People & Power

Macedonia: Behind the Facade

People & Power investigates whether rising ethnic tensions in Macedonia could result in civil conflict.

Macedonia’s government has been accused of wanting to rewrite the nation’s history along ethnically divisive lines. Its Albanian minority fear the possible consequences.

Against a background of increasing tension caused by a controversial inter-community murder case, the government’s opponents have also weighed in with allegations that conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been behind a massive state surveillance and wire-tapping programme, aimed at suppressing dissent and clinging onto power.

So how did this very Balkan crisis begin and where will it lead? Filmmaker Glenn Ellis went to Macedonia to find out.


By Glenn Ellis 

I arrived in Macedonia in the dead of night, not knowing quite what to expect. The day I left England I had heard news reports referring to a coup attempt in the capital, Skopje. But on the short drive from the airport to my hotel I had seen no troops or roadblocks or even excessive police activity – in fact no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Next morning over breakfast I asked the waiter about the coup.

“Coup? What coup?” was the reply.

It was the perfect introduction to a country where little is as it first seems and where – so I would discover – the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has spent much of its nine years in office presiding over a distinctly Kafkaesque metamorphosis of Macedonia’s outwards appearance. If you have not heard much about the regional controversy this has caused, then that may in part be due to the stranglehold the administration has on the local media, which has seen the country sink 80 places in the Reporters Without Borders freedom list and allowed a truly strange rewriting of the history of this tiny, former Yugoslav republic.

The 100-foot-high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia's capital is part of a project called Skopje 2014 [Al Jazeera]
The 100-foot-high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital is part of a project called Skopje 2014 [Al Jazeera]

The change is physical as well as psychological. A short walk from my hotel, I came face to face with possibly the oddest collection of contemporary statuary in Europe. I say contemporary but the style is anything but: here pseudo-classical figures sit (mostly on horseback) cheek by jowl with social-realist effigies that could have been hewn in Stalinist Russia.

The centre piece is a 100-foot high statue of Alexander the Great, which sits atop a plinth surrounded by carved warriors. It is all part of a project, called Skopje 2014, which is both the brainchild of the prime minister and the focus of a great deal of unhappiness.

I have arranged to meet Ivana Dragshikj, a civic activist and one of a group known as the “Singing Skopjiens” who have been campaigning against Skopje 2014 in a novel way. “We sing as a protest,” she tells me, “because all of our other forms of protest were met with violent repression and threats of job loss, loss of positions at the university and things like that.” 

We pause by a 12-foot high gilded statue of the Greek god, Prometheus. It sits awkwardly in front of an imitation Brandenburg Gate complete with golden horses. Ivana’s disgust is obvious. “I would say that it’s ugly, that it’s insulting, it’s invasive and it’s repressive. If you talk to any people that have the minimum understanding of public space – what it should be and what it should do for the people – you will hear that many people do not walk past the monuments anymore, they don’t walk past this whole area because they really feel insulted, they walk with their heads down and that’s my own case, I don’t walk around this place anymore.”

In fact, almost anywhere you turn in this part of the capital there is a new statue, usually pointing a sword or a spear at you and all – so I am told – designed to foster the impression that today’s Macedonians are descended from Alexander the Great and other giants of Hellenic civilisation.

The monuments and effigies of the Skopje 2014 project are almost exclusively based on Greek gods and heroes [Al Jazeera]
The monuments and effigies of the Skopje 2014 project are almost exclusively based on Greek gods and heroes [Al Jazeera]

Naturally I am eager to ask the Prime Minister about these extraordinary creations and the reasoning behind them, but I do not hold out much hope that he will talk to me. Apparently he rarely, if ever, gives interviews to independent journalists. I file the request anyway, but as I wait for a response I manage to speak to Artan Grubi, an MP and the Chief of Cabinet for the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which has been a coalition partner in Gruevski’s government for the last seven years.

Grubi tells me the DUI is the principal political representative of Macedonia’s Albanian minority, some 25 percent of the population. I find this strange, given the underlying ethnic tensions in the country – part of the story I am here to unravel – but I want to ask him first about the capital’s weird statuary.
Suffice to say, he is not a fan.

“When the project was being masterminded,” Grubi tells me, “I was the head of the largest Albanian civil society organisation – it was called Wake Up and at that time I was organising protests against the project because it was mono-ethnic, mono-religious, it did not represent all the citizens, did not represent the will of the citizens of the country and therefore it was completely unnecessary to be built. I continue to have the same stance even today.”

