The political crisis in Republic of Macedonia

The neighboring country of Greece, Republic of Macedonia, finds itself in the last months at a critical political juncture and a crisis that seems to be the largest in recent years. The effects of this crisis are trying to use nationalist rhetoric within the country but also in the wider area of the Balcans. On the same time the Greek media have “bury” any information. Babylonia Magazine decided to make the following interview as an effort to inform the public, and greater interaction and solidarity with the people who react, resist and try for a better future in the Balkans away from nationalism, racism and power. The two interlocutors, citizens of the Republic of Macedonia come “seemingly” from two different ethnic groups (Macedonian and Albanian), share common experiences, opinions and ideas with us. We, Babylonia Magazine and Beyond Europe, hereby publish together the English and Greek version of the interview. You can find the Greek version of the interview at Babylonia.

Interview: Ioanna Maravelidi (Babylonia Mag/ Beyond Europe)

Hi to both of you! We are glad for having this rare chance to speak with you. Firstly, we would like to introduce you briefly to the Greek audience. As we know you both live permanently in Skopje, where you are also politically active. In which political initiatives, groups, etc. you participate and in what issues you are more interested?

Nikola Šteriov: I am part of the Left-wing movement “Solidarnost” and the social center “Dunja”. “Solidarnost” as an organisation is member of the Charter for solidarity of the syndicates and workers’ rights organisations – this charter is the official organiser of the 1st of May workers’ rights protests in Skopje. I’m also part of various migrant solidarity groups. My general interest is fighting for collective and left wing values and spreading them.

Artan Sadiku: I have been active in various initiatives in the past 10 years, starting with ecological ones, to social and more left-wing radical political initiatives. In the last years, my activity was together with comrades from the left-wing Solidarnost movement and other ad-hoc protest initiatives mainly focusing on social justice and resisting to the capitalist conditioning of the social and political life in the country and our wider Balkan region. I am also a researcher and teaching political philosophy at the independent Institute of social sciences and humanities in Skopje.

Our local mainstream medias basically hide every information about Republic of Macedonia including the latest events that occurred there, from which we will speak later. Even though we live so close to each other, your country seems usually like an empty spot in the map for us. This happens due to national interests that always try to separate the common people. So, could you please give us a general picture of the political and economical situation in your country?

Nikola: The current political situation in the R. of Macedonia is what our own (and also foreign) mainstream media calls “a political crisis”. This so called crisis comes after a 10 year rule of the mainstream right wing nationalist party in the country (they’ve been in power since 2006) called VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity). In the past five years (and especially after 2014) there have been serious protests which were in essence against the rule of this party, which managed to increase authoritarianism and clientelism to previously unknown levels in its 10 year rule. After almost two years of constant or sporadic anti-government protests (2014-2016) with the help of the international factor, the country held elections on December 11 2016. The result was the inability of the (still) ruling party (who won the majority of votes but only by a very small margin), after 10 years, to find a coalition partner (which is regularly found among the biggest parties which are meant to represent the Albanian ethnic group in the country) with whom they would form government. This meant, by constitution, that the president of the republic (affiliated to the ruling VMRO party) should give the mandate for forming government to the second biggest party in parliament – the Social Democrats – and this is where the “political crisis” started deepening even more.

As for the economical situation, this country is frequently called the poorest country in Europe. After the referendum in 1991, during which most of the population voted to split from Yugoslavia, the country declared its independence. What voters probably didn’t know was that, apart from a political split from Yugoslavia, they were also voting for capitalism. As was the case in most countries of Eastern Europe, the former ruling “communist” parties turned into “democratic” ones – in our case, the ruling “Communist Union of Macedonia” became the “Social Democratic Union of Macedonia” and remained the ruling party until 1998 and again from 2002 until 2006. In this period the so-called “transition” was happening – effectively, state owned factories were privatized (mostly into the hands of former communist elites) and then sold for money and liquidated.

