By Albert Pali
FYR-Macedonia has had a tumultuous year. It began with elections that pitted the Left-wing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia against the ruling party of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). The elections were brought about by controversy from leaked phone conversations of members of VMRO-DPMNE. The leaked conversations detailed corruption among the highest levels of the Macedonian government. Protesters took to the streets to protest the government. The European Union eventually brokered a deal which would usher in new elections.
The elections did not pass without controversy. VMRO-DPMNE, led by strongman Nikola Gruevski, lost ten seats in parliament. The opposition SDSM, led by Zoran Zaev, gained 15 seats in parliament. The next months were marked by months of negotiations between Albanian minority parties and the two major parties of VMRO-DPMNE because neither could form a majority.
One of the key issues for Albanian minorities was a national Albanian language law. Albanians are concentrated in the northwestern portion of the country but there are sizeable Albanian communities throughout Macedonia. Albanian was already treated as an official language in counties where Albanians made up more than 20% of the population. Albanian politicians demanded that the Albanian language become a second national language.
To form a government, the two major Macedonian parties of SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE needed the support of Albanian parties who are also split among factions. Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE governed with the Democratic Union for Integration, an Albanian party led by Ali Ahmeti, which also suffered electoral losses. The diminished parliamentary presence of BDI and VMRO-DPNE’s inability to sacrifice its nationalist aura to create a government ultimately led to its relegation to parliamentary opposition. In contrast, Zaev’s SDSM came to an agreement with the Albanian Alliance (AA) and BDI which put the SDSM in support of the Albanian language initiative. Zaev stated that he would introduce the Albanian language law in Parliament within the first months of his administration.
The saga did not stop there, on April 27th, 2017, SDSM and Albanian parties elected Talaat Xhaferi as the new Speaker of the Parliament. This was the first time an Albanian had been elected to Speaker since FYR-Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Macedonian nationalists stormed the Parliament and attacked Albanian and SDSM Deputies with rocks, glass and sticks. The attackers yelled “traitor” at SDSM deputies who voted in support of Talaat Xhaferi. To the nationalist attackers, the election of an Albanian Speaker and an expansion of Albanian language use outside of Albanian majority areas amounted to a wholesale rejection of a Macedonian state with a Macedonian identity. Conspiracy theories flourished, some went as far as saying that the language imitative was being pushed forward by the neighboring state of Albania in order to exert its influence over the FYR-Macedonia.
These conspiracies did not consider the fact that Albania was dealing with its own political crisis and the reality was that for the first time in its history, the FYR-Macedonia started to make its slow crawl away from identity politics. After nationalist stormed the Parliament, media outlets across the world asked the question if FYR-Macedonia was on the brink of armed conflict again? This hyperbole is commonplace when crisis strikes the Balkans due to the regions bloody history.
There is a bigger picture to be seen. SDSM made political concessions to form a coalition with AA and BDI. To move past ethnically-based political parties, minorities need to be confident that they can participate in ideologically-based parties regardless of their ethnic identity. Ethnic parties serve to address representative concerns. Their purpose is to make themselves obsolete.
SDSM did not just secure a majority, they changed the political landscape. Neither Macedonian party has the support needed to form a government by their own electoral performances. The demographic landscape is situated in a manner where no ethnic party can create a majority without support from another ethnic party. This means that for the foreseeable future, Albanians and Macedonians will likely be stuck in government together. By making concessions, SDSM can position itself as a party based on ideology not ethnicity.
VMRO-DPNE will eventually have to moderate its stances and do the same if they want to enter government again especially since the Albanian parties have realized that their own Albanian constituents will not continue to vote for them purely because they are Albanian. SDSM street protests were coordinated with Albanians. SDSM fielded Albanian candidates and secured a larger portion of the Albanian vote. If Albanian minority parties want to stay relevant, they need to continue addressing issue in their communities or one of the larger parties will be happy to take their votes.
VMRO-DPNE will eventually conform to this. It is in their electoral interests to begin to integrate Albanians into their party structure as well. Coalitional governments with Albanian parties will not be enough if they do not come with concessions aimed at improving the living conditions of the Albanian minority. Albanians became dissatisfied with the electoral shotgun wedding of VRMO-DPNE and BDI precisely because there was no effort to truly integrate the Albanian minority.
If one image can be used to sum up the last year of Macedonian politics, it will be the image of Zoran Zaev’s bleeding forehead after being attacked because his party joined together with the Albanian minority to elect the FYR-Macedonia’s first Albanian Speaker of Parliament. The FYR-Macedonia is not on the verge of armed conflict, it is on the verge of shedding the skin that has strangled multi-ethnic state development in the Balkans. There will undoubtedly be missteps and problems, but the FYR-Macedonia has made its first step towards a politics characterized by a war of ideas instead of a war between ethnicities.
Albert Pali is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying Political Science with a concentration in International Politics. He is interested in American foreign policy toward Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He is currently focusing his research on American engagement in the Balkans and is interning at the U.S. Embassy in Albania.