By Alon Ben-Meir and *Arbana Xharra
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Turkey's President Erdogan makes no secret of his ambition to spread his neo-Ottoman wings all over the Balkans. He views Macedonia as another Turkish satellite in the making, which sadly the Macedonian government seems to have embraced without carefully assessing the long-term adverse ramifications. Very few Albanian voices in Macedonia have the courage to publicly criticize Erdogan, fearful of becoming a target of threats and insults by a huge propaganda machine directed by many of his cronies. Erdogan has been extremely successful in influencing the majority of Albanians in the country, many of whom consider him as their one and only trusted leader.
For more than a decade, Erdogan has invested heavily in spreading his influence among Albanians, through building mosques and Turkish schools, and funding media, religious institutions, and most recently political parties, which are directly controlled by his close associates and have dramatically increased his influence over the Albanian community.
Anyone who dares to criticize Erdogan or discuss his personal ambitions in Macedonia is attacked publicly by the 'internet brigade' as an Islamophobe or traitor.
"I was personally a target of these attacks twice," says Xhelal Neziri, an experienced investigative reporter from Macedonia. "They cannot stop me from telling the truth, but it is a fact that many of my colleagues do not want to talk about this topic, because of the 'lynching threats.'"
A majority of Albanians in Macedonia identify themselves as Muslims rather than by their Albanian national identity. There are voices within these fanatical religious groups saying that Albanians should not recognize Mother Theresa as a saint, even though she was an Albanian from Macedonia, because she does not represent the interests of the Muslim community. The number of those who believe that other national Albanian heroes like Gjergj Kastrioti "Skenderbeg," who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s, should not be recognized because they were Christians, is increasing rapidly.
Compared to other Balkan states where Albanians live who don't consider religion to be a dominant factor in their lives, Albanians in Macedonia are the staunchest supporters of Erdogan and his Islamic agenda. Erdogan's strategy for restoring Turkey's influence in the Balkans, akin to what the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed, had early success with the Albanians in Macedonia.
Nearly two-thirds of the population in Macedonia are ethnically Orthodox Christian Macedonians, and the other third of the population are predominantly Albanian Muslims. In 2001, tensions between the two groups escalated into an armed conflict between government security forces and the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA).
The conflict was short-lived and ended with the Ohrid Agreement -- a peace treaty that saw NLA commanders rebranded as legitimate politicians, gaining enhanced social and political rights which were granted to Macedonia's Albanian citizens. While armed hostilities ended nearly 17 years ago, relations between the different groups are still raw.
Albanians are disadvantaged and neglected, and continue to suffer from inequality. Macedonia denied their basic human rights. The Albanian language was not recognized until March of 2018, when Macedonia's parliament passed a law extending the official use of the Albanian language, despite massive Macedonian protests from the right-wing opposition.
The country's Slavs and Albanians still live largely separate and do not enjoy equal rights. Erdogan has used ethnic and political problems between Macedonians and Albanians as a "golden opportunity" to portray himself as the greatest defender of the Albanians. Meanwhile, all of Turkey's economic investments and trade deals are focused on the Macedonian side.
According to the World Bank, in 2016 Turkey's exports to Macedonia totaled $378 million and imports amounted to $82.6 million. The Turkish Statistics Institute (TÜdegreesK) reports that around 100 Turkish businesspeople currently have investments worth 1.2 billion ($1.47 billion) in Macedonia. These investments are focused in the parts where Macedonians live, while in the Albanian side Erdogan has invested in religious institutions to promote his Islamic agenda.