ALACO DISPATCHES: Brussels struggling to end Macedonia's political impasse

ALACO DISPATCHES: Brussels struggling to end Macedonia's political impasse
By Yigal Chazan of Alaco June 29, 2016

It has been dubbed the “Colourful Revolution” and from the state of central Skopje, it is easy to see why. For the past couple of months, protesters have been staging almost daily rallies, lobbing paint-filled balloons on statues of Macedonian heroes and neoclassical buildings that they associate with government profligacy. The protests show few signs of ending soon, and the EU is running out of ideas of how to end the political crisis.

The unorthodox protests were sparked in April when President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 politicians – mostly from the main ruling party, the VMRO-DPMNE – who had been implicated in last year’s wire-tapping scandal that shook the tiny Balkan state. The affair has spiralled into the country’s worst political crisis since a six-month insurgency by ethnic Albanians in 2001 threatened to descend into civil war.

The Social Democrats (SDSM), the biggest opposition party, accused the governing coalition of illegally monitoring the telephone conversations of more than 20,000 people. A European Commission probe concluded that the government had misused the national security services to control top officials, prosecutors, judges and political opponents. It also found evidence that senior officials had “apparent direct involvement” in a number of abuses, including fraud, blackmail and extortion.

The then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who claimed foreign intelligence agencies had fabricated the wiretaps to destabilise the country, resigned in January as part of an EU-brokered deal to defuse political tensions. Under the accord, an interim government was put in place pending fresh elections in April and a Special Prosecutor’s Office was created to investigate the corruption claims arising from the surveillance scandal.

But the elections were subsequently cancelled because the government failed to deliver on preconditions stipulated by the EU deal, including the removal of bogus voters from the electoral rolls and media reforms to ensure balanced coverage of the poll. The elections were rescheduled for June, but after Ivanov’s pardon they were postponed indefinitely. The president said the amnesty had been intended to end the “agony” of the political crisis. But the move, coupled with the dismissal of opposition ministers in the interim government, only served to heighten tensions.

On April 13, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and ransacked Ivanov’s office, the outpouring of public anger morphing into the Colourful Revolution. That, combined with mounting international pressure and the threat of impeachment proceedings, apparently prompted Ivanov to rescind his pardon earlier in June. But the protests, organised by a civic group and the SDSM, have continued, with activists making a series of demands. These include a guarantee that the Special Prosecutor’s Office will not be scrapped; the setting up of a separate court to try its cases; and the formation of new transitional government tasked with introducing reforms ensuring free and fair elections.

The opposition fears that the constitutional court, which they say is under the thumb of the VMRO, could scrap the Special Prosecutor’s Office to protect members of the ruling party from prosecution. The SDSM, which hold 34 seats in the 123-seat parliament, said it is boycotting the assembly until the court rules that the independent body’s work is constitutional.

The German is coming!

Brussels had hoped that the prospect of joining the EU would encourage the government to reform, but Macedonian officials have had little incentive to do so. This is due to a Greek veto on Macedonia’s membership of both the Union and Nato, stemming from a long-running quarrel over the country’s name, which Athens insists implies territorial claims on a northern region of Greece.

With its path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration blocked, the government has been accused of growing authoritarianism and stoking nationalism to bolster its public support. Officials have channelled a lot of energy and resources into strengthening Macedonian national identity, raising the stakes in their dispute with Greece. They have spent millions of euros on new monuments and buildings in an effort to recast Skopje as the “cradle of civilisation”, a project opponents have condemned as a waste of scarce public funds.

Since the carrot of EU membership has failed to sway the government, Brussels is left with few options. It might revive a threat to impose targeted sanctions against leading members of the VMRO. But this would require the agreement of all 28 EU members, and some Central European states that are reliant on Skopje’s closure of the Balkan migrant route might not consent to the move.

Such is Germany’s alarm over Macedonian instability that it has appointed an experienced diplomat, Johannes Haindl, as its special envoy to the country to help resolve the crisis. Haindl appears to have made some progress on restarting inter-party talks on breaking the impasse on electoral reforms, but even he has warned darkly that “time is running out” to find a solution.

Yigal Chazan is an Associate at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.