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Europe

Calls for calm as Serbia and Macedonia act out Balkan thriller

Serbia has withdrawn diplomats from neighboring Macedonia – apparently for reasons of security. Observers suspect a political game involving Kosovo, NATO and the retention of power.

Alleged espionage, artificially created tensions and a lot of hot air are standard elements in a Balkan drama. But what the Serbian government did last Sunday is still highly unusual: it ordered embassy staff in the Macedonian capital of Skopje to leave for "urgent consultations" in Belgrade. Apparently, there was evidence of "offensive intelligence activities" against Belgrade, according to the brief statement issued by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Since Vučić could not or did not want to say more, the media rumor mill started buzzing.

"Scandal: The Macedonians have even spied on Vučić?" was the headline in the scandal rag Informer, the unofficial mouthpiece of the Serbian government. The rest of the popular tabloids attacked the new Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and came up with headlines like, "Zaev declares war on Serbia" or, "Zaev backstabs us."

The two leaders later spoke on the phone and agreed to improve relations.

Read more: EU and the Balkans - Brussels' favorite strongmen

Aleksander Vucic and Zoran Zaev

Aleksander Vučić and Zoran Zaev have committed to overcome "possible misunderstandings"

The secret involving a secret service man

In order to bring down the longtime autocrat Nikola Gruevski, the Social Democrat Zaev had strike a compromise with the heads of the Albanian parties in Macedonia. The deal included various concessions to the Albanians, who account for about a quarter of the population. That is how Zaev came to power at the beginning of June. The former Macedonia leader, Gruevski, has become the target of investigations for abuse of power, election fraud and massive corruption.

Ultimately, Serbian leaders backed Gruevski until the end because of the "Albanian question." When his supporters stormed Skopje's parliament at the end of April to prevent the formation of the new government coalition, video footage showed a Serbian intelligence officer in parliament during the attack. Several members of parliament were injured, including Zoran Zaev.

The incident – which was embarrassing for Belgrade – was downplayed. The new Macedonian government is striving for a diplomatic approach to its neighbors. It is possible that this scandal has prompted Macedonian authorities to monitor Serbian diplomats in the country more closely, says Bojan Elek, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BSCP). Officially, all spying allegations have been denied in Skopje. The Macedonian press, however, suspects that Belgrade has taken a spectacular step to modify and conceal intelligence activities against Zaev.

Read more: An extremely explosive combination in the Balkans

Macedonian police escorts injured members of the parliament

Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev was injured when fights broke out in parliament in April

Kosovo, the bone of contention

Numerous observers suspect other reasons for the freshly-ignited dispute. At the end of October, the General Conference of the UN culture agency UNESCO is set to discuss the admission of Kosovo to the organization. Serbia does not recognize the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence – but Macedonia does. Two years ago, Kosovo, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, narrowly missed out on UNESCO membership by a narrow margin – only three more votes were needed for the necessary two-thirds majority.

Although Zaev signalized in May that Macedonia would remain neutral in the next vote, there are growing signs that Skopje will vote for Kosovo's membership. "We have this kind of information," Vučić said in a radio program. Sources in Skopje say that Macedonia will follow the majority of EU members.

"The Serbian side may not understand that we are a multiethnic country. The government must always consider the interests of all citizens," said the former Macedonian foreign minister, Denko Maleski, in an interview with DW. He went on to say that the country's stability should not be jeopardized with regard to the ongoing tensions between Macedonia and the Albanians. "We will probably vote for Kosovo's admission to UNESCO – it suits our state interests."

Read more: The Balkans: From Yugoslav wars to an ever-tense peace

Surrounded by NATO

Ever since Montenegro, a small republic on the Adriatic coast, became a member of NATO, Serbia has almost completely been surrounded by members of the military alliance. The new Macedonian government is also aiming at quick NATO accession. The regime of the former ultra-nationalist Vučić in Belgrade passes itself as a pro-reform and pro-EU government, but NATO remains a taboo. The alliance bombed Serbia massively during the Kosovo war in 1999. Moreover, Serbian politicians always strive to maintain the best possible relations with Russia.

As a result, the Macedonian-Albanian diplomat Alajdin Demiri interprets the "hysteria" in Belgrade as an attempt to prevent Macedonia's EU and NATO membership. "This is probably due to an attempt to support Moscow. I believe it is only the beginning and soon, new steps will follow," Demiri predicted in a DW interview.

In order to clear the way for membership, Macedonia must first settle the dispute with Greece about the country's name. Athens senses a territorial claim on the Greek region Macedonia of the same name. The new coalition in Skopje is obviously trying to reach a compromise. It would have a hard time if Belgrade no longer recognized Macedonia under its name –a threat made by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić.

Read more: The old problems facing Macedonia's new government

Watch video 00:38

Belgrade: Protests continue against Vucic victory

Creating crises

The BSCP analyst Elek believes he has identified the governing patterns of Serbian leader Vučić: he artificially creates crises with neighboring countries – Croatia, Kosovo or even Macedonia to present himself as an intelligent and level-headed politician at home. The neighbors are perceived as a menace. "Then, the Serbian politicians come to the rescue and solve the problems," he said.

So he is keeping his domestic audience in suspense. On the other hand, real problems have been pushed aside: the economic woes, the arbitrary distribution of jobs in the public sector based on party loyalty and media censorship.

On Wednesday, Vučić and Zaev had a phone conversation to calm the situation and emphasize the friendly relationship between the Serbs and the Macedonians. According to a joint statement, they want to maintain a dialogue, strengthen economic relations and support each other on their respective paths to the EU. The Serbian diplomats returned to Skopje on Thursday.

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