I write this in a state of great anxiety about what last week’s horrific murders could mean for Macedonia’s near future.

I’m trying not to be alarmist, but the crime was not only unspeakable, it was also incredibly provocative at a time of rising ethnic tension. It’s already provoked stone-throwing mobs and apparently the arson of one house owned by an Albanian.

Obviously, we don’t know who killed those men. All investigators have said so far is that there were multiple killers who were “professionals.”

But the investigators’ unwillingness to speculate, albeit appropriate, has created an information vacuum that is filling up with fear, prejudice, and puzzlement.

To wit: professionals? The Balkans are no stranger to professional killers, but rarely are the targets fishermen by a lake. More typically, we would expect to hear that they were businessmen trying to wrest a government contract from some entrenched interest, or an independent journalist investigating corruption, or a witness in a high-profile trial.

In that light, it’s difficult not to see the crime as intended to set off a reaction. And it’s difficult not to sound a bit paranoid in writing about it.

I asked some of our correspondents in Skopje to weigh in. Like me, they are troubled by the implications of the professional nature of the murders.

One wrote:

Thus, it will cause ethnic tensions [if and until] the murderers are eventually identified and brought to justice, so a fast reaction to the whole case is of immense importance. Therefore it even can be a provocation from outside, knowing that the ethnic relationships in the country haven’t been at the highest level in the past five years.

Another correspondent said some people are speculating that the murders are meant to send a message to police, who have been arresting members of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party in eastern Macedonia as part of the Detonator operation against organized crime. The “controlled instability” of ethnic tension could be good for those in power, she ventured.

This murder was obviously done by professionals, not people who hate somebody. It was deliberate to provoke tensions, and one in a few attempts [in the] last months to do that.

On the other hand, she wrote, “we can’t exclude the interests of Serbia and Kosovo to involve Macedonia in their dispute.” Yesterday, a group calling itself the Army for the Liberation of the Occupied Territories of Albania gave Skopje two weeks “to withdraw from occupied and colonized Albanian territories.” It has also made threats to Belgrade and Athens. Not that that means it was involved in the murders, but it is at least being opportunistic.

There are enough hotheads on both sides of this, and there have been enough misguided moves by the government lately, but they have not drawn in a large part of society. If that changes, and a wider ethnic conflict breaks out, some, including one of my correspondents, worry about the country’s prospects for NATO and EU membership.

Photo: screen grab from a report by Vesti TV as investigators comb the crime scene.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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