BALKAN BLOG: Gruevski contemplates defeat in Macedonian stand-off

BALKAN BLOG: Gruevski contemplates defeat in Macedonian stand-off
The loosening of Nikola Gruevski’s hold on power began when the SDSM published illegally wiretapped conversions that implicated him and other top officials in numerous scandals.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest May 18, 2017

The long crisis in Macedonia appears to be nearing its end after President Gjorge Ivanov finally ran out of reasons to delay handing the mandate to form a government to opposition leader Zoran Zaev. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) leader, who received the mandate on May 17, is now expected to nominate his cabinet for parliament to vote on within days – ending the decade-long rule of former premier Nikola Gruevski's conservative VMRO-DPMNE party.

The handover of power can still not be taken as a certainty, and VMRO – whose supporters invaded the parliament on April 27 to beat up Social Democrat lawmakers – may not go quietly. Even if the party does concede to go into opposition, it will do its best to ensure the SDSM-led government is short lived and ineffective.

The removal of VMRO from power first seemed like a realistic outcome when the party, despite narrowly winning the December snap election, failed to strike a new coalition deal with its former partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). This opened the way for the SDSM to agree with the DUI and two other parties representing the Albanian minority to form a new government. However, it was repeatedly blocked by Ivanov, who is close to VMRO, on the grounds that by agreeing to conditions set by the Albanian parties Zaev was risking turning Macedonia from a unitary to a federal state.

The struggle between the two sides intensified as the weeks after the election turned into months. An attempt by the new parliamentary majority to elect a speaker – thereby paving the way to appoint a government without needing Ivanov’s mandate – was first thwarted by a month-long filibuster by VMRO MPs. When the vote on the appointment of ethnic Albanian MP Talat Xhaferi finally did take place, VMRO lawmakers occupied the speakers’ chair and sang the national anthem while other MPs cast their votes. Minutes later angry supporters, some wearing balaclavas, burst into the parliament, attacking Zaev and other opposition MPs.

Finally, in mid May, Zaev submitted guarantees to Ivanov that his government would preserve the unity of the country, effectively backing the president into a corner. “All the obstacles to giving the mandate to Zaev have now been removed,” the president’s office said in a statement on May 17. A picture from the meeting between the two politicians shows them standing uncomfortably together (Zaev pictured left) as they hold up the signed mandate from Ivanov.

“This day is a new beginning for Macedonia,” Zaev commented after the meeting, pledging to reinstate the rule of law and make institutions work properly.

However, the signs are that VMRO and its supporters are not about to smooth the way for the SDSM to take office.

In the first reaction from the party, MP Nikola Todorov told a press conference on May 17 that VMRO does not believe in Zaev’s guarantees. VMRO also objects that the guarantees were signed only by Zaev and not by the ethnic Albanian parties.

On the same day, For United Macedonia, a civil association with close links to VMRO, asked the country’s highest court to rule on the constitutionality of Xhaferi’s election as parliament speaker.

“This is the beginning, we will present the issue to other institutions, if the Constitutional Court declares itself incompetent for this case,” Bogdan Ilievski, one of the organisers of For United Macedonia, said according to a video clip posted on the association's Facebook page.

He added that the organisation's legal battle is not just “against those involved in what happened in the last few months since the protests were launched, but also in the last three years” – a reference to the efforts of the SDSM to unseat VMRO since the 2014 general election.

Not over yet

Milan Nič, head of the European programme at Globsec Policy Institute, takes a pessimistic view of the situation, forecasting that “unless the EU shows some teeth”,  Gruevski could well try to hold onto power by force.

“The bottom line is this: [Gruevski] has a private army of bodyguards … if he decides to lead the country into civil war he can do it. He lost power in the ballots but he doesn’t want to recognise it, he’s afraid, so therefore his strategy is very obviously to force new elections,” he tells bne IntelliNews.

VMRO has continued to push for a new round of snap elections to be held at the same time as local elections, which were delayed due to the political vacuum at national level. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed the party had a 12-point lead over the SDSM after it whipped out nationalist outrage over the Social Democrats’ alliance with the Albanian parties.

However, other observers see the violence in the parliament as a final explosion of fury on the part of VMRO, as the party realised that it would no longer be able to hold onto power indefinitely.

Speaking to bne IntelliNews shortly before the mandate was handed over, Cvete Koneska, analyst at Control Risks Group, said the majority of people she had spoken to in Skopje “say this is the end”. “Most people now believe there’s going to be a new government and this is the last desperate attempt by VMRO to prevent this,” she said.

On the other hand, she expects a future SDSM-led government to be “very unstable”, given its creation from four parties unused to working together, and any weaknesses will be pounced upon by VMRO, eager to exploit them and create opportunities to return to power.

“It’s going to be very antagonistic politics from now on. VMRO won’t wait for the next elections, they will use any opportunity to get people out onto the streets.”

