Kurti’s visit to North Macedonia sparked tensions beyond borders and between ethnic groups

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Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

Prepared by: Ridona Berisha

The visit of the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, to North Macedonia, where he met only with the leaders of Albanian opposition parties, stirred various reactions. In addition to promoting the road segment connecting Tetovo to Prizren and naming a road in the municipality of Cair after the activist Adem Demaçi, Kurti addressed thousands of attendees at the gathering organized by the mayor of Tetovo, Billall Kasami. The absence of the flag of North Macedonia, the failure to play the national anthem of this state, as well as the display of a banner with the map of Greater Albania in the midst of the crowd, prompted reactions from Macedonian leaders, who demanded that the organizers be held accountable. Besides politicians, several media outlets also considered that Kurti’s appearance had nationalistic and divisive tones.

Kurti’s visit took place on August 11th, 2023, upon the invitation of the mayor of the Municipality of Cair, Visar Ganiu, and the mayor of the Municipality of Tetovo, Bilall Kasami – both municipalities predominantly inhabited by Albanians.

Initially, in the Municipality of Çair, Kurti participated in the ceremony of renaming a street after the activist Adem Demaçi, while in Tetovo, he inaugurated the road that connects the villages of Sellcë and Vicë. However, what provoked more reactions was Kurti’s call for an alliance between Balkan states, excluding Serbia.

“North Macedonia, should be as close to Kosovo, Albania, and Bulgaria, and as distant from Serbia, which is not distancing itself from either Milosevic or Putin, the closer it is to these countrie, the closer North Macedonia will be to the EU membership, and thus, our Balkan region will be more secure. And for this, we must assist and support North Macedonia,” Kurti stated in his speech, which was met with applause from the attendees at the gathering, who also raised a flag of “Greater Albania.”

Kurti’s speech was extensively covered by Macedonian media outlets such as “Alfa.mk,” “Plus.info,” and “Telma.com,” with headlines including: “Map of Greater Albania, Albanian Flags, Albanian Songs – Çair and Tetovo as if They Aren’t in North Macedonia”, “The Flag of Greater Albania Waved at Kurti’s Arrival in Tetovo, Ministry of Interior Affairs will whiten the case.”

“Ethnic-Tinged” Visit

Immediately after Kurti’s visit, the President of North Macedonia, Stevo Pendarovski, called for the sanctioning of representatives from the municipalities of Çair and Tetovo.

“The placement of provocative nationalist iconography, which promotes chauvinistic ideas of greater states, incites hatred and not ethnic tolerance, undoubtedly attacking the fundamental principles and values of the Framework Agreement, as well as the concept of Macedonia as a multi-ethnic state,” wrote the President of North Macedonia in his statement.

In addition to Pendarovski, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski also reacted, also seeking explanations from the Embassy of Kosovo in Skopje. According to him, “the display of non-state flags is in contradiction with protocols and laws governing the organization of events in the presence of foreign officials.”

The Macedonian authorities responded to the leaders’ call, with the Ministry of Interior filing criminal charges against the mayors of Tetovo and Çair for what they described as a “violation of the law on the use of state symbols” during the visit of Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, on August 11th. In response, Bilall Kasami characterized this as a political persecution reminiscent of the “communist system.”

There was also dissatisfaction regarding the naming of the road after activist “Adem Demaçi” in the Municipality of Çair. In fact, the mayor of Skopje, Danella Arsovska, submitted a proposal in the City Council to change the name of the road from “Adem Demaçi” back to its previous name, “Second Macedonian Brigade.”

“Interference” Among Albanian Parties

Meanwhile, the Macedonian opposition has placed blame on the government for Kurti’s visit, despite the fact that meetings with government officials were not on the agenda of the Kosovo Prime Minister. The leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickovski, stated that Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski was present and voted in a government session to change the names of roads. According to him, it should not have been allowed for the road’s name to be changed.

Kurti’s visit to North Macedonia took place at a time when the opposition bloc intensified its efforts to create a common front against the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), led by Ali Ahmeti, which is part of the governing coalition. Before Kurti headed to Skopje and Tetovo, the Foreign Minister of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, stated that Kurti certainly wasn’t coming as a prime minister, while also mentioning the absence of official meetings.

On the other hand, the leader of the BDI, Ali Ahmeti, stated that the Albanian opposition in North Macedonia misused Kurti’s visit. “By listening to the mayor of Tetovo, Mr. Kurti’s visit was used to support the opposition. This greatly surprised me, so I didn’t take any initiative to hold additional meetings in Kosovo, especially with the Kosovo executive,” Ahmeti said in an interview on RTK.

Reactions in Serbia

The mention of Serbia during the Tetovo gathering sparked a reaction from Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who labeled Kurti’s visit as a scandal. “What happened in North Macedonia was a scandal of scandals. The idea of ‘Greater Albania’ was promoted there, with its own symbols, while Kurti presented himself as the prime minister of all Albanians and, among other things, as the prime minister of Tetovo,” Vučić stated. Meanwhile, former Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Šutanovac went even further, saying that “Kurti would have launched a military campaign in the region if he had the power and support.”

Kurti’s Response

In response to the various reactions, Prime Minister Albin Kurti addressed the audience during the presentation of the Prizren-Tetovo road project. According to him, “those were not meetings and gatherings against anyone, and good relations between us will not harm anyone.” He also added that he considers North Macedonia a partner, ally, and friend.

Kosovo’s President, Vjosa Osmani, has characterized the Prime Minister’s visit as a misunderstanding, stating that the display of the flag of “ethnic Albania” is merely an action by a citizen and not something organized. “I believe this is a small misunderstanding that, when we have the will from both sides, as we have always demonstrated, can be overcome, knowing that all institutions of Kosovo are interested only in positive and ever-improving relations with North Macedonia,” she emphasized.

Reactions also came from the opposition in Kosovo. The leader of AAK and former Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, called on the Albanians in North Macedonia not to trust Kurti. According to Haradinaj, Kurti has blocked all roads and projects, including the Plavë road that connects Kosovo with Montenegro.

The incitement of nationalist sentiment in a highly ethnic society like that of North Macedonia does not contribute to the processes through which the country is currently undergoing, which are interconnected with European integration. After the name change, North Macedonia is now undergoing other constitutional changes related to the inclusion of Bulgarians in the highest legal act, a condition for holding the second intergovernmental conference and continuing negotiations for EU membership.

*This article is published as part of the Western Balkans Regional Initiative against disinformation. Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: exposing malign influences through watchdog journalism.