A political crisis that has paralyzed Macedonia for two years is sliding into an ethnic dispute, with nationalists taking to the streets over a series of demands by the country’s Albanians.
The issue seemed to be closed after 2001 when, following a seven-month ethnic Albanian insurgency that left more than 100 people dead, a peace accord provided more rights for the minority.
Albanians account for around a quarter of Macedonia’s two million people.
But a deadlock following December’s snap election, part of a deal brokered by the European Union aimed at solving long-running political troubles, has threatened to reawaken the demons in the former Yugoslav republic.
The crisis erupted in 2015 when the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) and the ruling conservative nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party exchanged accusations of corruption and wiretapping.
An acrimonious conflict ensued between the two predominantly-Slavic parties, lacking any ethnic connotation and watched over by smaller Albanian parties, themselves divided.
The election changed all that – but not in the way the EU hoped for. The polls gave no clear majority, with the conservatives taking only two more seats than SDSM. The Albanian groups emerged in the role of kingmakers.
After several meetings over the border in the office of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, these groups settled their differences and created a joint platform, notably demanding that their language be granted official status across Macedonia.
Currently, the language is only official in areas where Albanians make up more than 20% of the population, in line with the 2001 peace deal.
Undermining Macedonian sovereignty?
The Albanian demands were accepted by SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, in a bid to gain power after 10 years of rule by conservative leader Nikola Gruevski, his arch-enemy.
But on 1 March, President Gjorge Ivanov – an ally of Gruevski – refused to give Zaev a mandate to form a government, saying the Albanian platform undermined “Macedonia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
The move was swiftly denounced by the opposition as a “coup” and condemned by both the United States and the European Union, which Macedonia aspires to join.
Thousands of Macedonians agree with the president and have since taken to the streets, chanting patriotic slogans and calling for the country’s unity to be preserved.
The demonstrators, mostly middle-aged men and women waving the red and yellow national flag, fear the Albanian demands will lead to the “federalisation” and potential break-up of the small country.
“There is no end to ethnic Albanians’ demands. Step by step there will be a Greater Albania and no Macedonia,” said Lidija Vasileva, a fashion designer from Skopje who is a regular at the protests.
“This is our homeland, we do not have another one,” said well-known singer Kaliopi Bukle at a rally.
Russia has supported the protesters and denounced Tirana, accusing it of acting with “the map of the so-called Greater Albania” in mind. Albanian authorities vigorously deny the accusation.
Apart from Macedonia, there are ethnic Albanian minorities in Montenegro, Greece and southern Serbia. In Kosovo, which borders Macedonia, they make up around 90% of the population.
Albania, a solid NATO ally, has defended its role.
To be concerned about “the situation of Albanians beyond our borders is a constitutional obligation”, Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati told AFP.
And writing on Facebook, the prime minister said Albanian “is not the language of the enemy, but of a constituent people of Macedonia”.
“Without Albanian, there is no Macedonia,” he added, in a stance that has unanimous support in Albania.
But for independent Serbian analyst Aleksandar Popov, this “pan-Albanian platform” negotiated in Tirana is “dangerous” for the Balkans.
“There are already protests and an escalation is possible, even a conflict,” he said.
Albania is itself in political crisis, with the opposition boycotting the parliament.
Early last week, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a building in the southern Macedonian town of Bitola where the Albanian alphabet was standardised in 1908.
“We do not need these kinds of incidents,” said Nuser Arslani, as Tirana urged Albanians in Macedonia “not to fall into the trap of provocations”.
Ali Ahmeti, a former rebel leader and now head of the main Albanian party in Macedonia, DUI, has called for “restraint” in order to avoid “inter-ethnic conflict”.
For analysts, only new elections or a broad coalition government can stem the spiral – two options that for now are hypothetical.