This meant that from an almost idyllic economic situation for most people in Yugoslavia (or at least that is how most people who lived in Yugoslavia talk about with great nostalgia today) all of a sudden factories started getting shut down, unemployment skyrocketed to around 30% (with little progress until this very day) and even some people committing suicide because they could no longer feed their families. This is one of the reasons the ruling nationalist party came in power – because many people started hating the social democrats, blaming them for the criminal privatization, and voted for the second biggest option (the nationalists). However, the nationalist VMRO party made only ostensible (almost imaginary) progress to improve the economic situation of their voters.

They used most of the new working places (mostly foreign investments) that they “created” to make propaganda and promote themselves aggressively in the media, while at the same time not mentioning anything about the many factories that were closed even under their rule, nor about the working conditions in those factories that they “opened” (and it was easy to create this media image because in the 10 years of their rule they’ve managed to put most bigger medias in the country to work for their propaganda which is clearly visible, and is only a part of the larger omnipresence and “VMRO-isation” of society which the ruling party has cleverly instituted during the past 10 years).

In short, the Republic of Macedonia is one of the poorest and most socially dysfunctional countries in Europe (and even beyond), with one of the biggest unemployment rates in the region, barely functional social and healthcare services, and with many of its citizens surviving on the conservative family-solidarity system, where when you can’t feed yourself you rely on your relatives. Much similar to any other neighboring country in the wider region, I would say.

Artan: Talking about the political economic and political situation, in the recent years, one can start from the year 2006, the year when the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party came into power. I chose this year in order to mark a series of structural political shifts that occurred in the country, after the main historic shift, that of privatization and major social and economic restructuring that occurred during the 90s as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. It was four years after a government led by the social democratic party SDSM had failed to bring any significant socio-economic improvement to a country that went through an armed interethnic conflict in 2001, that the conservative opposition started to boost its support due to their political rhetoric which focused heavily on economic and social issues. Being one of the ex-Yugoslav countries that suffered the heavy consequences of privatization, for more than two decades Macedonia had been a country where it was a common sense that the unemployment of 30% was an inherent feature of our society which we simply had to live with. The belief was that this rate of unemployment and poverty was a result of the Macedonian mentality which conditioned our mode of democracy as opposed to, for example, Slovenia as another ex-Yugoslav country, where their democracy, due to their political culture brings for the wellbeing of their citizens.

The economic programme ‘Rebirth in 100 steps’ which included highly optimistic proposals for economic and social development of the country covering almost all societal fields from education to agriculture, investments and tax policies, gave the opposition party of VMRO-DPMNE a significantly different image in contrast to other parties, an image that was difficult to compete with. It was precisely this call ‘to break with the continuity’ of the accommodated belief that, due to the regional inertia Macedonia is in no position to boost its economy and standard of life for its citizens, that due to cultural reasons rooted in our mentality that favored corruption, laziness and improper education that result in low quality economic production, that enabled the conservative opposition to be seen as a ‘revolutionary’ moment, a sparkle of optimism for progress in the midst of a depressive economic life of the country. Its newly elected leader, Nikola Gruevski, who was a former Minister of finance in the 1998 government and remembered as an efficient and pragmatic politician who introduced the VAT tax and implemented the process of denationalization of properties gained also gained sympathies of other non-Macedonian ethnic groups, including also Albanians who saw him as a figure that is not exploiting a nationalist rhetoric, but rather providing a strong economic hope for everyone.

A highly beneficial aspect to the successful impact of Gruevski’s comprehensive economic program of ‘Rebirth in 100 steps’ on the public was that it was the first time that a political party had elaborated such a plan which was not seen before in any political campaign. But the crucial moment that was missed was that this was a neoliberal undertaking which promised to catapult economic growth and fight unemployment and poverty by means of flexibilization of labor market, lowering taxes and providing a good business climate.