Most of the items on the agenda of the ethnic Albanian parties in particular would require a two-thirds majority in the parliament, impossible without the support of VMRO MPs.

On another burning issue for many Macedonians, Zaev claimed in an interview with daily Pobjeda in early May that Macedonia would become a Nato member “very shortly”, and that he expects Macedonia to solve soon through dialogue the long-standing dispute with Greece, which has so far blocked its EU and Nato accession.

However, it’s unclear how Zaev would manage to achieve these two goals, especially since any concessions to Greece, which objects to the use of the name “Macedonia”, would provoke a furious response from VMRO’s many supporters.

Dethroning the Balkan prince

The date Zaev received the mandate is significant, since it marks the two-year anniversary of the start of the Colourful Revolution protests aimed at toppling the government led by VMRO’s Gruevski. This was part of the lengthy campaign waged by the SDSM ever since the 2014 election – which they claimed was rigged – returned Gruevski and VMRO to power.

Gruevski is one of the so-called “Balkan princes”, a term coined in 2015 by Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, when he wrote the “Ten rules by a 21st-century Machiavelli for the Balkan Prince”. The rise of quasi-authoritarian leaders has become a phenomenon across Western Balkans countries that are not yet EU members in recent years, in states that are ostensibly democratic but where strong leaders and their parties have consolidated their hold on power and the state apparatus.

The most extreme example is Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled the country either as prime minister or as president for most of the last 25 years. Despite stepping down as prime minister in 2016, there is speculation he could make a comeback in the next presidential election. Other “Balkan princes” include Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia, Hashim Thaci in Kosovo, and Milorad Dodik in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.

A report from the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) says that democratic institutions in the Western Balkans are “mere tools for political elites”, in a region where “autocrats” rule through informal power structures, state capture by ruling parties, patronage and control of the media.

This aptly describes the situation in Macedonia, where VMRO solidified its control over all the main state institutions, installing party loyalists into key positions in the administration. While the SDSM will most likely remove officials from key positions, a wholesale sacking of VMRO supporters is hardly feasible.

Most politicians in the region pay lip service to the principles of liberal democracy, while continuing to push their own agendas. “The way in which things will develop in Macedonia and the role of the international community will be used as a model for other countries in the region – which is that political elites cannot talk about dedication to the EU and Nato processes and practically to do the opposite of what they say,” says Ardita Abazi Imeri, programme coordinator for EU acquis and sector policy at the Skopje-based European Policy Institute. On a more positive note, she forecasts that forming a reform-oriented government in Macedonia could be an impetus for a reform wave in the region.

After it won successive elections, the loosening of VMRO’s hold on power really began in 2015, when the SDSM published illegally wiretapped conversions that implicated Gruevski and other top officials in numerous scandals. This hard evidence of top-level corruption shocked the population sufficiently to bring tens of thousands out onto the streets and – despite VMRO’s control over state institutions – erode its majority in the parliament.

As part of an EU and US brokered deal between the government and opposition, a special prosecutor has been set up to probe the revelations from the wiretaps. Part of VMRO’s desperation to hold onto power stems from the likelihood that under an SDSM government the special prosecutor’s work would continue unhindered, and VMRO leaders could be convicted and sent to prison.

Gruevski himself has been named in several cases related to the wiretaps. They include the “TNT case”, involving the demolition of a €60mn residential complex built by one of his political opponents, and the “Tank” case concerning the secret purchase of a €572,780 armoured Mercedes for the then prime minister from state funds. In another case, dubbed “Torture”, Gruevski’s cousin, former secret police chief Saso Mijalkov, is suspected of ordering the torture while in police custody of Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski to punish him for criticisms of Gruevski and Mijalkov.

Playing the Albanian card

Aside from the wiretaps, another factor that helped put the SDSM on the verge of taking power was the party’s success in attracting large numbers of ethnic Albanians in the December election. This was mainly due to the unhappiness of many former supporters of the DUI, the largest ethnic Albanian party, with its support for previous VMRO governments.

“Disappointment at the DUI’s policies … prompted ethnic Albanian voters to support the SDSM, which seeks to transcend the ethno-politic division of the Macedonian party scene,” wrote Mateusz Seroka of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in March. He also points out that the opposition of the DUI’s younger generation of activists led to the failure of post-election talks with VMRO.

The extremely close result of the 2016 election meant that neither VMRO nor the SDSM could form a government without the support of at least some of the four ethnic Albanian parties represented in the new parliament – putting them in a powerful position to ensure their demands for more rights for the minority were accepted by whichever party took power.

The SDSM’s acceptance of the list of demands drawn up by the ethnic Albanian parties – dubbed the “Tirana platform” by its critics – gave an opening for VMRO and Ivanov to attempt to prevent it from forming a government. Mass rallies organised by For United Macedonia took place daily outside the parliament after Zaev announced he had formed a majority with the support of the DUI and two smaller Albanian parties.