Skopje 2014 ... is not reflecting the multi-cultural society that Macedonia is .... It is damaging inter-ethnic relations which are anyway fragile, and damaging Macedonian national identity ... Alexander the Great is famous because he enlarged the Hellenic culture. We are Slavs who are not Hellenic at all.

by Borian Jovanokowski, a TV journalist

This, he explains, is because the monuments and effigies of Skopje 2014 are almost exclusively based on Greek and Bulgarian heroes, such as Alexander and Saint Kiril, inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet. There are no statues commemorating any ethnic Albanian heroes.

Macedonia’s mostly Muslim Albanian minority seems to have been entirely written out of the country’s past. I hear later that the last straw for many was the erection of a statue depicting Tsar Dusan the Mighty, a Christian orthodox ruler known for subjugating Albanians. Shortly after it was put up an angry mob tried to tear it down.

I am coming to understand that this bizarre public display is actually a manifestation of the deep faultlines that exist between Macedonia’s two largest ethnic groups. So why does Grubi’s predominantly Albanian / Muslim party remain in coalition with Gruevski’s conservative VMRO-DPMNE party which mostly represents Macedonia’s majority Orthodox Christian / Slavic community?

“Well your viewers have to know the sensitivities of this society to understand the answer to this question,” Grubi explains. “The coalition partners in the Republic of Macedonia are a result of elections. Whoever wins in the Macedonian political block, whoever wins in the Albanian political block; they have the legitimacy of the two largest communities and they bear responsibility to govern together to try and find a common language.” 

Later I talk to Borian Jovanovski, a TV journalist whose station was closed down by the government as part of a crackdown on independent media.

He begs to differ: “Talking about this project Skopje 2014, yes it’s damaging to inter-ethnic relations, it’s not reflecting the multi-cultural society that Macedonia is. But on the other hand you have an Albanian party in the government – and they agree – so in a way they have responsibility for what’s going on too. It’s obvious that it is damaging inter-ethnic relations which are anyway fragile and damaging Macedonian national identity too because it brings us to history that is unknown to us, in which we are a kind of successor to Alexander the Great. This is not true because Alexander the Great is famous because he enlarged the Hellenic culture. We are Slavs who are not Hellenic at all.”

Underlying inter-ethnic tensions

My next appointment is to see Femi Zekiri, an ethnic Albanian, whose family was terrorised during the run up to last April’s parliamentary and presidential elections, which saw Gruevski win an unprecedented forth term as Prime Minister and his personal choice for president, Gorge Ivanov, returned to office in elections which were heavily criticised by the OSCE.

It is early evening and dark when we reach Radisani, a mostly Macedonian suburb on the outskirts of Skopje. We find the house hidden behind a large brick wall, knock on a heavy metal gate and after several locks and bolts are undone, the gate opens and we enter a yard. The door is re-secured and we are finally greeted by Femi, a man in his mid-40s trying hard to hold back his emotions. As he gives us a brief tour of the property, Femi recalls a series of attacks on his home, the latest of which included firebombing.

“An organised mob of around 100 people attacked. It was a pure massacre. One cannot live like that. They yelled: ‘Get out of here. Move out of this place. There’s no room here for you Albanians.'” 

Femi’s mother shows us a blood-stained t-shirt belonging to one of her grandchildren who had been badly injured during the attack. I look at Femi’s other children who are watching all this. They are putting on a brave face but it is clear that they are afraid. “Nobody takes any action to stop this from happening,” Femi goes on. “It happens when the elections are held. It’s not our fault which Albanian party or which Macedonian party wins or loses.” 

Next morning I arrange to meet Slagjana Taseva, president of the Macedonia branch of Transparency International, which has been monitoring the government’s stance on ethnic tension. In her view Nikola Gruevski’s government has been stoking-up majority Macedonian fears about the country’s ethnic Albanian minority because it allows the Prime Minister to play a vote-winning nationalist card.

“It is artificial … they always keep these problems very high on the agenda because this is the way how they rule,” she says. “We see it all the time and we can immediately recognise it. Its playing with fire, it is dangerous.” 

To explain further she tells me about an infamous lawsuit here – known as “monster case” – which last July saw six ethnic Albanians sentenced to life imprisonment two years after they were arrested for the alleged murder of five ethnic-Macedonian fishermen. “Nobody was convinced that the people on trial really committed the crime,” she says. “I was not convinced and I’m a lawyer, I believe in the laws and in the procedures. Nobody is convinced this case was properly investigated or that there was proper evidence.” 