This economic rhetoric played well with the strong anti communist and anti-statist sentiments of the majority of the people who, after the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation were exposed to their ideological production as free subjects of the unlimited possibilities of the free market. The state bureaucracy, their corruption, the high taxes and state involvement was seen as a major obstacle to the free development of economy where the people could pursue their progress and wellbeing. Given the hegemony that the neoliberal economic belief had already establish, the programme for economic ‘Rebirth in 100 steps’ hardly received any substantial critique or analysis, except of fellow neoliberal economists who saw some aspects of the program as way too optimistic in the short run period that they were foreseen to take place.

Taken generally, it was a good job to do, it was supposed to be a final cut-off with the systemic remains of the previous socialist system that was blocking the society in its free economic progress. The universally believed notion of free market had deeply affected the Macedonian society due to its success to present its fake content of economic liberty as a mean to fulfill the wishes of the masses for economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Due to the lack of substantial ideological-political debate, the economic program of the new government was taken for granted due to the lack of structural analysis that led the majority to endorse the superficially projected socio-economic aims without any questioning of the very policies that were to bring the promised results. Two years into government followed by a significant victory over the social-democrats, the government led by Gruevski has lowered income taxes and enacted several legal provisions that made labor ever more flexible for the purposes of foreign investments. Witnessing that his neoliberal economic programs do not provide any indicator of success, one that would be felt by the majority of the citizens, Gruevski went into early elections as a means of gaining extra time to figure out his economic plans. He campaigned under the same economic promise, claiming that the first two years were too short of a period for his high goals and that a fresh four-year mandate would be enough for an economic rebirth to take place in the country.

In the first early parliamentary elections in the short independent political history of Macedonia held in 2008, the VMRO-DPMNE won an absolute majority of 64 out of 120 seats and formed a government. Gruevski now had all the power in his hands to pursue the economic program that got him a wide support among the population of the country. Already by 2009 it was obvious that the ‘new’ neoliberal economic policy of the Gruevski government would not bring any benefit for the majority of the people that had given their support for the proposed major economic reforms. It became clear that capitalism doesn’t work for the majority of the people, even under its own capitalistic terms of free market that allegedly should benefit the wellbeing of the majority of people. The lowered taxes and restrictions of labor rights made the market more dynamic only in the terms of extracting profits for the large owners of capital, while on the other hand, the unemployment and poverty in the country remained still over 30 percents. Macedonia’s socio-economic indicators were showing an increasing trend in poverty and especially a drastic widening gap between the poor and the rich, becoming the country with the significantly highest GINI index among all the European countries.

Facing the economic impossibility of bringing a meaningful change under the capitalist terms of economic policy for the majority of people who had supported the VMRO-DPMNE on its economic platform, Gruevski could not allow losing such a majority support at any cost. The false consciousness support of the masses for the free market ideology was soon to be shifted into one of the most perverse nationalist narratives in present days Europe. But in order to be able to install a nationalism completely out of joint with history and often with reason, the government of Gruevski moved towards adopting a sharp populist rhetoric, which in the governing logic was coupled by an increased authoritative positioning of the Prime minister and the blurring of the party-state distinction.

Soon Gruevski started to be addressed as ‘the leader’ who represented a unity of the party structures and state institutions. The first step into building a populist rhetoric was the forging of a strong anti-elitist sentiment which identified the opposition social-democrats as those members of the elite who became rich through the privatization in the 90-ties and who had settled in all the important positions in the universities, hospitals, courts and banks. Although the economic program of Gruevski had no mention of any sort of revision of privatization, but to the contrary it saw the private sector as the main means of progress, privatization now became one of the key elements of the new populism. In order to perform a wider social mobilization under the new populist wave, Gruevski’s party needed a strong control over the society which was implemented through a strict participation of all public sectors such as hospitals, schools, theaters, academia, but also by blackmailing private business. This sort of mobilization took shapes of a sort of social revolutionary process of bringing into the political picture the marginalized masses that have been disenfranchised by an economically and morally corrupt ‘class of the transition’. Some of the policies that were devised to enshrine the moral rebuilding of the country, since the economic rebirth had failed dramatically, were centered around traditional family values, of which some existed and some were invented anew. New laws came along this line including that on abortion restrictions, subsidizing of a third child in the family, ban on the sale of alcohol in the markets after 10 o’clock, closing down of the gender studies department in the state university in Skopje, restriction of the working time of bars to midnight and a strong turn to religious practices, which culminated in the opening of the 2012 academic year of the Skopje university with a religious ceremony in the main orthodox church.

