It’s not an ethnic conflict and it’s not Russia’s fault.

You rarely get to hear about Macedonia, but in the Balkans, it is something of a bellwether. A decade ago, it set an example of a multiethnic democracy – fragile and dysfunctional, to be sure, yet somehow keeping afloat and gravitating towards the European Union and NATO. More recently, however, it morphed into a one-party state, a replica of Viktor Orban’s Hungary with a Balkan twist – a combination of old-fashioned clientelism and kitsch nationalism.

A stroll around downtown Skopje reveals a city transformed into a one-of-a-kind historical theme park adorned with the monumental statues of Philip and Alexander the Great standing alongside medieval monarchs and anti-Ottoman revolutionaries. Sadly, these days it is not the overblown cult to imagined forefathers which draws world media to the tiny Balkan republic. Rather, it is its volatile politics.

Recently, a nationalist mob stormed parliament and beat up Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) which has been in opposition since 2006, along with several of his fellow party members and a prominent Albanian politician. The reason: SDSM and the Albanian parties had the audacity to elect as speaker Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian from the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) who once served as deputy defence minister. The protesters, calling themselves “For a Shared Macedonia” movement claimed SDSM staged a coup with Albanian backing.

They see a plot to transform Macedonia into a binational state abetted by the West and sinister backroom operators such as philanthropist George Soros, the bete noire of the nationalists. Lately, there have been even calls for a wholesale “de-Sorosisation” of the country. They have become the staple of Macedonia’s principal centre-right party, VMRO-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), which is the driving force behind the “civic” protest escalating into mob rule.

Western commentators have succumbed to the temptation to read the periodic outbursts in this chronic crisis as driven by the ethnic divide between Macedonians and Albanians. Some have even seen Russia‘s hand in it – a default explanation when anything goes wrong in this part of Europe.

But what is at play, really, are the pathologies of Macedonia’s party politics. Here is how it goes.

Gruevski fears jail

Led by Nikola Gruevski, a one-time technocrat who turned into a populist in the mould of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban, VMRO-DPMNE has been in charge for more than a decade. Marred by high-level and pervasive state capture, their rule came under attack in 2015 when Zaev produced incriminating tapes implicating Gruevski and his close entourage, including family members, of abuse of power on a grand scale. After a wave of protests, Macedonian parties agreed under EU mediation to hold early elections and set up a special prosecutor to investigate the tapes.

Postponed twice, the vote was held in December 2016. VMRO-DPMNE had a narrow lead but could not form a coalition because it would not accept the conditions put forward by the DUI, its former partner, and the rest of the Albanian bloc. Under the constitution, it is the turn of SDSM.

But the Macedonian President George Ivanov, elected on a VMRO-DPMNE ticket, refuses to hand the mandate to the Social Democrats. The justification for breaking the constitution is the threat of SDSM “Albanianising” Macedonia. The real reason: Gruevski does not want to be in opposition.

Being indicted by the special prosecutor and ending up behind the bars as Croatia‘s erstwhile Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is not a welcome prospect. So, it is not the love of the motherland that is at stake, much less Putin stirring trouble in a far-off corner of southeast Europe. It is the crude realities of Balkan politics.

The EU’s poster child

The ongoing drama in Skopje illustrates the dire straits of Western policy in the region. In the early 2000s, Macedonia was the poster child of the EU’s transformative power. Emerging from a brief conflict with ethnic Albanian militants in 2001, it was the second post-Yugoslav country (after Slovenia) to sign an association agreement with Brussels.

The diminutive republic muddled through, against all odds – through political turbulence, conflicts ripping apart Bosnia and neighbouring Kosovo, and a trade embargo imposed by Greece due to a dispute over the country’s name (Greece claims that the country’s name implies territorial claims on its own region of Macedonia).

But the West was on its side and prospects still seemed bright.

Unfortunately for Macedonia, the whole “Europeanisation” project ground to a halt after Greece imposed a veto on its NATO and EU accession in 2008-2009, once again citing the name issue. But one should not get carried away faulting Athens. The fact remains that Macedonia’s politicians made use of the deadlock.

The party leadership maintains that joining the EU and NATO are important long-term goals, but in reality, they have punted on fulfilling Brussels’ pesky conditionalities. The dual impasses have furnished Gruevski and his partisans an excellent opportunity to grab power at home while wearing the mantle of the nation’s protector from internal and external adversaries.

Clientelistic networks

However, the opposition is not innocent either. It was SDSM, heir to the Yugoslav-period communists, that fathered the clientelistic system and used it in its favour while it was in charge in the 1990s and between 2002-2006.

All Gruevski did was take over and upgrade the machinery he inherited – assume control over public sector jobs, budgetary resources, and the police and you run the show in Macedonia (or any country in its neighbourhood).

Albanian parties are implicated as well – as coalition partners they have also had a piece of the pie. And now they have upped the ante by promulgating, together with the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the so-called Tirana Platform which seeks to upgrade their community’s status and make Albanian an official language. They have handed Gruevski a pretext to enact his spoiler tactics.

What we see in Macedonia is the norm across the post-Yugoslav space: Governments pay lip service to the EU precepts but care little about the substance of democratic and rule-of-law reforms.

International democratisation watchdogs, such as Freedom House, register a multi-year trend of stagnation or, in some cases, backsliding to authoritarianism. Nowhere is this more visible than in the area of media: Freedom of expression has been in steady decline while economic hardship has heightened vulnerability to political pressure and given political elites the means to coopt or silence critics.

Back in December, optimists hoped for a change of government and a rollback of Gruevski’s power networks. In principle, that would have been a good thing. The orderly passage of power from a governing party to the opposition and back is the hallmark of a democratic regime. In theory, it would have been a healthy development for VMRO-DPMNE as a party to return to opposition and disentangle itself from the state. Gruevski’s retirement would give room for a new generation to step up.

However, recent events have cast a shadow over such expectations. The incumbent elite’s unwillingness to surrender power confirms that Macedonia fails even the minimalist definition of democracy. The ethnicisation of the crisis is a harbinger of more trouble. There will be more bad news from Skopje.


Dimitar Bechev is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He was formerly Senior Policy Fellow and Head of Sofia Office at the European Council on Foreign Relations and lecturer at the University of Oxford. 

This article was cross-posted from Al Jazeera with permission of the author.


You May Also Like