Despite astounding revelations of corruption and malpractice, Macedonia’s two ruling parties are likely to win the early elections in December for a combination of reasons.
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By Roland Gjoni and Timothy Less
The latest shocker in Macedonia is that nothing is going to change. If opinion polls prove correct, elections in a week’s time will return to power the two political parties responsible for the biggest scandal in the country’s short history.
However, reversion to the status quo is not necessarily what it seems because the political crisis of the last year has unleashed forces that cannot easily put back in their box. While the expected re-set is postponed, it is not cancelled.
Long road to elections
The back story to the early elections began in February last year when the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Macedonia, SDSM, Zoran Zaev, began publishing leaked recordings of conversations, allegedly made by the then Prime Minister and leader of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party, Nikola Gruevski.
For years, Gruevski had apparently spied on as many as 20,000 people, including ministers, opposition figures, civil society activists, journalists, businessmen, ambassadors and religious leaders.
In the recordings, what appeared to be voices of Gruevski and his colleagues could be heard discussing how to rig elections through ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, orchestrating appointments to the judiciary and coercing media and businesses.
Most disturbingly, they revealed ministers discussing ways to cover up the death of an innocent citizen who died after a police beating while participating in a VMRO DPMNE rally in 2011.
The graphic evidence of abuse of power triggered unprecedented protests that unusually brought together both Macedonians and Albanians in a demand for the resignation of the two governing parties, VMRO DPMNE and its junior ethnic Albanian partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.
In desperation, the governing parties apparently then engineered an incident in the northern town of Kumanovo on the border with Kosovo, which pitched hired Albanian paramilitaries against the security forces.
Ten guerillas and eight members of the security forces were killed in the shoot-out. It is widely believed that the intention was to inflame ethnic tensions and divert attention from the mounting corruption scandal.
However, the public did not react in the way that the government had hoped. When evidence of its complicity in the events in Kumanovo came to light, Macedonian and Albanian demonstrators took the streets in even greater numbers, and the protests turned violent.
At this point, international diplomats intervened by leaning on the government to submit to fresh elections. These demands were crystallized in the Przino Agreement, signed in July 2015 by all the major parties, which required Gruevski to resign and allow a transitional government to take power, comprising both government and opposition representatives.
To ensure the integrity of these elections, the agreement contained a commitment to clean up the electoral roll, reform the Central Election Commission and open up the government-controlled media to the opposition.
Parliament was required to appoint a new Special Prosecutor to investigate the abuses revealed in the leaked recordings.
For months, the government dragged its feet over these obligations, leading the opposition to boycott proceedings and force the postponement of early elections.
Last April, the VMRO DPMNE-friendly President unexpectedly issued a pardon for all politicians under investigation by the Special Prosecutor. As before, however, this only served to fuel protest on the streets.
Finally, in August, under growing international pressure, the government agreed to meet its obligations. The pardons were withdrawn and the various political parties committed themselves to holding early elections in December.
Given the evidence of malpractice, the killings in Kumanovo, the suppression of protests and the government’s multiple tricks and deceits, it looks puzzling that the governing parties seem to be heading for victory in the elections, but only superficially so.
Firstly, Gruevski’s government is not all about corruption and criminality and can hold up a track record of successes to his Macedonian voters.
When Gruevski took power in 2006, Macedonia was in a state of national depression marked by tense regional relations and economic decline.Since then, he has overhauled the business environment, drawing in large inflows of investment, FDI, and has invested in infrastructure, generating steady economic growth -albeitat the price of raising the public debt.
He has also championed a new national identity in which the Macedonian majority can take pride, most graphically by the rebuilding of Skopje in mock-Alexandrian style.
By reaching a compact with representatives of the large Albanian minority – in effect allowing the DUI free rein in mainly Albanian western Macedonia – Gruevski has also brought political stability.
These constitute real achievements in the eyes of many voters who see in Gruevski a strong hand that can secure economic growth and hold the country together.
A second factor is the weakness of the main Macedonian opposition party, the SDSM. As the successor to the old League of Communists, the party comes with political baggage and its performance in office in the 1990s and 2000s was unimpressive.
Its leadership is unconvincing, it offers little in the way of solutions to Macedonia’s myriad problems and it is clumsily opportunistic. Its recent attempts to cater to Albanian sentiment may have attracted some Albanians but it also has alienated many potential Macedonian supporters.
Perhaps most seriously, for all its high-minded accusations, SDSM is itself seen as tainted by corruption. According to the VMRO DPMNE leader, before he began leaking the tapes, Zaev tried to use them to blackmail Gruevski to let the SDSM into government.
Once the leaks began, VMRO DPMNE also presented alleged evidence that Zaev took bribes as Mayor of the town of Strumica. Zaev denies this but the charges dented his credibility.
Perhaps most importantly of all, VMRO has captured the state. The party has a tight grip on the multiple organs of government such as the public administration, the judiciary, the state prosecutor, the police, the army, the intelligence services, universities, schools, cultural institutions and the many public enterprises. Employment in these is reserved for VMRO activists.
It has also colonised many notionally private institutions, including businesses, the media and even NGOs, whose licenses to operate and access government funding effectively depend on promoting the party line.
At the same time, the party deals ruthlessly with opponents. Those who do not endorse it risk harassment, intimidation, threats and, in the case of dissident journalists, physical attacks.
These factors are replicated on the Albanian side where the DUI maintains a similarly tight grip on power.