The apparent wide social mobilization that Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE had managed to achieve, was essentially a free-riding on another false consciousness of the formerly excluded masses of ‘non-elitist’ background, since in the real terms of their democratic participation, they had no effective voice whatsoever. They were to conceive of themselves as a support base for the ensuring that the elites, communists, feminists, gays and lesbians, pro-Greek traitors and liberals never have a chance to run the country. Thus being greatly barred from exerting any influence regarding economic policies that affected their everyday material life, the ordinary masse’s anti-elitist sentiment was only benefiting Gruevski in building his own elite by keeping the majority of the people excluded in real terms.

Firstly, it was the failure of an economic promise, impossible under capitalism, to bring wellbeing to the masses, that pushed Gruevski’s politics towards populism in order to maintain the support of masses of citizens who previously had never been mobilized around a political idea. This was supposed to be the genuine opening to the people of the party, and later of the state. But under the neoliberal state, this is also genuinely impossible, because it would imply a wide democratic participation in the decision-making process in the country and thus effectively influencing economic policies, which are the direct interest of the majority of people, instead of state enforced deregulation and favoring of capital over labor. Thus, the more impossible the economic program of Gruevski became over time, the more was nationalism increasingly a part of government’s policies.

Secondly, the class dynamics that the VMRO-DPMNE had initiated were soon to be shown as a perverted version of popular inclusion and the support of the lower social strata was slowly starting to fade away. But the new elite which had been established by a direct political intervention in different segments of the society, for the purpose of ensuring its endurance and independence from the uncertain future of government, had to accumulate large amounts of capital from the society through the state apparatus. By the time that the new VMRO-DMPNE structure had taken power in Macedonia, most of the public assets were privatized and thus the only remaining source for large capital accumulation was the state budget. The fact that the strongest public proponents of the ‘antiquization’ and of the centrality of the figure of Alexander the great within Macedonian’s national identity substance, were at the same time the owners of the construction companies that build the ‘Skopje 2014’ with public funds, made clear the picture of an orchestrated maneuver on the part of the new elite. The acquisition of public funds by the newly established elite of the VMRO-DPMNE was and is still being carried out through grotesque costs for the building of theaters, museums and other government buildings as well as renewing facades in a baroque style with very low quality materials.

While the overall cost of ‘Skopje 2014’ is still a matter of disputes, due to the non-transparency of the award process to construction companies and imported statues, and also due to its constant revisions and expansion, the official figures are at 317 million Euros, while the expert calculation is that it will exceed 500 million Euros. Having into the bizarre prices of ‘Skopje 2014’ constructions, ranging from dozen million Euros for a single statue to hundreds of millions for museums, it becomes clear that the government has washed away a great deal of millions through its ‘legal’ mega project. Despite the overwhelming kitsch that the ‘Skopje 2014’ reflects and the tremendous amount of money spent from the budget of one of the poorest countries in Europe, almost all of the project’s buildings and statues are dead concrete, they represent non-productive constructions, they are neither capital investments in infrastructure neither public service providing institutions for the citizens. These are the most visible general aspects of our current socio-economic predicament in the country, persisting until the latest political crisis.

What is your position on the latest developments about the serious political crisis that your country faces the last months? What we basically know is that Republic of Macedonia cannot form a government despite the latest elections and that the rightwing president, Gjorge Ivanov, refused to give Social Democrat Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a coalition government with ethnic Albanian parties due to national reasons!

