Negotiating the release of Macedonia’s captured state

Negotiating the release of Macedonia’s captured state

Fred Halliday proposed to recharge International Relations theory with central themes and concepts of classical sociology. This implied going below the level of realist interstate geopolitics and considering the interplay between structure and agency, as the condition for engendering positive social change, which meant attributing equal significance to revolutions, side by side to war, as the central objects of study of IR. With the Arab Spring, Gezi and Maidan all having taken place in the past five years, the need to re-consider Halliday’s proposal is greater than ever. One way to assess its merits is to apply it to the recent developments in Macedonia, a country that experienced an intimation of both war and revolution, within the short time-span of the month of May.

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By Adela Gjorgjioska

For most of its post-Yugoslav existence, Macedonia has been described as a transitional state, to imply a passage from socialism into market economy and democracy.  Over the years, this passage began to resemble a never-ending tunnel, as economic deprivation and unemployment of over 30% were accompanied by a deterioration in the welfare system. In 2005 the country received EU candidate status, but even the prospect of membership failed to set it on a firm path to prosperity. On the contrary, the victory of the nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, in the 2006 parliamentary elections started a new period, during which the “transitional state” came to be replaced with phrases such as “hybrid democracy”, “new authoritarian regime” or “modern dictatorship”. Fuelled by the Greek-Macedonian name dispute, which led Greece to block the country’s entry in NATO in 2008, VMRO-DPMNE has presented itself as the sole defender of the Macedonian nationhood, by showcasing to the public a rhetoric of intransigence in relation to the dispute, but also by building the project Skopje 2014, a radical transformation of the capital which has cost between €200-€500m. Monopolizing the role of defender of the national cause has served the party as a tool for delegitimizing all criticism. Coupled with the near total control of the media and the use of nationalist propaganda, this has created a shield protecting its irresponsible politics for over nine years. This May, a security crisis, mass citizen protests and a wiretapping scandal have exposed what lies under the shield and brought it close to breaking point.

On the weekend of May 9-10, a violent clash broke out in Kumanovo, a multi-ethnic city near the border with Kosovo. It claimed the lives of eight policemen and fourteen militants, allegedly veterans from the Kosovo Liberation Army. These were the country’s bloodiest days since 2001, when months of sporadic fighting between the Albanian National Liberation Army and the Macedonian Security Forces ended with the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement. For the 14 ensuing years it has served as a consociational framework for addressing the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities. All governing coalitions since have included an ethnic Albanian political party, with DUI, acting as the current coalition partner in a Government headed by the nationalist Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE. With the agreement solidly in place, the root causes of the crisis are less likely to be found in inter-ethnic relations, or in geopolitics, which pro-Government media have attempted to promulgate, but rather in the agency of the governing Coalition.

It is on this level of analysis that we discover an ongoing wiretapping scandal that has threatened the coalition’s ongoing hold of state power. Since February, the leader of the largest opposition party has been broadcasting wiretapped conversations between high-ranking government officials. The audio-recordings allege that the governing party under the supervision of the prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, has captured the state and turned it into a criminal network dedicated to pursuing the interests of the governing Party elite. The methods exposed in over 30 batches of wiretaps include election fraud, colossal transgressions over the judiciary and the media, embezzlements of public money and property, corruption on a massive scale and illegal surveillance of over 20,000 citizens. The tapes also show instances of collaboration between the Albanian coalition partner DUI and VMRO in executing some of the shady deals.

When the clash in Kumanovo broke out, many presumed that it had been stage-managed as part of a Government scheme to detract attention away from the wiretaps and the growing public outrage they had provoked. The fact that this suspicion was shared across the ethnic spectrum prevented the clash from causing inter-ethnic tensions.

The culmination of citizen revolt occurred on May 17 when a mass cross-ethnic anti-government protest (numbering over 60,000 protesters) took place in Skopje. Albanian and Macedonian flags were waved side-by-side, as protesters across the ethnic spectrum jointly called for Government resignation.

Civic protests had been growing steadily since the May 5 when wiretaps provoked outrage following revelations of direct involvement of the prime minister and the Minister of Interior in covering up the murder of a young man by a police officer. By the end of the night, dozens had been injured or detained, as special police forces cracked down on the thousands of protesters that had gathered outside the government headquarters. Nonetheless, protests continued every day between the 5th and 17th of May, only interrupted for the days of mourning following the Kumanovo crisis.

Since the Government has failed to react to the mass calls for its resignation, the spotlight has shifted onto the role of the international community. Two different responses have transpired; an effective one to the Kumanovo crisis, and a protracted, slower response to the socio-political crisis.

In response to the Kumanovo crisis, the Ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy, UK, US and the EU met the prime minister already on May 11th, and issued a joint statement which raised concerns over the Government’s failure to account for the allegations in the wiretaps, casting serious doubts over the government’s commitment to democratic principles and values. The pressure yielded results the following day when resignations were filed by the Ministers of Interior and Transport and the Head of Counterintelligence, all heavily implicated in the wiretaps.