As the political successor to a guerilla army, the National Liberation Army, the party can claim legitimacy on the basis of its achievement in securing the Ohrid Framework Agreement, the document that ended a short-lived war between the NLA and the security forces in 2001.
This provides for proportional representation of Albanians in the state institutions, local autonomy and enhanced political and cultural rights. Fifteen years on, the DUI presents itself as the exclusive guarantor of Albanian interests and touts its wartime credentials when it is criticised.
Like VMRO DPMNE, the DUI has nurtured a patronage network that has aligned the interests of many ordinary Albanian with those of the leadership.
The party has exploited its power of recruitment within public institutions – a power enhanced by the legal requirements for ethnic quotas – to co-opt a constituency of dependent workers, many of whom are employed in well paid “no show” jobs.
As the leaked recordings reveal, the DUI has also effectively captured the business community in western Macedonia, entwining the interests of the party and the economic elites.
As a result, the DUI has successfully squeezed out most of its rivals, including the formerly dominant Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, winning the Albanian vote in every local and parliamentary election since its formation in 2002.
International actors have also implicitly or explicitly contributed to VMRO DPMNE and the DUI’s stranglehold on power.
Greece has dashed Macedonia’s hopes of joining the EU and NATO over the issue of Macedonia’s name, to which Athens objects. The political crisis within the EU has also seen enlargement fall on the list of European policy priorities.
Faced with Europe’s indifference, with no real hope of joining the EU, the government is under little external pressure to carry out reforms that would otherwise promote a more pluralistic political system.
The EU and the US have both tolerated Gruevski’s state capture, prioritizing security interests over those of democracy and the rule of law.
This has become obvious during the current political crisis in Macedonia in which EU was late to get involved and then left much of the heavy lifting to powerless officials from the European Commission, around whom the government was able to run rings.
Only when Germany intervened independently of the EU this summer was the combined weight of Germany, the US and the UK able to insist on the implementation of the Przino deal.
Even together, their leverage remains limited because the government has little to lose from defying international partners. It has successfully obstructed the work of the Special Prosecutor and the conditions for free elections are barely in place.
In some quarters of the EU, meanwhile, indifference has morphed into active support for the government.
They see VMRO DPMNE and the DUI as guaranteeing the basic stability of a fragile state by keeping the lid on ethnic conflict. With all the other issues on their plate, the last thing Europe needs is a fresh eruption of ethnic conflicts in Macedonia, Kosovo or Bosnia.
More recently, Macedonia’s robust determination to block migrants from entering the Schengen zone has reinforced a view that Gruevski is a reliable gatekeeper on the ground.
In the meantime, non-European powers have exploited Macedonia’s inability to make inroads to the West by offering Gruevski unconditional support.
Russia has propagated the notion that the protests against the government were a CIA-inspired revolution and that NATO staged the events in Kumanovo to divide Macedonia – all the while deepening its involvement in the local energy sector.
China has extended Macedonia a no-strings funding line that mitigates any need for conditions-based EU funds. Together, these appear sufficient to offset efforts by Turkey to lend discrete support to the SDSM and to various new Albanian parties that are open to Turkish influence.
Put together, these factors create the circumstances by which VMRO and DUI are set to be returned to power, albeit with shrinking support. In the short term, assuming the elections are declared free and fair, the EU will probably disengage, its work in Macedonia done.
There will no doubt be further, limited unrest but the government will lay claim to a democratic legitimacy which, on the face of it, will be hard to deny. Many disappointed Macedonians will retreat into their private affairs or move abroad in search of a better life.
However, behind the façade of political stasis, the political crisis has precipitated the most serious wave of Albanian discontent since 2001.
Although their status has improved since the end of the 2001 armed conflict, Albanians remain second-class citizens in someone else’s state. They suffer from discrimination and unfair treatment, especially at the hands of the police and the courts.
Their right to self-government has been stymied by the central government’s limited allocation of funding to Albanian municipalities. They still cannot use their language in most state institutions.
In recent years, Albanians’ sense of alienation has further increased in proportion to VMRO’s attempts to fashion Macedonia as the national state of its Macedonian majority.
Against this backdrop, Albanians have been deeply affected by the revelations in the leaked recordings, which not only prove that the state in which they are forced to live is rotten; but that their DUI representatives are part of the political establishment.
Instead, the DUI is content to subordinate Albanian interests to VMRO and manipulate Albanians’ grievances to suit its leaders’ primary goal, their own self-enrichment. One of the most shocking aspects of the Kumanovo incident was the party’s apparent willingness to sacrifice old comrades from the 2001 war to sustain the ruling coalition.
As a result, the patience of many Albanians has snapped, leading to street protests, defections from the DUI, the formation of new political parties and demands for new power sharing arrangements, including constitutional parity with Macedonians, a minority veto over municipal budgets and language equality.
How this anger plays out remains to be seen. But in this electoral mandate, any government will come under unprecedented pressure to deliver a new deal for Albanians.
If it fails, then the government will face renewed unrest and the rise of new forces which lay better claim to represent Albanian interests.
Such a development not only threatens the stability of the new coalition. It also threatens the integrity of Macedonia itself.
Roland Gjoni is a Researcher on Ethnic Conflict and Nationalism at University College Dublin.
Timothy Less is the Director of the Nova Europa political risk agency.
This article was originally published by Balkan Insight and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.