Postcard from Kumanovo: The Chessboard and the Carnival

“This is part of a game of chess. Some make protests, others make killings,” said Davor, talking about the situation in his hometown of Kumanovo as we rode in on a bus just after noon on Sunday. By then the town had played host to intense shootouts between police and armed men for more than 24 hours. By the end of the day it would be announced that the fighting had claimed the lives of eight police officers and 14 gunmen. Yet none of the bus’s passengers seemed the least bit anxious.

On arrival in Kumanovo the mood was much the same. A wedding procession of cars with ribbons on their bonnets drove through the streets, honking their horns. Yards away on the pavement policemen looked on, assault rifles at the ready. In the words of Macedonian Red Cross worker Oliver Gickevski, “People are living like it’s normal, but nothing is normal.” Gickevski and his colleagues were in town to provide humanitarian aid to Kumanovo residents displaced by the fighting.

The gunshots that had been the percussive soundtrack to every piece of footage coming out of Kumanovo for the past two days had gone quiet by Sunday afternoon. By then the last remaining fighters had been contained within a single neighbourhood, soldiers standing guard at its entrance.

Across the street from the soldiers a carnival of the curious and the confused had formed. Journalists and local residents stood facing the besieged neighbourhood, sentinel over the far side of the road, looking for answers from an empty street. Behind them television camera crews that had grown tired of filming bored soldiers at the entrance to the empty street scrummed to capture the thoughts and feelings of the assembled throng. Around the scrum people jostled to hear what their neighbours told the cameras. In the absence of much official information people seemed to have a craving for news, even if it was coming from people who had spent the afternoon next to them, staring at the empty street.

The official version of events, given at a press conference on Sunday evening, is that the armed men were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who had arrived in Kumanovo days before to prepare a series of terrorist attacks in Macedonia. But the government’s announcement has not convinced everyone.

Over the weekend rumours attempted to fill the information vacuum. A popular theory was that the violence was orchestrated by or on behalf of the government, to enable it to declare a state of emergency. Opposition leader Zoran Zaev has called for mass anti-government demonstrations on the coming Sunday, the thinking goes that a state of emergency would enable the government to forbid or curtail the protest.

Zaev is also the face of revelations concerning alleged mass surveillance by the Macedonian state of its citizens.

The revelations have proven problematic for the government not only because they appear to show the existence of a widespread illegal wiretapping program, but for the contents of some of the conversations recorded by it. The program shows the paranoia of the country’s ruling elite, who allegedly tapped the phones of even their closest associates. The result is that key figures within Macedonia’s ruling parties, including Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, appear to be heard discussing all manner of dirty dealings, including electoral fraud, murder cover-ups, and the receipt of bribes. Zaev has been drip-feeding the country recordings of these conversations, which he has dubbed ‘bombs’, since the beginning of 2015.

In recent days, Zaev has been teasing the country with the prospect of a ‘bomb’ concerning the controversial “Monster Case”, the verdict of which divided Macedonia last summer. In July 2014, seven ethnic Albanians were found guilty of terrorism over the slaying of five ethnic Macedonians. The trial was conducted under a veil of secrecy, with journalists forbidden to report on many key details.

Many of Macedonia’s Albanians felt the trial was a sham and thousands took to the streets to demand a retrial. It is expected that any ‘bomb’ concerning the case will reawaken anger within the community, which is believed to account for a quarter of the population.

For many in Skopje, the timing of this weekend’s violence is too convenient. In Kumanovo, too, alongside the sadness felt for the loss of life, there is a high degree of cynicism. “I think this is an inside job,” said Arsim Jonuzi, echoing the sentiments of Davor, who I had spoken to on the bus.

Whether or not events this weekend were an “inside job”, they have undoubtedly served as a useful distraction for a government facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. And there is most definitely a chess game being played in Macedonia. Whoever is moving the pieces across the board, they sacrificed 22 pawns in Kumanovo this weekend – something history and Macedonia will not easily forgive them.


Cover photo credit: Bojan Rantaša/flickr/creative commons


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Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a freelance journalist focusing on the Western Balkans. You can find him on Twitter @jackoozell