Macedonia: An end to drawn-out political deadlock?

Skopje (AFP) - After a protracted and sometimes violent political crisis in Macedonia, a burgeoning transfer of power to the longtime opposition is raising hopes of an end to the turmoil.

President Gjorge Ivanov on Wednesday gave a mandate to the Social Democrats (SDSM) after they won the support of minority ethnic Albanian parties in the fragile Balkan country, which is home to around two million people.

What started the crisis?

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski began its decade-long rule in 2006.

Rival Zoran Zaev, who leads the SDSM, in 2015 began releasing tapes that appeared to show widespread official wiretapping and top-level corruption under Gruevski -- allegations the premier denied.

The scandal sparked mass streets protests on both sides and an increasingly nationalist Gruevski stood down for an early election in December.

Although his party narrowly won the most seats, ethnic Albanian groups struck a deal with the SDSM to form a coalition.

The agreement was rejected by VMRO and nationalist demonstrators, who said the country's unity was at threat, and President Ivanov initially denied the SDSM a mandate.

He reversed his decision this week after coming under international pressure, especially from the European Union, which Macedonia wants to join.

Is the crisis over?

For Blagoja Markovski of the Balkan Security Forum, the crisis "finished on April 27" when nationalist protesters stormed parliament and dozens were injured, notably SDSM and Albanian deputies.

Images of the bloody chaos flashed around the world and raised fears of the country being plunged into unrest.

Since then, daily right-wing demonstrations have dwindled.

"We are in a losing position," said Boris Damovski, a 58-year-old protest organiser, who is instead now relying on "civil disobedience".

The protesters in the capital Skopje were often elderly, in nationalist groups describing themselves as "patriotic NGOs" that have begun to fade from public view.

The SDSM's deputy leader Radmila Sekerinska, who needed stitches after the violence against the parliament, is cautious and fears resistance from a state apparatus in which the long-ruling VMRO has "accomplices".

But "we do believe that the worst is behind us," she said, hopeful that the new coalition will hold despite its fragile majority.

What of the ethnic dimension?

The political right accused the SDSM of risking the break-up of the small country by accepting the demands of ethnic Albanians, who make up roughly a quarter of the population.

The placement of an Albanian flag on the desk of new parliamentary speaker Talat Xheferi was particularly criticised.

An Albanian insurgency in Macedonia in 2001 left more than 100 people dead, ending with a deal that granted more rights to the minority.

But Sekerinska accused the right of playing with fears, saying there was little appetite for further conflict.

"A huge majority of ethnic Albanians in this country do not feel the dream of 'Greater Albania' as their driving force," she said, referring to the concept of a homeland unifying Albanians in the region.

Nano Ruzin, a former Macedonian ambassador to NATO, said VMRO had "tried to play the ethnic card" because it was "conscious that it was losing power" and worried about criminal prosecution for corruption.

The country's borders will not change, he said: they are "guaranteed by the United States and the UN".

Are the 'patriots' dangerous?

Around 20 nationalist groups have been formed in recent months. Riste Najdov, 30, told AFP that his group, Coseto, aims to "promote the history of Macedonia" and was "not a paramilitary or terrorist organisation".

But for Arsim Sinani at the Centre for International Relations and Balkan Studies, they form an "octopus" of organisations that are "linked to VMRO-DPMNE".

In the storming of parliament, the coordination of such groups' members was "obvious," he said.

Sekerinska described a "network of criminals," created to intimidate, who moved into the political arena because "they were told they will have immunity".

"If they see they are still untouchable, they will continue to be dangerous," she said.

Russia vs the West?

On May 9, in front of the EU delegation in Skopje, protesters expressed their rejection of "hypocritical Europe" with insults and whistles. But enthusiastic cries of "Russia!" remain rare.

Macedonia is not a traditional area of influence for Moscow and the crisis "is not one of Russia's making," said Roland Gjoni, Balkans specialist at University College Dublin.

"Russia has less influence than many analysts assert, albeit more than Russian authorities claim," he said, noting the "dozens" of recent statements from Moscow about Macedonia.

According to Ruzin, gaining ground in the long-term will be difficult for Moscow: attachment to the EU and the West "may have diminished" but is still shared by "60 to 70 percent" of Macedonia's population.

This is despite membership of the EU and NATO being blocked by Athens over a dispute about the country's name -- a northern region of Greece is also called Macedonia.

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