The reasons for this gory crime could be anything. But some circumstances have put the event in a context that's disturbingly familiar for anybody in Macedonia. The lads were without criminal record, the area has experienced all sorts of ethnic quarrels before, etc. The local newspaper Dnevnik reported eyewitness accounts from the neighboring villages that people are scared to send their women and children on the inter-village buses because there are often clashes between Albanians and Macedonians.
The execution came a few months into rising tensions between the two ethnic communities, which is the most heated time since the open conflict they had in 2001. And last but not least important, there's a new mysterious group calling itself Army For Liberation of Occupied Albanian Lands (AOOA in local language), that claims it has given a 2-week deadline to the "Slavo-Macedonian authorities" to withdraw from all provinces with predominantly Albanian population, otherwise new attacks will follow.
All of this may easily lead us to the conclusion that Macedonia is facing another ethnic conflict. But not so fast. In fact the OSCE recently sent a congratulatory note to the Macedonian police, praising them for preventing mass riots in the country. Besides, all major Albanian politicians hurried to reject the possibility of returning to a new round of ethnic bickering. But in a country where Albanians and Macedonians cannot overcome the tension and distrust that's been piling between them for decades, and the political and economic situation is getting worse, these signs may be pointing into the wrong direction. Is it possible, after all, that the ghosts of civil war that have spent 11 years lurking at the bottom of the Ohrid lake, could now pop up from the Zelezarsko lake?
OK, let's make this as a Q & A.
Q. Is a new ethnic conflict on its way?
A. Nope. At least not for now. Why? First, it's yet to be seen what capacity the mysterious AOOA has (if any), and if there'll be a fast and adequate investigation of this murder. If yes, then this could bring down the tension and steer the debate into a more normal course. As for the AOOA, it's hard to believe that in 2012 the Albanian community in Macedonia would support a new guerrilla war, or another terrorist campaign. The situation in the country is far from beautiful, granted, and it'll hardly get any better any time soon, but the prospect of another conflict looks even gloomier. People are just tired of that nonsense. Meanwhile Kosovo could serve as an encouraging example to follow, if looked from a certain angle. The leaders of the Albanian parties are also cautious and they've distanced themselves from these events, and Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the Democratic Alliance for Integration (and ally to the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party), clearly said that "We're done with the folk lore type of politics". How very civilized indeed.
Besides, there are much fewer sources of instability today, compared to a decade ago. There are mostly stable countries surrounding Macedonia now. Even Kosovo and Serbia aren't so unstable, let alone Bulgaria, Albania and Greece (not so sure about the latter though). Sure, they generously infest the region with all sorts of economic crises, that's undeniable fact. But that's fine, as long as they don't spread political crisis in the process. With the exception of Greece maybe.
Apparently, neither of the Albanian parties is trying to exploit the situation to their benefit, which rather speaks that they don't aim at fanning the flames for the sake of scoring points. Back in 2001 the mechanism of escalation was connected with attacks mostly on the Albanian elite by more radical Albanians, who wanted to take control of their community. Since then, the tension has been there, but at a very low level, with the occasional glitch like this one.
Q. Will trust between the two communities suffer from all this?
A. Mostly no. The tension from the last months isn't a cause, it's a consequence of much deeper problems. For more than a decade after the Ohrid Agreement that put an end to the civil war, there've been no signs of reconciliation between the two major ethnic groups in Macedonia. The polls are showing that 75% of the people don't want to have relations of kin of any sort with the other community. Nearly 50% of the ethnic Macedonians think the agreement was a failure, while just 25% of the Albanians share that sentiment. A Gallup Balkan Monitor research shows that the ethnic division in Macedonia is the deepest among all countries in the region, including the federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (where the Republika Srpska Krajina is like a thorn in the ass of the federation). Along with Kosovo and Albania, Macedonia is the place where the fewest people would like their kids to play along with kids from another ethnic group. The polls regularly show a deepening segregation in the most important place in society - the schools.
In Macedonia the elites are busy building unity within their respective groups, but they don't have a vision for a united society. Because the Macedonian nation is young and is still confused about its identity, it urgently needs to build an identity of its own, even if it has to steal some history from its neighbors, or even invent some new history of its own. As a result from this almost maniacally introvert fixation and the neglect of the necessity for unity between the ethnic groups, the tendency of the Albanian political elites and population to create their parallel worlds is deepening, and this includes parallel institutions and territories. And that's causing the ethnic tensions.
Q. Will politics solve the tensions?
A. Unlikely. When people are running out of money, they'd look for someone to blame. In Macedonia's case the ethnic groups are blaming each other. It's hard to say if the incidents that are happening now do have a direct connection to the political situation of before, but history shows that the institutions have a large share of the blame, because they don't try to solve the conflict situations from the roots up, instead each of them takes their respective ethnic side.