Nikola: Well, “national reasons” is one way to put it. It was the phrase used by the president himself when he officially declined to grant the mandate to Zaev, even though according to constitution he was supposed to give it to him after Gruevski (the leader of the right wing nationalist party to which the country’s president is affiliated) didn’t manage to form a government for months after the elections. This act, which technically speaking meant breaking the constitution, has many other reasons than “national” ones. The most technical reason is the fact that this president (unlike any previous one) is quite obviously a complete puppet of the ruling VMRO party, doing whatever the party leadership (mostly Gruevski) will tell him to do, often disregarding his own personal integrity in the process, too. The reason the party membership is making the president do this constitution break is also quite obviously the fact that most of them are well aware that if they stop ruling the country and put their hands away from the state institutions which they managed to put very much under their own party’s unofficial control during their 10 year rule (this includes the courts) – most of them will probably go to prison, and for long periods of time. For Gruevski and his clique the “national interest” is understandably far less important than their personal freedom, which they will probably lose if they lose government (especially to the vengeful social democrats).

But of course, if the president of the country is going to break the constitution which he obviously has no legal right to do, he then must have a “people’s” right to do it, something that comes from below, is supposed to be legitimized by the “nation’s people” themselves, and will give him the right to disregard the “unfair laws” and act “in the name of the people”. This people’s right is what they now call the “national interest”. To start with the context: in the parliament of the R. of Macedonia there are 120 seats. Traditionally, most seats are gained by VMRO and the social democrats (SDSM), which are most of the time considered “ethnic Macedonian” parties, and two other “ethnic Albanian” parties. A party needs 61 members of parliament (out of 120) to be able to form government. This time, unlike the past 10 years, the difference between VMRO and SDSM in members of parliament was very tight: 51 MPs for VMRO and 49 for SDSM, and the rest 20 votes went to 4 other ethnic Albanian parties. Normally the party with the most MPs (in this case VMRO) is given the mandate to form government but they must make a coalition in order to gain 61 seats, and a coalition is usually made with the Albanian party who has the biggest amount of votes.

But this time it was different: the protests against the VMRO government were fueled, among other things, by leaked phone conversations of high government officials which the leader of SDSM, Zaev, was showing to the public in 2015. Among other things, in those leaked phone calls we could hear high officials of the ministry of interior affairs (the spoke person and the minister herself) speaking about “making a war “(in order to ethnically cleanse Albanians) and how “if we wanted to we could kill them all” (words of the spoke person and of the minister of interior respectively).

So now VMRO finds itself in a situation where it needs 10 other members of parliament to form government – and no Albanian party would easily make a coalition with them because for the Albanian voters, a coalition with Macedonian nationalists who plot to “kill all Albanians” is equal to political suicide (and the only non-Albanian party left in parliament is SDSM which will of course never make a coalition with VMRO). Of course VMRO did however try to make a coalition with the Albanian party who had the biggest amount of votes (called BDI), and this party, from a position of political advantage, made a certain amount of requirements which VMRO didn’t want to fulfill and SDSM did. So, in the light of an imminent SDSM coalition with two Albanian parties, the VMRO -leaning propaganda machines in the media started bringing up stories about an Albanian plot to divide the country in cooperation, of course, with the “traitor” social democrats.

This they backed up by “popular” protests which are not officially but very obviously organized by VMRO (even copying many of the methods of the anti-VMRO protests of the past years), where except for hardcore nationalists and people who got recently scared by the story that the Albanians are really making a move to divide the country, many people who got a job through party membership in VMRO (an increasing phenomenon in the past 10 years) attended because they must – otherwise they will lose their jobs. These protests are what the president of the country considers the source of his “legitimacy” to deny SDSM the mandate for government, even though he should grant it according to the constitution. The “national interest” behind it is, of course, to “defend” the country from the “evil Albanians” trying to divide it, and this is playing on the nationalism card and trying to create division among the largest ethnic groups in the country. This trick (bolstering nationalism) is unfortunately starting to work again for the masses, after being pretty unsuccessful for a certain period of time before.

