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Ethnic violence belies Balkans peace

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But Balkan experts say that while historical conflicts, or at least the most recent ones, are an important factor in the current situation in the Balkans, the machinations of local politicians and, to a lesser extent, the misguided, albeit well-meaning, interventions of the international community, are more immediate factors.

The Balkan wars were, to a great extent, lengthened by local politicians stoking nationalist sentiment and the reluctance of the international community to get involved. Outside powers eventually helped broker peace agreements, which were the least-worst options at the time. But they did not present a long-term solution to ethnic divisions in the region – particularly since politicians continue to exploit them for their own gain.

A shallow peace

The trigger for the recent outbreak in Macedonia, divided between Slavic-speaking Macedonians and Albanian Muslims, was a traditional festival kukeri festival in an ethnic-Macedonian village in which some participants appeared to be mocking Muslims.

The winter kukeri festival involves men dressing up in frightening masks or outlandish costumes to scare evil spirits away. Political incorrectness is common at such events – similar festivals in Bulgaria regularly feature people in black face. But this year, the appearance of revelers dressed as burqa-clad Muslim women has triggered substantial demonstrations, as well as at least one arson attack on a church and the stoning of a bus bound for the festival village.

There have been apparent reprisals, including the beating of ethnic-Albanian children with baseball bats on a bus and the daubing of xenophobic slogans on a mosque. A Macedonian policeman shot dead two Albanians. Some of the incidents have been blamed on provocateurs.

Was this an outpouring of rage bottled up since 2001, when a peace agreement brought an end to Macedonia's conflict? Chris Deliso, Skopje-based director of, says recent events – particularly a demonstration held some days after the festival – look more orchestrated than spontaneous. He suggests that politicians are jockeying for position ahead of local elections in 2013. By identifying with and organizing protests, politicians can rally support and demonstrate their clout.

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