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Politics & Government

Macedonians, Ethnic Albanians Unite Over Effort to Oust Prime Minister

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Yugoslavia broke up more than 20 years ago, much of it descended into bloody ethnic violence. The Republic of Macedonia emerged from that chaos relatively unscathed, but the Macedonian and Albanian communities there have lived separate and largely unequal lives. Now a campaign to oust the nationalist prime minister is uniting them. Joanna Kakissis sent this report from the Macedonian capital.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Macedonian).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Airun, Jusuf and Liatik are three grandfathers who have tea together every morning amid the Ottoman architecture of Skopje's old town. They're ethnic Albanians, and they say they like their fellow compatriots, the Macedonian Slavs. The two people have been here for centuries, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Macedonian).

KAKISSIS: The grandfathers explain that the Macedonians who are Christian and the Albanians who are Muslim have always lived in peace. But many Albanians have often felt like second-class citizens, deprived of good schools and jobs. This marginalization led to an armed uprising in 2001 which many feared would lead to an ethnic war like the one in neighboring Kosovo. But Jusuf Kaioli, a retired interior designer, explains that Albanians never wanted to secede from Macedonia.

JUSUF KAIOLI: (Through interpreter) Macedonians were manipulated to think that this was only a fight for a greater ethnic Albania. But it was a fight to be heard - a fight for the rights of the Albanian minority in Macedonia.

KAKISSIS: In the years since 2001, Albanians have increased their influence in Macedonian politics. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski governs in coalition with an Albanian party. And Macedonian university professor Zhidas Daskalovski insists Gruevski supports the Albanian minority.

ZHIDAS DASKALOVSKI: I think this government has also helped integrate many ethnic Albanians which were out of the system, meaning that they now work in the public administration, and they're part of the civil service. Now there are less tension than there were in the early '90s, let's say.

KAKISSIS: But Gruevski has also united Macedonians and Albanians against him. He's been implicated in a massive wiretapping scandal. Thousands have marched to demand his resignation.

MUHAMMAD ZAKIRI: (Speaking Macedonian).

KAKISSIS: Muhammad Zakiri, who runs an Albanian TV channel that's critical of Gruevski, explains that both Macedonians and Albanians want a transparent and effective government.

ZAKIRI: (Speaking Macedonian).

KAKISSIS: And they won't let violence divide them, he says. As an example, Zakiri says the two communities came together to denounce a deadly shootout by suspected Albanian militants earlier this month.

In TV footage, gunshots could be heard for hours after the bloody attack in the northeastern city of Kumanovo. But Macedonian and Albanian neighbors huddled together in courtyards and explained to journalists that they were watching out for each other.

Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian opposition leader trying to oust Gruevski, says Macedonia, a democracy established just 24 years ago, will not see the kind of ethnic violence that seems to haunt the Balkans.

ZORAN ZAEV: Not here, not in our country, not in this moment. I hope never in future, but it's possible to have some kind of violence because of separation of our society.

KAKISSIS: That separation is about ideology, not ethnicity, Zaev says. European diplomats are trying to smooth relations between the opposition and government, worried that any division in this small corner of the Balkans can quickly spread to the whole region. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Skopje, Macedonia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.