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Macedonia - Politics

Political culture in Macedonia is clubbish, dirty, and corrupt. Tradition, culture, and religion affect the level of public participation and access to information. This seems to be particularly salient among the Albanian population. Macedonias electoral performance has always been more even-handed and open than most of the former Yugoslav republics.

Ethnic tensions between the Macedonian majority and a sizable Albanian minority have been an ongoing concern regarding both human rights and democratic development. The country has an area of 9,781 square miles and a population of 2.1 million. The country's two major religious groups are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Approximately 65 percent of the population is Macedonian Orthodox, and 32 percent is Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, various Protestant denominations, and Jews. There is a general correlation between ethnicity and religious affiliation--the majority of Orthodox believers are ethnic Macedonian, and the majority of Muslim believers are ethnic Albanian.

Ethnic cleavage represents one of the deepest cleavages in a society, and that is also characteristic for the Macedonian society. The gap along this cleavage broadens even more, especially when other distinctive characteristics are accumulated, like: religion, languages belonging to completely different language groups, different habits and culture, standard of living, relation between urban and rural population. Minority political parties are viewed as the most adequate way of expressing the specific representation of interests in a wider context, simultaneously rejecting the idea of belonging to bigger parties of the main ethnic group in the country. The basic motive for creation of such parties would be that it would be very hard for a larger party to satisfy such a variety of interests present in society (although minority parties seem to be efficient only at "first level" of protecting and defending their most immediate group's interests).

The essential characteristic of the political culture in the country is the deficit of democratic tradition and the enhanced cultural heterogeneity. Long periods of political and cultural subordination to autocratic rulers throughout history resulted in reserved or resentful behavior towards every factor that exercises "power". The substitution of this "lack of contact" is compensated through the identification with the wider family, the local community and the ethnic group. Cultural diversity in the country is perceived through the use of different languages and religions. This follows the syndrome of socialist (communist) culture, where decisions were left to be taken care by the "avant-garde". Power was monopolized, producing resignation and apathy, things incompatible with the citizen's individualism. Here should be added the readiness of subordination to charismatic leaders and the incapability of tolerating differences. Therefore, the road to real civic society is long and painful, due to the lack of developed political culture.

The Macedonian and Albanian communities led peaceful but increasingly separate lives under Yugoslav rule, with ethnic Macedonians becoming increasingly urbanized and dominating the public-sector workforce, while ethnic Albanians suffered from low levels of education and employment and tended to remain in the impoverished countryside.. During the Yugoslav period, most of Macedonia's Slavic population identified themselves as Macedonians, while several minority groups, in particular ethnic Albanians, retained their own distinct political culture and language.

Although interethnic tensions simmered under Yugoslav authority and during the first decade of its independence, the country avoided ethnically motivated conflict until several years after independence. Ethnic minority grievances, which had erupted on occasion (1995 and 1997), rapidly began to gain political currency in late 2000, leading many in the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia to question their minority protection under, and participation in, the government.

Ethnic tensions mounted, especially in the predominantly ethnic Albanian regions of the country, which bordered Albania to the west and Kosovo to the north. Eventually, armed clashes erupted in the spring of 2001 between Macedonian security forces and a formerly unknown group, the National Liberation Army (NLAin Albanian, the groups acronym is identical to that used by the guerrilla group that had fought Serbian forces in Kosovo two years earlier). The international community pressed for a swift end to the fighting, and in May 2001 a government of national unity was formed. The fighting came to close with the signing in August 2001 of the Framework Agreement, which had the full support of the United States, the European Union, and the OSCE. NATO forces oversaw a handover of weapons by the NLA. In September, the electorate approved amendments to the constitution, which were intended to address the main concerns of the Albanian parties. The changed constitution, for instance, gave greater recognition to the Albanian language and greater power to local Albanian minorities.

There is potential for political violence. Political disputes with neighboring countries and within Macedonia between rival political parties and ethnic groups add an element of uncertainty. Demonstrations and public protests occur frequently. Many groups demonstrate in front of Parliament and other government buildings. Demonstrations and rallies are generally peaceful. However, in February 2013, violent demonstrations resulted in extensive property damage and injuries in downtown Skopje.

In 2015, there were 81 reported demonstrations. The majority of these were anti-government demonstrations. Several protests were in response to the information contained in released wiretapped conversations highlighting government corruption and the governments role in election rigging and possibly murder. At times, the demonstrations turned violent, causing property damage and injuries to police and demonstrators in downtown Skopje, and in some instances, police in riot gear and demonstrators clashed with injuries on both sides.

