Former officials suggested that heightened political tensions ahead of this month’s local elections helped to spark violent, ethnically-charged protests in Skopje.Some former leading Macedonian government figures blamed current political leaders for fanning ethnic intolerance which spilled over into street clashes with riot police on Friday and Saturday, but said they didn’t believe that the incidents would escalate into a repeat of the armed conflict that split the country in 2001.
“The real reason [for the violence] was the political crisis and the start of campaign for the local elections,” said former Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski.
Buckovski said that the appointment of former ethnic Albanian fighter Talat Xhaferi as defence chief – the stated reason for Friday’s protest – was only a pretext for the trouble.
“Ethnic tensions are deliberately being put onto the agenda [to serve] the daily political profiteering [of the big parties],” Buckovski added.
During Buckovski’s term as prime minister, Xhaferi served as deputy defence minister in 2004. Buckovski met criticism over the appointment but no major protests took place.
Stevo Pendarovski, former advisor to Presidents Boris Trakovski and Branko Crvenkovski, also said that he didn’t expect wider ethnic clashes to erupt despite anger among war veterans about Xhaferi’s role as a commander with the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, NLA, during the 2001 conflict with Macedonian government forces.
“The appointment of a former [National Liberation Army] NLA commander as defence minister may have been problematic back in 2004 but today, 12 years after the conflict, it holds no serious potential to stir up large-scale ethnic tension,” said Pendarovski.
The ethnically-charged protests which gripped the capital escalated into clashes with riot police as ethnic Macedonians rioted on Friday against Xhaferi’s appointment and Albanians came out the following day in a counter-protest, alleging they had been targeted by mob attacks.
The clashes happened just before the official start of the campaign for the local elections, which are slated for March 24.
Meanwhile a small opposition party, Dignity, which represents army and police veterans and which first opposed Xhaferi’s ministerial appointment, condemned the violence.
But it said that the incidents would not discourage it from trying to gather the 150,000 signatures it needs to put Xhaferi’s appointment to a referendum.
Dignity’s leader, Stojance Angelov, urged Xhaferi’s party, the Democratic Party for Integration, DUI, to make him step down as defence minister “because they caused the recent tension by appointing him”.
“We’re seeking a working meeting with the DUI so that we can to explain to them why they should not propose ex-members of the NLA for such sensitive posts,” Angelov added.
The 2001 conflict ended the same year with the signing of a peace accord that granted greater rights to Albanians who make up a quarter of the population.
Albanian fighters disbanded and were granted an amnesty. Later, their leaders formed the Democratic Party for Integration, DUI, which has since become the most popular party on the Albanian political specrum.
Xhaferi, a key figure in the 2001 conflict and a member of the DUI, which is part of Macedonia’s coalition government, took office two weeks ago.
Similar, but less severe riots broke out in Skopje last May, after the brutal murder of five ethnic Macedonians. The clashes followed the same pattern of protest and counter-protest.