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All eyes on Macedonia

April 1st, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

In times of protests and unrest, the world is reminded of Macedonia’s ongoing political crisis. Fears of a spillover into neighbouring countries, along with concerns over Macedonia’s unity and integrity, have been dominating the headlines and creating the image of a country that is close to imploding. The reality, however, is slightly more predictable than that: Macedonia has been functioning as a semi-authoritarian state for the past decade – and a threat to the status quo has proven unacceptable for the party that created it. It is this challenge to the current leadership, and the seeming absence of an acceptable solution, that has triggered contemporary tensions.

Macedonia has been in political limbo for the past two years. The beginning of the country’s ongoing crisis dates back to February 2015, when the opposition revealed that VMRO-DPMNE, Macedonia’s ruling party for the past decade, had been wiretapping around 20,000 people, including journalists, political opponents and members of the general public. Then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, along with many other high-ranking government officials, were accused of abuse of office, and the allegations included accusations of vote rigging, media manipulation and embezzlement.

The wiretapping scandal triggered massive anti-government protests, which in turn led to the creation of a Special Public Prosecution (SJO) to investigate the wiretapping, the resignation of Gruevski’s government, and early parliamentary elections in December 2016. In April 2016, current president Gjorge Ivanov, also of the VMRO-DPMNE party, attempted to pardon Gruevski and other politicians and associates, sparking a further wave of protests that compelled Ivanov to cancel the move in June.

Neither the VMRO-DPMNE nor the Social Democrats (SDSM) won enough seats in the December elections to form a government on their own, forcing each to seek a coalition deal. The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), Macedonia’s biggest ethnic Albanian party in parliament, had been in coalition with VMRO-DPMNE for eight years. Following the December elections, however, the party announced that it would support the Social Democrats instead.

Now Ivanov is required by the constitution to give Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democrats, a mandate to form a government – he has refused and opted to play the ethnic card instead, claiming that the concessions agreed on with the Albanian parties threaten the unity of the country.

The population’s lack of familiarity with the coalition agreement has given the ruling party an opportunity to manipulate public opinion against it. There is also a high level of mistrust in Macedonia that the wiretapping scandal only served to exacerbate, as well as an embedded sense that political parties will do anything to achieve their personal goals, even when it is done at the expense of the people they are meant to represent. This, however, is a political crisis, not an ethnic one – and what is in danger is democracy itself.

Albanians represent 25% of Macedonia’s population, yet Albanian is used in official institutions only in municipalities where high numbers of Albanians reside. This is largely due to the fact that making a minority language official has always been a sensitive issue, not only in the Balkans but everywhere in the post-communist region. It is even more sensitive for a country that has had its integrity and survival questioned time and again – and one whose very name is the subject of a lengthy controversy.

Playing on an already fragile inter-ethnic relationship, however, can have dangerous consequences – the tensions between the two groups reached the brink of civil war as recently as 2001, when an ethnic Albanian insurgency was stopped from descending into a wider conflict by the European Union and a supporting NATO operation.

The European Union decided to intervene again on 21 March, when Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn went to Skopje in an attempt to persuade the ruling party to give a mandate for the formation of the government. The visit, however, was met with a new round of protests, with tens of thousands of Macedonians taking to the streets in opposition to Albanian becoming an official language. Although portrayed as determined by a desire on the part of a significant number of people to oppose making Albanian an official language, the protests were allegedly organised by “For A United Macedonia”, a group which supports the agenda of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, and is considered to have rallied the opposition based on information received from the ruling party alone.

VMRO-DPMNE knows that a loss of power would translate itself into the beginning of criminal proceedings into abuse-of-power allegations from the party’s decade of rule under Gruevski – and it is willing to go to extreme lengths in order to prevent it. The classic tactic of covering up their own misdeeds by shifting the attention to ethnic issues has been employed once again, and this time it met considerable success along the way. The ruling party also knows that discrediting the proposed coalition serves to prolong the crisis – and a prolonged crisis means they can continue to avoid the consequences of their actions. As such, the political deadlock could very well be maintained until the next elections – Macedonia’s constitution gives no deadline for forming the government, nor is it clear on what happens if the country’s president refuses to give mandate to a party.

VMRO-DPMNE will not back down now that it has the seeming advantage of public support; the only way out, unfortunately, is a deal under which the SDSM would promise to drop the criminal investigation in exchange for a mandate to form the government. This means that VMRO-DPMNE will not be held accountable for their authoritarian actions, and that it will be in the people of Macedonia’s hands to decide its fate at the next round of elections.

The 2015 and 2016 protests served to unite ethnic groups in Macedonia – the current ones will do their best to divide them. In both previous instances members of all ethnic groups opposed the government’s actions; this time, Macedonians stand alone in supporting them. The current protests can, at best, achieve a political compromise – the party in power may change, but the abuses for which punishment was called by the population will be forgotten, and Macedonia will move forward as if they never happened.


About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.