Serbia has abruptly withdrawn the entire staff of its embassy in the Macedonian capital Skopje for urgent consultations in Belgrade, in a protest against what it said were increased “offensive actions” against Serbian institutions, which namely involved a “foreign element”.
The move was taken after intelligence information that Macedonia will vote for Kosovo to gain full membership in the UN cultural agency Unesco. Kosovo is frequently a source of friction between Serbia and Macedonia, where nearly one quarter of the population are ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but it is still seen as a renegade province by Belgrade. Kosovo is recognized by 114 countries, including Macedonia, but not by Serbia and also by its allies, Russia and China.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told news agency Tanjug that the embassy staff were recalled from Skopje after receiving sufficient evidence from intelligence services of “increased offensive actions" against Serbia's institutions and state bodies.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in a government statement on August 21 that a "foreign element" was involved in the dispute, but he did not elaborate.
However, he said that after meetings in Belgrade, including one with President Vucic, it was decided that part of the staff should be returned to Skopje as early as next week.
The Serbian ambassador will be back later when all consultations will be completed.
According to Dacic, Serbia is preparing measures “to work in such an environment” and underlined that Belgrade wants good relations with Macedonia, but at the same time needs to protect its own interests.
Following this announcement, the Macedonian government said that it is firmly committed to promote good neighborly relations, cooperation, and partnership with Serbia, as well as with other countries in the region.
“In this regard, we welcome the announcements by Belgrade for the protection of friendly relations and the restoration of the situation,” the government in Skopje said in a statement.
However, Dacic also said that if Macedonia really changes the decision to abstain for voting on Kosovo membership in Unesco and votes in favour, Serbia could, in turn, alter its position about the recognition of Macedonia under its constitutional name.
Macedonia, known in the international institutions as FYROM, has a problem with its name, as Greece objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province with the same name in the north. This is why Athens continues to block the admission of Macedonia into international institutions, such as EU and Nato, under its constitutional name.
In early May, before Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) formed a government, its leader Zoran Zaev told Serbia’s national broadcaster Prva TV that Skopje will be neutral next time Kosovo's bid to join Unesco is put up for a vote.
Zaev composed a new government on May 31 in a coalition with two ethnic Albanian parties, which are pressing him to improve ethnic Albanian rights in Macedonia and also to support Albanian interests in Kosovo.
Relations between Serbia and Macedonia were strained also in April after reports that a Serbian intelligence officer was present in the Macedonian parliament during the violent protests, when a group of demonstrators stormed the assembly building and beat up several MPs including the now Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
The new dispute came at a vulnerable time for Macedonia, as the new government is making increasing efforts to improve its relations with its neighbors, after a series of meetings in Sofia and Athens, in a bid to speed up the process of the EU integration.
Good neighborly relations are one of the key demands for the six Western Balkan states, including Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, to make progress towards full EU membership.