In recent times, the super-ambitious patriotic project "Skopje 2014" has occupied all the attention (and funds) of the prime minister Nikola Gruevski. The plan includes building many monuments and conducting ceaseless activities, which by his own words are meant to "raise the national spirit". But whose spirit? Not that of the Albanians in Macedonia, that's for sure. This project has brought three consequences: rising nationalist moods (that was the purpose after all), an extremely shrill quarrel with Greece (over the name of FYROMacedonia), and even more suspicion on the Albanians' part. So let's not pretend that the rising tensions are coming out of the blue or something. "Every cat has a tail", as we like to say around here.
Being totally absorbed in their megalomaniac project, the government of VMRO-DPMNE who won a second consecutive term last year, now has a serious problem. Now that they've crushed all opposition and removed all serious rivals from their way, they gained courage and initiated an ambitious political project too - to usurp all power, to take all levers in administration, the academic circles, big business (as much as it's present in Macedonia), and the NGOs. Total control. All media are now under control, too. But there's a problem. Now that they hold all the power in their hands, there's no one left to blame for what's happening. And they'll get exposed for their failures sooner or later. During the years of Gruevski rule, the situation in the Macedonian society has gotten from bad to worse. It's quite telling that the country has dramatically slipped down in the Freedom of Speech global ranking: from 36th position (2007) to 94th now. The government is aggressively pushing all its rivals into a corner, including in parliament. Fragmenting the opposition and going after any potentially dangerous rival.
But the crisis has hit the economy very seriously, and the plans of the rulers are shaking. The economic policy has failed. It's on life support mostly thanks to credits from foreign institutions, the latest one of 250 million euros coming from Deutsche Bank. In a few years Macedonia will have to pay such enormous amounts on its credits that the development of the country will be severely crippled. For a populist regime like that of Gruevski, there's nothing more horrific than having an empty budget. Ruling the country now solely rests upon throwing away vast amounts of money for bullshit projects, maintaining a monstrous bureaucracy (it has swollen by 30% in the last couple of years), maintaining a pension fund that's being icnreasingly supported by other branches of the budget, etc. Macedonia has by far the highest official unemployment in the region, 30%. Although that discounts the illegal labor sector, which in some estimates is between 1/4 and 1/3 of the economy.
Q. Is Macedonia heading towards a federation?
A. Not yet, but it looks logical. Just how high the distrust within the Macedonian society is, became evident from the failed census last year. There were disagreements about who should be counted (the Albanian members of the commission insisted that all people living abroad for over a year should count too, the Macedonians disagreed because that would've put them in big disadvantage). So it remains unclear to this day what exactly is the ratio between the two communities. But the latest census from 2001 shows an Albanian majority in 16 municipalities, and at least a 20% share in another 12. The latter are practically bilingual, but the Albanians insist that their language should become a second official language for the whole country. And that one of the three key positions in the state (president, prime minister and speaker of parliament) should be given to an Albanian. This would mean de facto federation. Something the Macedonian politicians are running away from as fast as they could. For now.
The problem is, if they want to preserve their country, they might not have any other option. So far the goal that has kept the boat afloat, along with all the passengers in it, was the EU. But that goal looks like an increasingly vague possibility. Because of its own plans, Gruevski's government has never explicitly recognized the EU membership as a realistic goal. So the problem with Greece who's blocking any advances towards NATO and EU (because of the name Macedonia), came like a jackpot for the populist purposes of the prime minister. But that's yet another line that the two ethnic groups in the country could split along.
The polls are showing that 78% of the Albanian population don't mind if the Greece/FYROM dispute is resolved with some kind of re-naming act. Only 17% of the Macedonians think like that. There's a certain political stagnation related to the impossibility for NATO and EU negotiations. The Albanians' frustration from this is growing, and it makes them more aggressive. The former prime minister Branko Crvenkovski was cited saying that the ethnic Albanians don't see why the EU goal should be sacrificed for the sake of some crazy nationalist ideas of the Macedonians. And he has a point.
Q. Ultimately, will this crisis affect my country?
A. If it passes quickly - then no. If it is prolonged too much - certainly. If this doesn't last too long and things settle down soon, the effect on the surrounding countries would be minimal, if any at all. But the ethnic tension in Macedonia could have both a direct effect (through increased applications for Bulgarian citizenship), and indirect too (through maintaining the image of the Balkans as a place of instability, which is the last thing we need right now). No doubt, we have no use of such development at our borders. Sure we could, and we do serve as a stabilizing factor in the region, but there's only so much you can do to influence a neighboring society.
The pressure for federalization will again trigger various diplomatic quarrels, because none of Macedonia's neighbors (except Albania and Kosovo) want this. As to my country's stance, the choice Sofia needs to do now is much more serious than the one when Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the new independent Republic of Macedonia (although we didn't recognize the Macedonian language - long story really). And even the choice when we recognized Kosovo - that was relatively easy, despite all the yelling in Serbia. But if the ethnic tension persists in Macedonia, it'll inevitably lead to more criminalization of the region, which has hardly cleansed itself of the recent scars of the Thug Years.