at the news conference with a group of SDSM MPs, many of them with bandages and plasters on their heads and faces after being attacked the previous night. He described the violence in the parliament as “attempted murder”.
The SDSM leader stressed that the majority in the parliament is supported by the EU and US. He urged citizens to stay calm, saying that April 27 was a test for Macedonian democracy.
The SDSM and the ethnic Albanian parties do not intend to participate in the leaders’ meeting called by Ivanov late on April 27.
“Where we should hold that meeting, in the hospital, where Ziadin Sela is?” asked Zaev, referring to an MP from the Alliance for Albanians, who was severely injuried.
According to Zaev, Ivanov cannot be part of the solution of the crisis.
Business as usual
Several hundred meters away from the parliament and heavy police presence, people were enjoying themselves in cafe bars near the Vardar river. One of the waiters said that the situation does not affect their businesses, and people are going out and drinking as usual. The bars were only empty on a day when mass protests took place, he said.
Some citizens are disturbed by the situation, and others expect the international community to have a bigger role in Macedonia following the latest developments.
“The situation may escalate a bit, but will shortly will be back to normal. The international community should act now and strongly and firmly back the majority in the parliament,” Boris, an economist, told bne IntelliNews.
A middle-aged Skopje citizen, speaking in condition of anonymity, condemned the violence in the parliament and also said he expects the situation to be solved by the international community. He told bne IntelliNews that all responsible for the incidents should be brought to justice.