Macedonians step up protests against wider use of Albanian language

Macedonians step up protests against wider use of Albanian language
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje February 28, 2017

Protests are continuing in Skopje against plans for wider official use of the Albanian language in the country. Numbers swelled to around 15,000 on February 28, significantly more than the previous day, and daily protests are expected to continue. 

The protests started on February 27 after Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev secured enough signatures from three ethnic Albanian parties to ask for a mandate from President Gjorge Ivanov to form a new government. The ethnic Albanian parties supported Zaev after he accepted their demands for the wider use of the Albanian language, but many other Macedonians were alarmed by his concessions.

A group of citizens organised by the new civil association For United Macedonia initiated the protests after Zaev handed over the signatures to Ivanov.

The February 28 march started in front of the government building and ended at the parliament. Some of the protesters, wearing Macedonian flags and singing national songs, shouted “Macedonia” and “This will not pass”.

It was later reported that a journalist and a photographer from the A1on portal were beaten up during the protests.

The ethnic Albanian parties represented in the Macedonian parliament adopted a platformon January 7 as a precondition for supporting a new government. One of the main conditions is the use of the Albanian language at all levels of governance and on the whole territory of Macedonia. Ethnic Albanians make up a quarter of the country’s population. 

There have also been reports about possible changes to Macedonian banknotes and coins to include Albanian symbols, as well as a new flag and national anthem.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE, which has ruled Macedonia since 2006, argues that Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) has gone too far in its concessions to the ethnic Albanian parties, and accepting their demands will destroy Macedonia as a unitary state. VMRO-DPMNE, which narrowly won the December 11 election, failed to renew its coalition with the biggest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), and looks set to go into opposition.

Protestors urged Ivanov not to give the mandate to form the government to Zaev, and told European countries to “take their hands off Macedonia”, accusing them of trying to break up the country.

They asked SDSM politicians to reject the ethnic Albanian platform, and not to change the constitution or the name of the country. They are also against the bill on the use of the Albanian language, drafted by the DUI.

“We are protesting with the aim of defending Macedonia, we do not want to lose the country,” one of the protestor said during the march.

For another, “Macedonia is on the brink of the abyss.”

“This is a civil gathering and we will not allow any chauvinist exclamations,” said Boris Damovski, creator of the critical animated show Ednooki, and one of the organisers of the march together with opera singer Igor Durlovski.

Damovski said that election outcome, according to which VMRO-DPMNE was the winner, should be respected. He also said that people will not allow the Macedonian flag to be changed. 

"There are only two colours, the red and the yellow," protestors shouted, alluding to the colours of the Macedonian flag.

Demonstrators called for more mass protests in the coming days. Rallies were held in several cities across the country.

On February 27, VMRO-DPMNE said in a statement that the citizens did not vote to make the Albanian language official on the whole territory of Macedonia. Nor did they vote for changes to banknotes, turning Macedonia into a bi-national state, or for the country’s federalisation, the party said. 

Ivanov is expected to decide whether he will give the mandate to Zaev in the next few days. Zaev received 49 signatures from the SDSM as well as 10 from the DUI, five from Besa and three from the Alliance for Albanians.

Even if he gets the mandate, given that protests against his government will take place on a daily basis, political tensions in Macedonia are not expected to calm down.

The political crisis emerged in 2015 following the wiretapping scandal, which revealed crime and corruption among senior government officials.

The US state department has called on Macedonian leaders to form a new government without delay.

“The formation of a new government committed to rule of law and implementing needed reforms will help end a political crisis that has severely hindered the country’s democratic and economic development and Euro-Atlantic integration,” the state department said in a statement on February 28.

The US urged all parties to put the interest of Macedonia and its citizens above all else, to work together constructively, and to fully implement all of their commitments under the Przino agreement, signed in 2015 to resolve the political crisis.