Macedonia's Crisis Merits Vigilance

The political crisis in Macedonia merits considerable vigilance, for if the country descends into violence, it could destabilise the Balkans and create another bone of contention between Russia and the West.

On Sunday, May 17, tens of thousands of protestors convened in the capital Skopje, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski over allegations that his government wire-tapped opposition politicians, diplomats, journalists, and judges. The opposition wants fresh elections, on the basis that the April 2014 general election, in which Gruevski was re-elected, was rigged. On Monday, Gruevski's supporters took to the streets in a counter-demonstration. Meanwhile, earlier this month, security forces clashed with ethnic Albanian separatists, leaving eight police and 10 rebels dead. Ethnic Albanians make up 25-30% of Macedonia's population, and violence between them and the Slavic majority in the summer of 2001 almost led to civil war. The crisis was defused by Western diplomatic intervention.

Many people forget that in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, the biggest geopolitical crisis the West faced was the possibility of civil war in Macedonia. When the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991-1992, and for some time thereafter, European security officials fretted over a potential conflict in Macedonia, which they feared could drag in Turkey supporting ethnic Albanians, and Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria supporting the Orthodox Christian Slavs. These fears increased in 1999, when the conflict in neighbouring Kosovo caused a huge number of ethnic Albanian refugees to flee (temporarily, in turned out) to Macedonia. Civil war fears peaked in the summer of 2001, when ethnic Albanian separatists in the west of the country, inspired by the success of the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbia two years earlier, took up arms. A political settlement subsequently brought ethnic Albanians into government, and there is a broad political consensus for Macedonia to join the EU and NATO, but tensions between the Albanian and Slavic communities persist.

Russia Sees The West Threatening Its Interests In The Balkans

Meanwhile, Russia has weighed into Macedonia's political crisis, accusing external actors (i.e. the West) of seeking to trigger a Ukraine-style popular uprising in Skopje. Moscow appears concerned that instability in Macedonia could prevent the construction of a new gas pipeline from Russia to the EU via Turkey and, potentially, Macedonia.

Therefore, if perceptions take hold in the Kremlin that Western powers are seeking to sabotage Russian interests in the Balkans, then Moscow will surely try to push back in some way. Macedonia, unlike Ukraine, is not a vital interest of Russia and lacks Ukraine's emotional resonance for Russians, so the outcome of the crisis there will not lead to such bitterness. However, it could reinforce Russia's sense of geopolitical vulnerability. This in turn could prompt Russia to harden its stance towards the pro-Western government in Ukraine by stepping up support for eastern separatists.