To say that Macedonia is currently at a crossroad—though seemingly at the very end of it given its signing of the NATO Accession Protocol last Wednesday—isn’t just a boring cliché but also a heavy understatement. Despite its explicitly pro-Western orientation, which is nowadays, frankly, all the more debatable, the country has been stuck in the political mud for the better part of the past three decades. And it’s really hard to imagine that it will ever get out on the glade lightly!
Recent developments simply attest to that. Macedonia’s highly controversial formal deals with Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the so-called Tirana Platform, have frustrated and galvanized the overwhelming majority of ethnic Macedonians across the globe, only to eventually generate a degree of resignation and apathy in the face of the unbearable pressure of power politics.
But what’s next for the Macedonians? After the Zaev Government in Skopje went more than the extra mile to make sure everything’s timely in place in terms of meeting key Euro-Atlantic demands, the country’s Euro-Atlantic future might not seem as elusive as it did just awhile ago. Yet, it’s not 100% guaranteed either – at least until the day of actual accession.
With some circles still thinking of Macedonia—and the heart of the Balkans in general—as a conducive territory of high geostrategic value (object) rather than as a stable and sovereign ally (subject), there has been a legitimate concern among analysts as to whether the country could ever become a full and respected NATO member. What’s more, even if on the reach, a full NATO membership, especially for a state that has long behaved as a dedicated NATO ally, having been for instance, unlike many actual allies, a top per capita contributor to NATO’s Afghan mission, with military forces (SOFs in particular) heavily involved in the Alliance’s exercises as well, offers little consolation. Years from now, if NATO’s still alive and kicking, it would be still hard—not to say impossible—to compensate for the sense of identity loss among Macedonians (although self-identification and group belonging is a largely subjective matter and can hardly be ‘lost’ due to formal bureaucratic decisions, however far-reaching the latter may be) and the now widely anticipated gradual downfall of the existing Macedonian state.
A New, More Authentic Macedonia vs. the “Rotten” Status-Quo
It is exactly in this uneasy constellation that the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia and the broader Macedonian diaspora are now awaiting their homeland’s sixth presidential election since the 1991 independence. Halfheartedly, of course! Most ethnic Macedonians and friends of Macedonia are highly skeptical about the flow and outcome of the oncoming electoral process, with virtually all of them suggesting that the ruling SDSM-DUI coalition would not refrain from rigging the scores by all means (e.g. stuffed ballots/ballot box filling, never mind consequent issues with ballot reconciliation, messy tally sheets, false or doctored statements of official results) and with tacit support from the international community.
In response, some of the newly emerging Macedonian hardliners, from left, centre, and right, are looking at the nation’s positive boycotting experience from the September 30 (2018) referendum as the only way out. For them, there is no doubt whatsoever: the already proven method of boycott and/or systemic blockade is currently the only viable tactical solution for temporarily foiling any attempt at formal legitimization of the controversial and intrinsically disintegrative processes affecting the country. Or, as they tend to put it, they have their own Macedonia, the Republic of Macedonia, and if necessary, they will build a new one, a truly “Macedonian Macedonia,” envisioned by some as a “Third [neutral and demilitarized] Macedonian Republic,” but they “don’t want anything to do with some bilingual [i.e. bi-national] Republic of North Macedonia of Bulgarian descent.”
Macedonia’s major political and institutional actors have a different plan, though. In particular, the new-old leadership of VMRO-DPMNE, the country’s largest political party, currently in opposition, is seen as a huge disappointment by hardcore Macedonian nationalists. Why? In drastic contrast to its glorified underground history, the party nowadays remains overly cautious, “thinking strategically” (or calculating as usual, depending on the perspective), and, obviously, cannot afford radical steps aimed at overriding the system that has been externally imposed, captured from within, and in any case, long worn-out.
This is a significant obstacle for the boycott movement, somehow tempting many (ex) boycotters, including even those who consider themselves pro-Russian patriotic forces, to partake in Macedonia’s ensuing elections. As for the presidential race itself, thus far, well over a dozen names of potential presidential candidates have come up from the ranks and broader orbits of Macedonia’s major political parties (VMRO-DPMNE, SDSM, DUI, BESA), many of whom have already submitted appropriate nominee applications.
The Next President: Opposing or Verifying the Downfall, or Simply Balancing?
One potential presidential candidate, currently associated with Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE-led opposition, is drawing particular attention, primarily because of her background, status, expertise, and perceived personal integrity. Cited by students as a dedicated and empathetic teacher, moral pillar, and a true role-model, and particularly renown for her expertise in Comparative Constitutional Law and Contemporary Political Systems, Prof. Dr. Gordana SIljanovska-Dafkova from the Skopje Faculty of Law is already a headache – not just for her direct competitors in the presidential race. The VMRO-DPMNE’s membership and the bulk of the Macedonian right, for instance, have expressed serious concerns over the possibility of her being officially approved as the opposition’s presidential candidate at the upcoming Struga Convention on February 16; they simply have no faith in her given her long-standing ties to Macedonia’s left and the local branch of the Soros Foundation – not to mention her active contribution to the 2016 “Colourful Revolution” that toppled the conservative government led by the now exiled Nikola Gruevski.
Second, many of her nationally conscious leftist comrades, colleagues, and admirers, who have been part of and even leading the boycott movement, are clearly disappointed with her recent decision to run for the presidency, In their eyes, she is now just a naïve tool in the hands of those who have put Macedonia on these slippery tracks serving the goal of smoother state transformation.
Prof. Dr, Gordana Siljanovska-Dafkova, a renown academic and presumptive presidential candidate expected to be formally endorsed by Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE at the party’s February 16 Struga Convention
On the other hand, the current rulers of Macedonia appear to have no peace of mind either. The SDSM-led ruling coalition sees Prof. Siljanovska as a perfidious menace, at least on the face of it. If this is really the Zaev Government’s true position, then there’s a good reason for it: as a genuine (though some would rather say ‘former’ or fake) Liberal, preeminent scholar, and a compassionate woman, that is, a virtually spotless supra-partisan candidate, Ms. Siljanovska’s capacity to transcend societal divisions and garner cross-ethnic and cross-party support, especially from the “disappointed” left, is thought to be greater than that of most participants in the presidential race.
***to be expanded soon
Hristijan Ivanovski is a Research Fellow at the University of Manitoba (UofM) Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS), Associate Editor (Europe) of iAffairs Canada, and a former coordination officer with Macedonia’s Secretariat for European Affairs. Since 2016, he has been a Member of East-West Bridge (EWB) contributing to the Foundation’s Foreign Policy Task Force. Hristijan can be reached @ email@example.com.
Image courtesy of the author
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.