This was a potentially dangerous move since Macedonia has a dark history of ethnic conflict. Back in the early 2000s, the armed conflict between the Albanian guerrilla National Liberation Army and the Macedonia security forces only ended with the signing of the Ohrid agreement in 2001. Tensions have rumbled on since, occasionally erupting into small-scale violence.

Despite this, the political crisis has not yet become an ethnic crisis. “It can be manipulated of course, but so far this crisis is not an ethnic crisis, although that’s an option for Gruevski,” says Nic.

In many ways, VMRO’s tactics are politics as usual in Macedonia (and indeed in the Western Balkans region). “Ethnicity has always been one of the key factors to mobilise people politically, the political elites on both sides have been using nationalism to mobilise people before elections for a very long time. It’s part of how the political system works in Macedonia,” says Koneska.

Although the rhetoric in recent weeks has been more extreme than usually seen in Macedonia, for the most part the ethnic Albanian parties have not responded – since it’s not in their interests to do so – and as a result the situation has not escalated.

Nonetheless, the crisis in Macedonia, in particular the ethnic dimension, has been closely watched elsewhere in the region. The tensions between the Macedonian majority and Albanian minority come at a time when the Albanian question has been raised by politicians in other countries.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama raised the issue of unification with Kosovo should the two countries fail to progress towards EU accession in an interview with Politico in April, and this was followed by a similar comment from Thaci. Both Albanian and Kosovo are holding elections in June, a typical reason for a hike in nationalist rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Serbian officials have irked Zaev by their frequent references to the “Macedonian situation”, using the conflict in their neighbour to deter dissent at home. This resulted in a war of words between Zaev and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, a possible replacement for president elect Vucic as the country’s next prime minister, setting up a less than friendly relationship between the potential next prime ministers of the two countries.

Turning against the West

Aside from the corruption scandals and the switch of ethnic Albanian voters to the SDSM, the final factor in VMRO’s expected removal from power is the role of the international community, specifically the EU and the US.

There has been much debate recently about the two Western powers’ declining influence in the Western Balkans, especially the EU as it puts further enlargement on a back burner and turns its attention to its own crises such as Brexit and the inflow of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East.

Brussels and Washington were responsible for bringing government and opposition to the negotiating table in both 2015 and 2016, brokering two agreements aimed at resolving the crisis. But forcing a solution reportedly became increasingly difficult the longer the crisis persisted and – with Macedonia’s EU accession an extremely remote prospect thanks to Greece’s blocking of each step in the process – VMRO politicians have increasingly turned against the West, accusing them of siding with the opposition.

There has been an upturn in anti-EU backlash in the region, often accompanied by rhetoric against billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros. In addition to anger voiced by Macedonian protesters, an article by an Albanian journalist close to the opposition Democratic Party urging fellow citizens to kill EU ambassador Romania Vlahutin caused a political storm in Tirana.

Discussing options the EU could take to resolve the crisis, Nic points out that the lack of unity within the bloc prevents it from taking decisive steps such as restricting Ivanov’s travel to the EU. The close relationship between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the VMRO regime rules out any such step. “Without unity within the European Council, the EU is powerless in Macedonia and will only sit on the fence and witness how the country unravels,” he says.

Yet the influence of the western powers in Macedonia has not run out. The immediate recognition of Xhaferi as parliamentary speaker by top EU officials, and his invitation to visit Brussels shortly after his election, helped his acceptance at home and certainly contributed to Ivanov’s eventual decision to give Zaev the mandate.

On the same day, the US scored a breakthrough in Albania, which has been crippled by a deep political crisis since February, with the opposition Democratic Party boycotting the parliament and threatening not to take part in the June general election.

Finally, on May 17, Democratic leader Lulzim Basha, sent a letter to Rama expressing his readiness for a consensus based on a US proposal for overcoming the political crisis. In the early hours of May 18, Basha and Rama reached an agreement under which the opposition will take part in the election, though details of the deal are still unclear, and it is possible the vote will be postponed.

This goes to show that the EU and US remain the main external actors in the region – at least for now. But at the same time other regional powers, namely Russia and Turkey, are seeking an expanded role in the Western Balkans.

Having initially kept quiet about the Macedonian crisis, Russia’s foreign ministry recently started issuing statements supportive of VMRO and slamming Western interference in the country. Turkey, meanwhile, finances Besa, a new ethnic Albanian party that did unexpectedly well in the December election.

So far, however, despite their growing interest in the region, neither country has the ability – or probably the will – to undertake the complex and often thankless task of bringing about compromise after compromise. With relations between the two main Macedonian parties too bad to reach agreement unmediated, it will continue to be up to the EU and US to oversee the handover of power to the opposition and attempt to keep the peace. 

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