The lead role for resolving the adjacent socio-political crisis has been played by the EU, and specifically by Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for Enlargement, who has mediated the negotiations between the leaders of the four biggest parties (with two parties represented from both the Macedonian and Albanian blocs). On June 2nd, Hahn declared that he had brokered an agreement for establishing a ‘transition period’ leading up to snap elections that must take place by next April.

Three key reasons however have raised doubts about the suitability of the negotiations as a platform for resolving the crisis.

The first refers to the mutually-beneficial outcome which is inherent in the definition of negotiation. In this case, an outcome which is simultaneously beneficial for the prime minister and the country is difficult to envision. As criminal liability will inevitably follow from a process of re-establishing the rule of law in the country, it is naive to presume that Gruevski would have an interest in letting this happen. The only acceptable compromise for the governing elite would be one which would allow VMRO-DPMNE to maintain a sufficient grip on the financial resources, the means of violence, information and justice during the transitional period, as to ensure a new electoral victory in 2016, which would pave the way towards further state capture. This is precisely the rationale behind Gruevski’s insistance on maintaining his position as prime minister until at least three months before the elections in 2016, which is said to have been the main reason behind the failure of the third round of talks on June 10th.

The second limitation stems from the question relating to the stakeholders of each position that is represented on the negotiating table. Gruevski, for instance, defends his position as one legitimized by a democratic majority. However, it is state capture, rather than democracy, which accounts for his party’s ability to draw support. Deeply-entrenched clientelistic methods are used to exchange jobs and services for votes and continued party support. Additionally, in a context marred by election fraud, control of both the judiciary and the media, and the illegal surveillance of over 20,000 citizens, claiming democratic legitimacy is hugely doubtful. With this in mind, the only stakeholders that can benefit from a compromise are Gruevski and his party collaborators.

On the other hand, the negotiating position of the opposition party (SDSM) cannot be isolated from the wide anti-Government front that it is seen to represent in the absence of civil society participants in the negotiations. What is at stake during the negotiations goes beyond the expectations of those affiliated to the SDSM, although they have played a key role in exposing the regime through the wiretaps. In fact, public dissatisfaction with the government had started to accumulate months before the broadcast of the wiretaps. A wave of protests relating to education, taxation, media and healthcare had been well under way since the autumn of 2014. The protests between May 5-16th can be seen as a continuation of this wave of spontaneous grassroots demonstration of citizen dissatisfaction. With this in mind, any compromise which would give concessions to Gruevski at the expense of democracy and the rule of law would not only mean political suicide for the SDSM, but also a stab in the back of all the opponents of the regime and the most honest proponents of freedom and justice in the country.

The third doubt with the negotiations has stemmed from the EU’s inconsistent position in relation to the crisis. On June 4th at an event in Washington, Commissioner Hahn said that the last elections in Macedonia in 2014 had been monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR and “in general the report on them was positive”. The report did acknowledge the efficient administration of the elections but also highlighted its failure to meet important OSCE commitments, including the separation of state and party, on ensuring a level playing field, on the neutrality of the media, on the accuracy of the voters list and on the possibility of gaining redress through an effective complaints system. The Commissioner’s failure to understand and/or acknowledge the full extent of transgressions over the democratic process heightened doubts over the potency of the agreement brokered on June 2nd to establish the basis for the release of the captured state.

Hopes were raised again, however, on June 19th when the European Commission issued a list of urgent reform priorities to be fulfilled by the country in the fields of rule of law and fundamental rights, de-politicisation of the public administration, freedom of expression and electoral reform. Product of a months-long scrutiny of key areas of concern in the country by a Senior Experts Group commissioned by the EU, the report locates the reform priorities necessary to “address the systemic weaknesses inherent in the making and the content of the wiretap revelations, as well as more cross-cutting weaknesses which contributed to the situation which led to the current political crisis.”

The report seems to take as its foundation an understanding of the interplay between structure and agency in the country, and the deep roots of its problems, only a part of which were exposed through the ongoing protests and the wiretaps. As such it represents an acknowledgement that a myopic lens which remains focused on the level of realist interstate geopolitics, without questioning the legitimacy of those in power, is not only deeply undemocratic, but fails to consider how this jeopardizes regional security, as in fact the Kumanovo crisis has confirmed.

On its own however, the report will not be sufficient. The implementation of the highlighted reforms will require more than good cop/bad cop tactics to be employed by the EU. It will depend on an unequivocal commitment by the EU, which will need to be demonstrated through continued monitoring of the implementation process to ensure that it serves as the foundation of a political agreement. The agreement must not turn into another smokescreen for continued transgressions, as it was the case with a previous EU-brokered agreement, which in 2013 failed to address the causes of an earlier political crisis, and amounted to a support to the status quo.

Any solution which allows the current governing elite sufficient power to obstruct this process is tantamount to sacrificing the country’s future for the benefit of a corrupt regime. It is only through the release of the captured state that the path can be cleared for deep social changes to be engendered in a new social contract. Only then can Macedonia start moving in the direction of a progressive, democratic and stable future.

Adela Gjorgjioska is an alumni of the LSE, with a BSc in International Relations (2008) and an MSc in Comparative Politics (2010).

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