BALKAN BLOG: Elections threaten to reignite Macedonian crisis

BALKAN BLOG: Elections threaten to reignite Macedonian crisis
The opposition claim the state has been captured by VMRO-DPMNE.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest December 1, 2016

Hopes that Macedonia’s early general election on December 11 will resolve the country’s long-running political crisis are low, as a likely win for the ruling VMRO-DPMNE could plunge the country back into chaos.

If - as polls suggest - VMRO-DPMNE gets a sufficient share of the vote to form a government with its long-term coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), Macedonia would be right back where it started in the immediate aftermath of the spring 2014 general election. That election, which returned then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government to power, triggered the start of the crisis as Macedonia’s main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), claimed the elections were rigged and launched a boycott of the parliament.

There was some support for the SDSM’s claims of an unfair vote - for example, an OSCE report issued after the election reported concerns over a blurring of state and party activities that did not provide a level playing field - but the real root of the party’s protest was the frustration of the opposition parties with a system where VMRO-DPMNE and the DUI had become impossible to shift from office. By 2014, Gruevski had already served two terms, President Gjorge Ivanov was VMRO-DPMNE’s candidate, and there seemed no prospect of a change of government.

Macedonian opposition activists and NGOs have been warning for some time that the state has been captured by VMRO-DPMNE. Marko Trosanovski, president of the Skopje-based Institute for Democracy (IDSCS), points to the use of state resources, public institutions, state employees and interior ministry information by the party to reinforce its position in power.

“Throughout its rule, [VMRO-DPMNE] has managed to totally marginalise the role of regulatory bodies, especially the state body for the fight against corruption, and the judicial system … judges mainly serve the interests of the party,” Trosanovski said in an interview with bne IntelliNews.

Trosanovski claims that VMRO-DPMNE uses the public administration, as the biggest employer in the country, to reward loyal activists. “Most of the party’s supporters and activists are employed [in the public administration] after the elections as a reward for their activity. They remain party supporters and do not care about any misconduct by the government because they get their monthly salaries,” he says. “During the election period, most public servants are engaged in campaign activities for the party and they do not attend work.”

This is backed up by a poll carried out by IDSCS and broadcaster Telma, released on November 25, which showed that most VMRO-DPMNE voters are pensioners or public administration employees. Other observers have reported cases of foreign investors in Macedonia coming under pressure to employ party supporters.

“Civil society and other observers are noting a lot of the elements of what could be described as state capture,” confirms Natalia Otel Belan, deputy regional director, Eurasia and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). She cites issues including “the independence of the judiciary, the fact that the judicial system was not able to deal with the wiretapping scandal to this day and therefore there was a need to establish the special prosecutor’s office to address that shortcoming. Also, there are concerns about the influence over the media.”

State capture

International observers have avoided using strong language on Macedonia in the past, but this year for the first time the European Commission criticised state capture in its annual enlargement report published on November 9.

“Serious challenges to the democratic governance of the country continued, raising concerns about state capture of institutions and key sectors of society,” the report said. “The government needs to restore credibility by implementing robust reforms, preparing and holding credible elections, committing to and implementing all obligations under the Przino Agreement,” it added, referring to the EU and US-brokered agreement signed in July 2015.

This situation, in which meant the opposition appeared powerless to win office via elections, led to leaks of incriminating information on top government officials to SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, which he published from the beginning of 2015. Revelations of top officials’ involvement in corruption scandals, as well as the mass wiretapping of Macedonian citizens, sparked mass protests, and the crisis only abated with the signing of the Przino agreement.

Commitments under the agreement included early elections, the temporary inclusion of SDSM in the government, and the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe crimes revealed in the wiretapped conversations leaked by the SDSM.

The Przino Agreement appeared to be a breakthrough, with the EU in particular bringing the parties to a compromise through the incentive of progress in Macedonia’s stalled accession process. However, elections initially expected in April 2016 were postponed and the same month Ivanov announced a blanket pardon for all politicians facing criminal investigations - effectively rendering the work of the special prosecutor meaningless.

Macedonians took to the streets again in a series of mass protests dubbed the “Colourful Revolution” because of protesters’ use of coloured paints to spatter monuments and public buildings - in particular those built under the expensive Skopje 2014 project, which has become a visible symbol of the VMRO-DPMNE government’s nationalist mythmaking and lavish spending. Now, after another internationally brokered deal was agreed in July this year, Macedonia is finally heading for early elections.

Polls carried out in the weeks before the vote show a narrowing of the VMRO-DPMNE’s lead to around five percentage points ahead of the SDSP. The IDSCS poll put the VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM on 23.7% and 18.9% respectively, while Serbia’s Faktor Plus Adria reported support of 28.1% and 23.9% for the two parties. Polls also show around 20%-30% are either undecided or don’t want to reveal their voting preferences, meaning there is still room for an upset by the SDSM.

Despite its pre-election rhetoric, the VMRO-DPMNE is still expected to form a new coalition with its long-term junior partner the ethnic Albanian DUI if it gets enough votes.

Unwieldy coalition

The picture among the opposition is less clear. In October, the SDSM announced a broad opposition front with other leftwing and centre parties, while opposition parties from the right have formed a separate alliance, the Coalition for Changes and Justice. The ethnic Albanian vote, which has traditionally gone mainly to the DUI and the SDSM’s ally the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), is also split, with the SDSM set to take a larger share than usual, while the newly formed BESA nationalist movement is also expected to chip into the share of the two main ethnic Albanian parties.

Whichever parties manage to form a government, the potential for deep reform is unpromising.

VMRO-DPMNE would not support a new mandate for the SPO, but it will still face popular pressure for reform from the tens of thousands of Macedonians who have become increasingly politicised in the last two years.

The opposition wants to pursue reforms but is likely to need a broad and unwieldy coalition, which could make it difficult to take decisive steps.

“Politicians do have to keep engaged with the EU and continue on path of EU integration and reform because this is a demand from the citizens. I don't think they can abandon that path even if they are not always comfortable with the pressure,” says Belan.

Having said that, the effectiveness of international actors has been weakened, a situation that has already contributed to the increasing authoritarianism of the VMRO-DPMNE’s governments over the last decade. As the prospect of EU accession became more remote in Macedonia, its use as a bargaining tool to promote reform diminished.

Today, the ongoing transition of power in the US means Macedonia is not high on Washington’s priorities at present. While the EU played the broker role in 2015 and 2016, Macedonian hopes of progressing towards EU accession are low; even with promises this will happen after credible elections, Greece will continue to hold a veto power throughout the negotiation process, and there are no signs of the name dispute between the two countries being resolved.

In a further blow to the EU’s credibility, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz took part in the VMRO-DPMNE’s main pre-election rally on November 27, praising Gueuvski in his address to the crowd. This drew criticism both within Macedonia and externally as the statement - from a long-established EU member state - undermined the critical messages in the European Commission’s latest report.

Meanwhile, Trosanovski considers the international community has put too much emphasis on the elections as an exit to the crisis. “We have the elections because the situation was in deadlock,” he says. “It was in the interests of the biggest political parties and the international community to hold the elections and achieve some kind of catharsis, but I think it will be only a very short catharsis if not a return to the very same situation, which may be a reason for an escalation of the crisis if there are irregularities on election day.”

He criticises the overall approach of the international community, which he believes “put stability ahead of reforms”. This approach of using short-term fixes, which has failed to address the deep-rooted problems in the country, means that the holding of elections in December is unlikely to lead to a resolution of the crisis and could even make things worse.