SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s night of violence that saw protesters storm parliament and attack lawmakers elicited diametrically opposed reactions from world powers Friday, with Russia blaming the West for meddling in the Balkan nation’s internal affairs and the European Union and United States saying the events were inconsistent with democracy.
The simmering tensions in Macedonia and the opposing views of powerful nations have led to concerns that the former Yugoslav republic, which narrowly escaped all-out civil war in 2001, could become another flashpoint for increasingly frosty relations between Russia and the West.
Political tension has been building in Macedonia for the past two years, and the country has been under a caretaker government since inconclusive early December elections. The hostility boiled over Thursday night over disagreements about the election of a new parliament speaker, leaving more than 100 people injured, including police, protesters and lawmakers.
By Friday, the previous night’s chaotic scenes had translated into a war of words between rival politicians despite calls for calm from abroad. In the evening, about 2,000 people held a protest outside the EU mission headquarters in downtown Skopje, calling for new elections.
Zoran Zaev, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, wore a white adhesive bandage over a gash on his forehead as he accused his attackers of attempted murder with the parliament invasion. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose supporters were among the mob that burst into the building on Thursday, said he deplored the violence, but accused his political rivals of instigating it with an attempted power grab.
“Greed to seize power at any cost is the direct cause which led to this adverse situation, and they bear responsibility for it,” Gruevski said, accusing the Social Democrats of violating the Constitution by electing the new speaker despite the months-old deadlock in forming a new government.
The European Union and United States were swift to condemn the violence, and to recognize the new parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, a former military officer and defense minister.
“Democracy must run its course. We take positive note of the election of Talat Xhaferi as Speaker of the Parliament,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini said in a joint statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Macedonia’s capital condemned the violence “in the strongest terms,” and said it would work with Xhaferi “to support democracy and to advance the interests of Macedonia.” A State Department comment released later Friday took similar lines.
Russia, however, had an entirely different take on events.
“The opposition, which lost the parliamentary elections, actually tried to seize power in the country by force, having deliberately elected the chairman of the parliament with a flagrant violation of the established procedures,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It noted the speed at which EU and U.S. representatives had recognized Xhaferi’s legitimacy as parliament speaker, and pointed out his past as a former rebel commander during a 2001 armed uprising by ethnic Albanian rebels seeking greater rights in Macedonia.
“Such a reaction, coordinated with lightning-speed, is undoubtedly evidence that the incident was planned in advance, with the tacit consent of the ‘external curators’ of the Macedonian opposition,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry described Xhaferi’s election as “the unceremonious manipulation of the will of citizens with the aim of removing the legitimate government from power.”
Macedonia has a history of political tension and instability, and narrowly escaped all-out civil war in 2001.
Biljana Vankovska, a geopolitical analyst and Skopje University professor of security and peace studies, said she doesn’t believe the West and Russia would be deeply involved in the country’s politics.
“The clash of the Titans is coming in the region, but not yet,” Vankovska said. “It is normal that big powers are trying to keep their influence in this critical region. But Macedonia is too tiny, in my opinion — too insignificant — to give it such an importance.”
She noted that most Macedonians have been looking to the West for years. The country has been an EU candidate since 2005.
“But somehow we have made a U-turn and slid back towards authoritarianism, poverty and internal clashes between the political parties,” she said.
“In terms of the big picture, I think that Russia is trying to catch up with developments and have a say, but it is more like a shadow than internal actor,” she added.
Macedonia’s political crisis started in early 2015, when Zaev accused then-prime minister Gruevski of masterminding a massive illegal wiretapping operation against the judiciary, police, politicians, journalists, foreign diplomats and religious leaders.
Gruevski denies wrongdoing, and has blamed the wiretaps on unspecified foreign spies.
His party won December’s parliamentary election with a slim majority, but without enough seats to form a government on its own. Coalition talks broke down over ethnic Albanian parties’ demands that Albanian be recognized as an official second language. About one-quarter of the country’s population of about 2 million is ethnic Albanian.
As the runner-up in the election, Zaev reached a coalition agreement with an ethnic Albanian party, saying he would consider — but not necessarily accept — the language demands. But President Gjorge Ivanov has refused to give him the mandate to govern, arguing the chances that Zaev might agree to the language demands could threaten the country’s sovereignty.
On Friday, Zaev said he expected that Xhaferi, the new parliament speaker, would demand Ivanov give the mandate to form a government to Zaev in the coming days.
Becatoros contributed from Athens. Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this story.
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