Artan: While Macedonia was a great example of social mobilization over the last three years, with mobilizations that went beyond the traditional lines of ethnic demarcations, one is surprised to see how the long-drawn-out crisis is unfolding in ethnic tensions. Inevitably we have to pose the question: where did this come from? Many claim that the recent ethnic alienation came out of the blue simply because it is in contradiction to the social processes of mobilization we’ve recently experienced. One can also claim that it is an orchestrated play by the corrupt ex-coalition partners in order to obscure grave abuses of state funds and institutions in the name of a higher cause, the ethnic interests. But, there is another reading that we can make of the context that led to the recent deepening of the crisis and a general increase in nationalist rhetoric among various social actors.

After the 2001 conflict and the subsequent Ohrid Agreement implementation process, Macedonia functioned through a model of ethnic power-sharing. The largest Macedonian party and the largest Albanian party would always form a coalition as winners of the two-virtual parallel ethnopolitical camps. This power-sharing arrangement enabled a transfer of criticism to the other ethnic party for any setbacks that citizens would hold the government responsible for.

In such a ping-pong game of blaming the coalition partner and remaining entrenched in their ethnopolitical nests, the political parties Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE, and the Democratic Union for Integration, BDI, were able to govern, remaining largely unchallenged for a whole decade.

The long bittersweet marriage of the two parties came to an end when the massive corruption schemes that the Gruevski government had indulged in were revealed. After the internationally brokered agreement of June-July 2015 – which was supposed to open a path towards a solution to the political crisis – came the elections of December 2016, which did not provide a clear-cut majority to any political party. What we are witnessing today is an attempt to reinstate ethnicity as the main political pillar of the whole society. This is happening as a result of a significant shift among the Albanian voters, who broke away from the traditional ethnic political parties by supporting the social-democrats. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, had already opened a door for the Albanian electorate by putting several Albanians on their electoral lists. The result of the elections was one that signaled a definitive break with the model of ethnic power-sharing. The two largest ethnic Macedonian and Albanian parties, VMRO-DPMNE and BDI, were the biggest losers of the breakup of the power-sharing model.

Relying on its traditionally conservative and nationalist discourse, VMRO-DPMNE cannot compete outside its comfort zone, which until now was composed of Macedonian-only votes. These no longer decide the outcome of the election in the ‘Macedonian camp.’ Now Albanian votes are the ones that determine the winner, though the result of the elections gave advantage to Gruevski’s party by only two MPs. On the other hand, Ahmeti lost his exclusivity as the only Albanian actor in the power relations with the Macedonian side. A recent poll by Telma TV shows a significant increase in SDSM support among Albanians in the post electoral period, propelling it to the first place among Albanian voters in the country.

Faced with such a shift, both Gruevski and Ahmeti attempted to make a government on the basis of the old model, but failed. If that would have happened, Ahmeti would look like the protector of Gruevski’s corruptive decade-long rule, and thus lose even more support among the Albanians, who have traditionally seen Gruevski as an anti-Albanian, corrupt, and repressive prime minister. Therefore, fearing more break-away votes, and under pressure from his own party members, he was forced to withdraw his support for Gruevski. This is how the model of ethnic power-sharing came to an end: a shift in the Albanian voter base put Ahmeti on an offside position.