In May 2015, approximately 60,000 demonstrators protested against the ruling party. Also in May, 70,000 demonstrators took to the streets in a pro-government rally. Travelers were cautioned to avoid such gatherings. While recent demonstrations have not targeted American citizens or interests, travelers should be aware of their surroundings and current events.

Beyond ethnicity, characteristics including geographic setting, age, and objectives preclude any uniform assessment. For example, the leadership and culture of some organizations build upon older structures and experience. Although they seek to embrace new organizational and political approaches, both leaders and members tend to come out of the former system. In contrast, younger citizens are beginning to initiate their own projects and organizations, and seem to exhibit a more specialized and innovative approach. In terms of location, organizations in Skopje typically have access to more information and resources than do others, whereas those in smaller communities often have greater impetus for cross-cultural collaboration.

Since Nikola Gruevski and the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party came to power in 2006, Macedonia's position has deteriorated on all relevant international lists that monitor the state of a country's democracy, respect for human rights and press freedom. According to Freedom House, it is the only European country where the press is "not free" - along with Turkey and Russia.

Macedonia has been without a functioning government since 2015 when the country sank into political turmoil over a wiretapping scandal that brought down the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party bloc. Following former Prime Minister Gruevski's resignation in January 2016, the country was run by an interim government in a deal brokered by the European Union until the elections in December. Elections were held in December 2016, but no government was formed. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his clique from the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party won a narrow victory, but failed to build a governing coalition.

The Social Democratic Union under the leadership of Zoran Zaev was more successful, forming a coalition with three Albanian parties. Albanians are the second-biggest ethnic group in the country, at around 25 percent. The Albanian parties had refused to work with Gruevski because of his nationalist statements and attempts to stamp out democracy in Macedonia. After losing the majority in parliament, Gruevski and his party opted to block parliament and prevent the election of a speaker, as well as the formation of a new government.

Protesters stormed into Macedonia's parliament and assaulted the leader of the Social Democrats after his party and ethnic Albanian allies voted to elect an Albanian as parliament speaker. Talat Xhaferi became the first ethnic Albanian parliament speaker in Macedonia since the small Balkan country won independence from then-Yugoslavia in 1991. Ethnic Albanians comprise a third of the country's population.

Violence erupted after protesters supporting the rival Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), entered parliament waving Macedonian flags and singing the national anthem. Hundreds of people under the direct command of VMRO-DPMNE stormed parliament, wearing black masks to cover their faces. Some of them carried guns, knives and baseball bats. The police, in league with Gruevski, didn't just let them in, they even greeted them.

Only after two hours had passed were special units able to enter parliament. MPs from the new parliamentary majority were the main targets of the attack. Macedonia's opposition leader was among nearly 10 people injured in parliament after protesters stormed the building when an ethnic Albanian was elected as the speaker of parliament. Macedonian police fired stun grenades to disperse protesters outside the parliament and clear the way for the evacuation of lawmakers still in the building.

For Nikola Gruevski and his clique from the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, losing power means they will likely be looking at jail sentences of several years. The Special Prosecutor's office, founded several years ago after pressure from both the EU and the US, accuses him of spying on tens of thousands of citizens via intelligence services while he was prime minister. He's also accused of election fraud and ties to other corrupt practices.

Gruevski and his party for months had been deliberately trying to provoke an ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, labeling anyone who cooperates with them as "traitors." Controlled destabilization of the country could provide Gruevski with the trump card he needs to be recognized again as a negotiating partner with the international community. And that, in turn, would open the door for an amnesty for his decade-long criminal regime.

The current crisis is the worst since 2001 when Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency, promising it a route to membership of the EU and NATO. But Macedonia has made little progress in that direction due to a name dispute with Greece.

Macedonia's parliament endorsed a new government led by Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev on 31 May 2017, in a first step towards ending the country's two-year political crisis. Zaev, whose SDSM party has formed a coalition with parties representing the country's ethnic Albanians, won the support of 62 out of 120 MPs, in a vote that came nearly six months after parliamentary elections. Forty-four voted against and five abstained.

Macedonia's new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, was sworn in on 01 June 2017 after the parliament approved his coalition government, ending six months of political deadlock. Zaev leads a three-party coalition of Social Democrats and two ethnic Albanian parties. Zaev faced a potentially monumental task -- restoring confidence in a state that at times over the past three years wavered between paralysis and authoritarianism. Legislative allies of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski were expected to demand new elections before any of the ongoing investigations into possible corruption during Gruevski's decade-long administration reached the courts.





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