The men were convicted after 46 court hearings, all in closed session. The prosecution case relied mostly on the unsubstantiated claims of a protected state witness. When the verdict was announced, thousands of ethnic Albanians took to the streets in Skopje calling for the return of the Albanian National Liberation Army – an insurgent group thatfought on one side of a bitter inter-ethnic conflict here in 2001. This in turn had its roots in the civil wars of the 1990s that followed the break-up of former Yugoslavia, of which Macedonia was once part. The protests inevitably led in to increased fears among the country’s non-Albanian community that sinister forces were hell-bent on destabilising the country and that conflict might return. Among Albanians many believe these anxieties are exactly what the government wished to provoke.

Anti-government protests in Skopje, Macedonia's capital [Al Jazeera]
Anti-government protests in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital [Al Jazeera]

I ask Taseva whether the government could really manipulate events in this way. She points to a photograph of Prime Minister Gruevski and his cousin Saso Mijalkov, who is head of the UBK. Macedonia’s secret police. “They are using the surveillance system as if it is their own property,” she says.”They are gathering collecting many different types of information that they are afterward using to attack their political opponents or other people who do not really agree with their politics. In all positions in the public administration and in the judiciary, they install not only their close relatives but also people from the political party very close to the leadership. That way they manage to establish complete control.”

These were clearly disturbing allegations to hear from an NGO and I had many questions I wanted to put to Prime Minister Gruevski or any other minister or spokesman his government would put up. But as I had feared, my numerous requests for such an interview fell on deaf ears.

Unsurprisingly, the country’s main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, was more cooperative. Next day I sat down with Radmila Sekerinska, the party’s vice president, and asked her about the news reports of coup that I’d picked up just before arriving in the country.

“The Prime Minister had a press conference accusing the Leader of the Opposition [Zoran Zaev] of espionage and of organising a coup d’etat,” she replied. “And of course these allegations are absurd, but it was clear that the government is planning to frame him simply because he asked that the next elections be organised by a technical government. If this was happening in normal circumstances everyone would laugh, but of course Macedonia has become a different country in the last few years and that’s why we are extremely worried.”

So why, I asked her, had her boss wanted the Prime Minister to stand aside and let a technical (or interim) government organise the next elections?

Because, she explained, “we are in possession of documents that show that the government has been involved in phone tapping thousands of citizens: political opponents, journalists, activists even diplomats and that the government has been abusing institutions for electoral fraud, for political pressure in the judiciary, but also for political abuse of police forces.”

When I asked if I could see some of these documents, she told me I would have to be patient. “We are preparing our moves very carefully not to endanger the process and not to endanger our sources. So basically when we start disclosure we will have a series of press conferences … but probably the prosecutor will try to prevent the media from publishing whatever will be disclosed.”

Sure enough, when rumours began to circulate that the opposition had evidence of widespread government wire-tapping, the Ministry of Interior warned journalists not to report such claims on grounds that it would harm national security.

But when the press conference began in early February, the Social Democratic Union’s offices of the opposition were packed with journalists and a large contingent of party supporters. The latter cheered wildly as their leader Zoran Zaev – whose passport had been taken from him – came onto the stage. But the atmosphere grew more sombre as Zaev began to reveal details, purportedly leaked by disaffected member of the country’s security apparatus, of a massive government phone-tapping and surveillance programme. The spying, Zaev said, had been conducted under the explicit orders of the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his cousin Saso Mijalkov, the sinister head of the country’s secret police.

“The things that we saw and that you will see and hear in the days ahead surpasses the darkest expectations,” added Zaev. “All the documents show that Macedonia is divided in two worlds. In the first one are Gruevski and Mijalkov who politically and financially benefit from the wiretapping. In the second world are the rest of us, whose privacy and constitutional rights have been completely trampled.”

Zaev then played excerpts of illegally taped conversations, some involving his own conversations with journalists and members of his family, as well as taped conversations between the current finance and interior ministers. He promised more shocking revelations were to come and urged the international community to examine the revelations closely.

The Skopje 2014 monuments have provoked tensions in Macedonia [Al Jazeera]
The Skopje 2014 monuments have provoked tensions in Macedonia [Al Jazeera]

Over subsequent weeks, as opposition press conference followed press conference, each revealing yet more damning evidence of secret surveillance, the scandal gained widespread currency; not just in Macedonia’s few remaining independent newspapers and the international media, but also in the capital’s bars and cafes where feverish speculation over the possible fate of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s administration was intensifying. After staying silent for days, the embattled government eventually began to fight back with counter allegations, but it was clear that a full blown political crisis was now underway.

On my last day in Macedonia, I went back to the square with the hideous statue of Prometheus where an anti-government demonstration was taking shape. Mingled with the crowd, my eyes were drawn time and again to the gilded figure, credited in ancient Greek mythology with bringing fire to humanity. I could not help but wonder what dangerous flames were now spreading through this increasingly divided country and where the crisis would end.