In an attempt to rehabilitate his position as the main power-holder among the Albanians, Ahmeti embarked on a platform, which besides a few realistic demands, is nationalist at its core. As it is, the platform leaves no other choice for both VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM but to refuse it. This would make both parties seem as if they have an identical position towards Albanians (although, as mentioned above, this is not so), and would result in the return of Albanian voters back to “their” ethnic camp. Thus, Ahmeti would have an easier time recruiting their support. The Platform, which was a deal among Albanian party leaders incorporating all of their electoral programs, and which became the main bargaining document for Ahmeti, has all the elements of an unelaborated, swiftly drafted paper to be used as a game-changer for the Albanian camp. But this strategy backfired. Even if he would gain some concessions from Zaev, the leader of the opposition, the nationalist mobilization that Gruevski has generated against the ‘Albanian Platform’ complicated the political terrain. Now, any agreement that BDI and Social-Democrats could reach would only contribute to more tensions and reduce the possibility for a meaningful political dialogue. Power, which by definition does not hold any ethnic label, has been so much of an entertaining ‘drug’ for the corrupt elites, that their thirst for it does not run out even at the threat of ethnic tensions and possible destabilization of this country in the heart of the Balkans.

It is beyond any discussion that the elevation and expansion of the use of Albanian language does contribute to equality in the country and in no way threatens its unity, but the way and the timing in which it has been put forward, coupled with the easily-read political scheming behind such a move, undermines its very possibility of becoming a reality. Furthermore, putting forward a demand for Albanian language to become an official language would not be so problematic if it were the only demand of ‘the Albanian Platform.’ But, the document lists several irrational demands, such as a demand for “resolutions on the genocide towards Albanians.” This clearly indicates a “smart” strategy: the platform is supposed to be rejected (as it currently is) and political benefits will be reaped from society going down in nationalist flames.

The president’s rejection to give the mandate to the opposition leader Zaev, on the grounds of the danger that negotiating with such a platform poses to the constitutional order of the country, is one of the many irrational and unconstitutional events we might witness these days. Do not doubt that this too is grounded on the same thirst for power. Even more so when it is only this tight grip that can save the current elite, which has depleted Macedonia’s institutions of their democratic legitimacy; has drained the state budget funds through a series of corrupt deals (the Skopje 2014 project bill has now reached almost 700 million euros); and has enforced a repressive legislation that has enacted one of the worst models of state capture in Europe today.

From many years we listen about the so-called tension between the ethnic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians in your country. What is the real situation between these two populations? What is your experience of your everyday co-existence?

Nikola: “Ethnic tension” is hard to define for me. Personally I don’t feel any kind of tension when I am with people who (nominally) belong to the Albanian (or any other) ethnicity, and I don’t feel Albanians feel a tension when they are with me (you could say I culturally belong to the ethnic Macedonian group). This would more or less sum up my experience of everyday co-existence.

Now when I talk to other people (in my case ethnic Macedonians who can “openly” talk to me since they view me as a member of “their group” because we speak the same language) I can sometimes (in pretty rare cases actually, but it exists nonetheless) hear racism from fear of Albanians – fear that the nationalist rhetoric (especially for the past 25 years) has created among people of both ethnic groups.

There is a certain (mostly hidden) tension inside some members of both groups, but at present this doesn’t often translate into open tensions, so I would say media articles about “ethnic tensions” in this country are a bit far fetched – there is no substantial tension in everyday life, even though it exists in the heads of some individuals. Of course, this was not always the case – for example in 2001 there was an open armed conflict between mostly ethnic Albanian militias and the state army, and you could feel the tension between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians in society itself, but this has changed a lot in the past 15 years.

Especially after the anti-government protests of 2014-2016, where protesters from all ethnic groups gathered massively to protest bad policies of the government of VMRO as well as their coalition partners in BDI who were technically also part of the government. In fact the series of spontaneous protests in 2014 started by a group of students against a proposed external testing of the ministry of education (a plan which would mean direct infringement on the autonomy of the university by the ministry) led by an ethnic Albanian minister from BDI, Abdalaqim Ademi. The series of protests that followed saw an unseen solidarity between protesters who managed to overcome ethnic divisions and create and over-ethnic struggle for justice. This was the atmosphere in the past two years, but it has now come under threat with the current government-organised protests which spur nationalism again.

