Albanian youths shout slogans during a protest in front of Macedonia's Embassy in Tirana, March 13 2012. The protest started after two ethnic Albanians were killed in Gostivar, Macedonia last month by an off-duty police officer
The situation in Macedonia appeared calmer on March 14, the day that the European Parliament was due to debate and vote on a report on the country’s progress towards EU membership, after a flare-up of tensions in recent weeks between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.
There was widespread concern about the ethnic violence that hit Skopje and other places in Macedonia, a few weeks after an incident in the north-western town of Gostivar in which a Macedonian police officer shot dead two young ethnic Albanian men.
Local media offered conflicting reports of the February 29 shooting incident. Some said that the police officer and his ethnic Albanian neighbours had been involved in a dispute over a parking space, while separate reports alleged that he had responded to an attempted assault by a group of men seeking to silence his supposed knowledge of the local illegal drug trade.
In early March, Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski offered his condolences on the deaths.
But around the same time, protests in Gostivar, where – according to Macedonia’s 2002 census – the population is close to half ethnic Albanian, ended in violence and serious damage to property.
By March 9, there had been a series of attacks on buses and in the streets involving clashes between Macedonians and ethnic Albanian youths. This was followed by further violence over the weekend.
Macedonia’s leaders responded with a large number of arrests and calls for calm.
On March 9, Albania’s foreign ministry said that it "fiercely condemns the violence exercised against Albanian pupils in Skopje, while they were returning from the Teacher Day celebrations".
The foreign ministry in Tirana called for a full investigation of the incident by law enforcement authorities, the bringing to justice and the punishment of the culprits.
"Such events, which put the harmony and coexistence of Macedonia in jeopardy, must be transcended with tranquility and maturity from the Albanians and from all other ethnicities there," Albania’s foreign ministry said.
On March 11, Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov said: "I urge everyone to act responsibly, and if I think necessary, I will convene the security council".
Ivanov said that his office was monitoring carefully all events that occurred after Gostivar, and that, on a daily basis, relevant institutions reported on every case separately.
"What is of concern is that young people are involved in all these events. Relevant institutions are taking measures. However, every segment of the society needs to bear its responsibility for what is happening to us, starting from the family, the school, the non-governmental organisations to the media. Everyone should bear responsibility, because we know what can happen when corrupted young people incite events which affect inter-ethnic relations in the country," Ivanov said.
On March 12, prime minister Gruevski Gruevski called for peaceful coexistence.
"I appeal to everyone to avoid acts, which would affect the young people and their relatives. People should redirect their energy on more positive things instead of disturbing the peace of the other citizens," Gruevski said, according to local media.
He called on political leaders not to try to take advantage of the situation and urged them not to use the language of hatred.
On March 12, a spokesman for the EU's Enlargement Commissioner, Peter Stano, said he "deeply regretted" the beatings and warned against possible "emotional consequences", the BBC reported.
Speaking after a meeting with Gruevski and Macedonian interior minister Gordana Jankulovska, OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier condemned the recent violence and welcomed the swift action taken by the authorities.
On March 13, an incident in the Albanian town of Burrel, reportedly involving the burning of a Macedonian flag and anti-Macedonian slogans, led to a strongly-worded response from the foreign ministry in Skopje.
The foreign ministry said that it "most explicitly condemns" the incident involving the burning of the Macedonian national flag, "as well as the banners and slogans containing strong and offensive language that could be read or heard at the public protest in front of the Macedonian embassy in Tirana".
"Incidents of this type accompanied by banners containing and invoking hate speech are detrimental to the excellent good-neighbourly relations between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Albania, as well as to the building of trust between the two nations," Macedonia’s foreign ministry said.
The ministry said that it fully expects that, "acting in the spirit of good-neighbourly relations, the Albanian authorities will take all measures necessary in order to identify those responsible and ensure that any incidents of this or similar type be prevented in the future".
The episodes after Gostivar have raised concerns about ethnic tensions in the country in which a reported 25 per cent of the population is ethnic Albanian.
Interviewed by Bulgarian news agency Focus, Professor Vlado Popovski, former minister and one of the authors of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, and now a municipal councillor in Skopje, said that the inter-ethnic relations situation in Macedonia could be described as "stable but fragile".
Relations between the communities were stable at many levels but that stability could easily be disturbed unless the situation was kept under control, Popovski was quoted as saying.
Macedonia nearly slid into civil war in 2001, when rebels demanding greater rights for the ethnic Albanian minority launched an uprising against the Skopje authorities, the BBC said.
Further conflict was averted by the Ohrid peace agreement, which guaranteed ethnic Albanians greater recognition, but tensions have continued to simmer, the report said.