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Thousands Protest Deal To Make Albanian Macedonia's Second Language

Protesters march in Skopje on February 27.
Protesters march in Skopje on February 27.

Several thousand people have protested in Macedonia's capital against a political agreement that would ensure wider use of the Albanian language in the ethnically divided state.

The protests in Skopje late on February 27 came after the leader of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, presented signatures from three ethnic Albanian political parties showing he has enough support in parliament to form a new government next month.

The ethnic Albanian parties had made their support for Zaev's coalition government conditional on the enactment of a law backing broader use of their language in Macedonia.

Albanian is currently an official language only in areas where Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population.

A movement that called itself "For Joint Macedonia" put out calls on social media for people to go into the streets and protest the deal. Most of the protesters appeared to support the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which has denounced making Albanian Macedonia's second official language.

Protesters marched peacefully from the government building to the parliament building in Skopje shouting "This will not pass," singing Macedonian national songs, and carrying signs reading "No to bilingualism" and "This is our red line."

The parties forming the proposed coalition government "want to divide the yellow and the red color of the Macedonian flag. We won't let that happen. They want destruction, we want [a] united Macedonia," said Bogdan Ilievski, a protest organizer.

The Balkan country's two-year-old political crisis was triggered by a surveillance scandal that forced the veteran leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, Nikola Gruevski, to resign a year ago.

The crisis was the worst since Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to membership in the European Union and NATO.

In a snap vote in December, VMRO-DPMNE won 51 seats to the Social Democratic Union's 49. Neither party was able to form a government without including parties representing ethnic Albanians, who make up about one-quarter of the population.

The VMRO-DPMNE had tried but failed to form a coalition with the Albanian parties.

Earlier on February 27, Zaev submitted to President Gjorge Ivanov the signatures of 18 deputies from ethnic Albanian parties, saying he had enough support to form a new government.

"The signatures allow the crisis to end in Macedonia and the country finally to move forward," Zaev said, adding that he expected a "peaceful and quick transfer of power."

But Gruevski quickly denounced the coalition deal as unconstitutional and a threat to Macedonia. He called on supporters to launch protests against making Albanian a second official language.

With reporting by Reuters and Balkan Insight
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