Artan: Unfortunately, my personal experience is a result of my political/personal engagement and beliefs, therefore I do not experience any major issue of ethnic character in my everyday life in the country. But especially in the recent times, I witness how people fall prey to nationalistic rhetoric which is becoming more present, although luckily not yet coupled with concrete incidents. I don’t think nor do I believe that there is an eternal determination, political or historic for ethnic groups to go well with each other or to hate each other. And here is why I see the political/activist engagement as a very important and crucial point.

If we manage to generate a wider social climate, through mobilizations and awareness changing initiatives and provide for transformative experiences for the people in this country, a climate that is based on references of anti-nationalism, social justice, and economic solidarity, than I believe more and more people will pursue an everyday life that is non-confrontational in ethnic, but rather in class terms. And for this, of course we cannot ignore ethnic issues, we, as s society must strive to equality on those terms as well, but without fetishizing and without any tolerance on nationalist notes that usually underpin those issues.

As long as nationalist political clans will be in charge of running the country and therefore generate social effects in the wider society, it is to be expected that these will impact the everyday life in the country. Just to mention that, as a result of the ethnic model of power-sharing, we have today parallel media (in Macedonian and Albanian only) and also a very parallel educational model, where Macedonian and Albanian pupils go to separate schools or separate shifts in the same school building. This is a result of segregation policies that have been pursued for a long period of time. But I believe that the work of Solidarnost and some recent openings in the mainstream politics have laid the ground for future improvements. Thus, we need to continue to working on providing a better vision for the peoples of Macedonia.

Do you think that the things that unite us in Balkans are more than the ones that finally divide us and if yes, which are they? How far is the vision for a peaceful co-existence for all the people in Balkans?

Nikola: As somewhat of a radical libertarian left-wing idealist I am inspired by the ideas of a Balkan federation, and we do have a lot of things that unite us which are pretty obvious to every Balkanic person, I believe (even if this statement can be dangerously understood as regionally identitarian, which it shouldn’t be – we must unite because we are human beings first and foremost). I always perceive the divisions among people as something imposed by those who wish to rule them (“Divide and conquer”), so I cannot really see what are those things that divide us. I think everything unites us! This is of course my personal idealism – in the harsh real life things don’t look so ideal to me. It seems that we (Balkanic people in general) have drifted further apart from each other in the past years, even though there are still those of us who work together to unite us all. The vision of peaceful and united Balkans, it seems, is as far away as our own (the wider left’s) inability to do a good job in trying to unite the people is big: the more progress we make in the struggle for a better world, the closer the vision of a peaceful and united Balkans will be. We must not let our guards down for I believe we have a historical responsibility to create a better society for everyone. The only problem is that I do not necessarily know what exactly we should do to stay true to this responsibility we have, but it is up to us to try!

Artan: The quest for a better present and future is one key linkage of the populations in the Balkans. We all face grave political exploitation of our societies by the current elites. A serious systemic change, one that would eliminate the sources of corruption and abuse of state power by the current Balkan elites, will take some time. It will take some more hard work in organizing communities and in building strong ties and confidence, it will take a networked structure that provides a viable social program one which will not be prone to blackmails, threats and media propaganda. All that will inevitably lead to the reinvention of a new political vision of the Balkans.

Looking ahead, the picture of the future of Europe and also of the Balkans can resemble two possible scenarios: (1) one of the domination of xenophobic nationalisms and cultural closing within national borders and (2) that of a free exploration of ideas, exchange among cultures and inventing common paths of progress. Of course, there will not be a final result of one of the two scenarios, but a constant process of competition of forces of reaction and those of progress. That is why we attempted to contribute to the enriching and opening of new spaces of contestation of nationalisms but also of creation of new content and common knowledge on potential for a non-national reference points to artistic and theoretical production as well as activist action.

Thank you a lot for your time!