BALKAN BLOG: Fur flies over Macedonia mediator’s tweets

BALKAN BLOG: Fur flies over Macedonia mediator’s tweets
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 22, 2016

The cute cat memes beloved of internet users haven’t gone down well in Skopje, where a series of tweets featuring cats commenting on Macedonia’s political situation caused the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party to announce it would no longer work with EU mediator Peter Vanhoutte.

The cause of the catfight was a photograph posted by Vanhoutte of a kitten being held up at gunpoint, with the caption “I surrender: no elections on 24 April” – a reference to the recommendation from EU and US diplomats that Macedonia postpone snap elections previously expected to take place on April 24.

A few hours later VMRO-DPMNE issued a statement saying that the party had decided to stop cooperating with Vanhoutte because of his “insults” to the party and “his continuing to taunt the people and the country”, the statement said.

“VMRO-DPMNE has long tolerated his misconduct, partly due to the fact that after every insult uttered... Vanhoutte apologized like a kitten,” it added, borrowing the feline theme. “Unfortunately soon after the request to be forgiven, new outbursts and insults to VMRO-DPMNE and [Macedonian] citizens followed... As far as VMRO-DPMNE is concerned, Peter Vanhoutte is today a tourist in the country and we may recommend that he visits the Museum of the Macedonian Revolutionary Struggle.”

Vanhoutte lashed back with a Twitter post of a cat in holiday clothes asking: “Where is the VMRO museum, is not in my guide”.

As well as the many provocative cat photos in his Twitter feed, Vanhoutte previously ran into controversy in Macedonia when he told female officials to stop “f***ing around” at the negotiating table.

Local pro-government media also have their claws out for Vanhoutte. Macedonia Online criticises his “street thug” manners and decries “foreign meddling” in local politics. Other media question his credentials; the former Belgian MP describes himself as a writer of poetry and novels.

Election postponed?

Vanhoutte has been mediating talks between the VMRO-DPMNE and opposition parties as they prepare the ground for elections this year. This is set out in the Przino agreement, which ended a lengthy political crisis in July 2015.

A series of mass anti-government demonstrations took place in spring last year after the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) released a series of tapes of illegally wiretapped conversations incriminating top officials officials including Macedonia’s then prime minister Nikola Gruevski.

Under the deal struck with the opposition, Gruevski stepped down on January 18 and a new government headed by interim Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev is now in place, with its main role preparing for the elections.

However, in a February 21 letter to Dimitriev, the ambassadors of the EU and the US to Macedonia said that conditions for holding credible early elections on April 24 have not been met. “We note that the work of the State Electoral Commission to date and the findings of all relevant experts indicated that at this stage the necessary conditions for organising credible elections on 24 April are currently not in place, although some progress has been achieved,” the ambassadors said.

The vote could now be postponed until June 5, prolonging the period of uncertainty under the interim government. It is still unclear how an earlier decision to dissolve the parliament on February 24 will be affected by the assessment. However, mediators have sought to get all sides on board before the elections are held, as a decision by any of the main parties to boycott the vote – already threatened by the SDSM – would undermine their  credibility.

Cleaning up the voters’ registry was one of the main conditions. The ambassadors also raised concerns about initial reports of pressure and intimidation of voters. Another criticism was that an agreement on media reforms “to ensure a more level playing field” has not yet been reached – a point illustrated by Vanhoutte with a newpaper-reading tabby, commenting that “I think I love free media as long as I control them”.

In the official letter, all political leaders and institutions were encouraged to remain fully committed to the Przino agreement and to work on needed measures to allow holding credible vote at the earliest possible date. “We understand that the party leaders have mentioned June 5 as a possible alternative,” the letter said. The ambassadors also urged the political leaders to take necessary steps to put Macedonia back onto the Euro-Atlantic path by implementing the political agreement and reform priorities.