In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell described, on his return to Barcelona after serving in the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, “an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred” in the Catalan capital. During a late-May visit to Skopje, capital of the independent Republic of Macedonia, something similar was in the air.
In April and May, Macedonia was in upheaval. Forty armed men raided a police station in Gošince, on the border with Kosovo, April 21. That event was blamed on a marginal group calling itself the National Liberation Army, organized from among Macedonia’s Albanian minority. On May 8, in the northern city of Kumanovo, an outbreak of fighting left 8 police officers and 14 rebels dead. Macedonian authorities arrested 30 in the affair—18 from Kosovo, 2 Macedonian Albanians living in Kosovo, 9 citizens of Macedonia, and 1 Albanian citizen living in Germany.
The complex nature of the Republic of Macedonia makes the convolutions of the Spanish Civil War look simple by comparison. The country is often called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because Greece asserts that the name “Macedonia” can only be applied to the territory Athens governs south of the previous Yugoslav-Greek frontier. Although their common border is extensive, Greece boycotts Macedonia.
The Republic of Macedonia replies to this gesture of contempt by claiming Alexander the Great, who came from ancient Macedonia and lived in the fourth century b.c., as its historical ancestor—notwithstanding the fact that most present-day citizens of the Republic of Macedonia are Slavs whose forebears did not appear in the region until at least the sixth century a.d. Alexander the Great was definitely not a Slav.
Neither are a large minority of the citizens of independent Macedonia. While the population is estimated at 2 million, no census figures have been released since 2002, when Slavs made up 64 percent, Albanians 25 percent, and others (Turks, Roma, Serbs, and unspecified) 11 percent. Albanians claim their share is closer to half.
Slav Macedonians are mainly Orthodox Christians, though some are Muslims. Macedonian Albanians are mostly Muslims, with significant Catholic and Orthodox minorities. Mother Teresa was an Albanian Catholic born in Skopje, although the Slav authorities try to claim her along with Alexander.
The mischief in Macedonia is mysterious. The recent outbreaks of violence occurred under the government of Nikola Gruevski, leader of a formerly leftist, now ultranationalist party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity. Gruevski rules in tandem with a previously insurgent Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration.
Gruevski has faced a growing challenge since Zoran Zaev, the Slav leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, an ex-Communist party, accused the prime minister of wiretapping tens of thousands of members of the country’s political and intellectual elite—and released the transcripts. Gruevski had already been branded as profoundly corrupt.
Some veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who are now affiliated with the militantly nationalist Alliance for the Advancement of Kosovo (AAK) were involved in the Kumanovo clash. A KLA combatant and AAK representative, Xhafer Zymberi, was reported killed. The AAK, an opposition party in Kosovo, expressed its dismay at the Kumanovo incident. AAK leader Ramush Haradinaj fretted that Albanians throughout the Balkans had never been in a better position than now. “Albania is in NATO, Kosovo is independent, and Albanians in Macedonia have progressed,” he told a Kosovo radio station on May 11.
Numerous Macedonians believe that Gruevski was responsible for the April and May bloodshed. His motive, they claim, was to divert attention from the popular discontent with his government. Blogger Ivana Jordanovska described the chaos on the night of May 8 as follows:
The police forces of Macedonia entered Divo Naselje, a neighborhood of . . . Kumanovo. According to official sources, the police had information about a terrorist group hiding in some of the houses in this ethnically mixed part of town that was planning to carry out attacks on state institutions. Throughout the night and following day, sounds of grenades and gunshots could be heard, while several buildings were burned and civilians evacuated. As I drove into the city from the airport, there was one thought I couldn’t get rid of: Who would benefit from this crisis? . . . The narrative being spread made no sense. . . . The terrorists could not have expected support from the local Albanians.