BALKAN BLOG: Macedonia is sliding back into chaos

BALKAN BLOG: Macedonia is sliding back into chaos
One of the Macedonian president's offices was ransacked in the protests.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Clare Nuttall in Bucharest April 15, 2016

Macedonia looks to be sliding back into political chaos after President Gjorge Ivanov’s shock decision to halt a raft of criminal proceedings against ruling politicians and high-level officials.

The EU-brokered Przino Agreement that ended a lengthy stand-off between the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition in July 2015 now seems to be dead in the water, with uncertain consequences for elections scheduled for June 5. The EU’s influence has now waned dramatically, reducing its potential to broker a new agreement between government and opposition.

Ivanov announced on April 12 that he was halting investigations into all those being probed in connection to illegally wiretapped conversations between senior officials, which were released by the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in 2015. The dossier of incriminating information against top officials – including former prime minister Nikola Gruevski - revealed corruption, interference in the judicial process, abuse of prisoners in police custody, as well as election rigging. The amnesty applies both to those incriminated by the tapes and the opposition leaders who released the information.

This resulted in protests on the evenings of April 12 and 13. Around 3,000 people took part in the April 13 protest, ransacking the national office of the president in downtown Skopje. Police were deployed to prevent clashes between opposition supporters and a counter-protest by supporters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party. The situation in the capital remains tense and larger protests are planned for April 15.

These are not yet on the scale of the 2015 protests, which gradually gathered momentum through the spring until tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets in May. However, public anger is mounting and there is the potential for wider unrest.

“It is difficult to judge what the outcome will be at this stage. Clearly the president miscalculated, and at least some of the population want the truth to be revealed and justice to be done,” says Cvete Koneska, Europe analyst at Control Risks.

Fuelled by the SDSM’s wiretap evidence, the protests only ended with the signing of an EU-brokered deal between the main government and opposition parties. The Przino agreement stipulated that Macedonia should hold a snap general election this year, as well as requiring democratic reforms and the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the accusations.

Implementation of the Przino requirements has been patchy, and there have been claims from both the opposition and international observers that VMRO-DPMNE is disrupting the process.

Elections are scheduled for June 5 but it is still uncertain whether the vote will take place as the SDSM has said it will not participate as conditions for a free election have not been met. The election date has already been postponed after the ambassadors of the EU and the US to Macedonia said on February 21 that conditions for holding credible early election on April 24 had not been met. Also in February, VMRO-DPMNE announced it would no longer work with EU mediator Peter Vanhoutte, after the former Belgian MP mocked the party with a series of cat memes posted on Twitter, expressing his frustration with the process.

State capture

In another controversial move, the constitutional court - which along with other state institutions is believed to be heavily influenced by the VMRO-DPMNE - decided on March 16 to allow those found guilty of rigging elections to be pardoned.

This was a blow to the special prosecutor’s office, led by Katica Janeva, whose first case, dubbed Titanik, concerned election fraud. The prosecutor was further undermined when its request for eight people including two former ministers to be detained was dismissed by a Skopje court.

An April 1 report from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) says that despite the signing of the Przino agreement, “VMRO-DPMNE, with its network of loyal supporters, was able to prevent the actions intended to weaken its influence ... VMRO-DPMNE is determined to confirm its dominance in the upcoming elections.” OSW analysts claim the party is willing to temporarily jeopardise the state’s stability in order to keep the ruling elite in power.

Ivanov, a former law professor who was the VMRO-DPMNE candidate for president, said his April 12 decision was intended to end the political crisis in the country and “put an end to this agony for Macedonia”.

However, Dane Taleski, visiting fellow at the Centre for Southeast Studies at the University of Graz, said the decision was “shameful in legal terms for Macedonia and directly undermines the efforts to strengthen democracy”.

“The decision annihilates the Przino agreement and makes the special prosecution office redundant. The aim of the decision is to protect political crime, corruption and abuse of power and to promote the principle of impunity,” Taleski told bne IntelliNews.

The SDSM called on April 12 for impeachment proceedings to be launched against Ivanov. Party leader Zoran Zaev called the president’s move a “coup d’etat” and claimed that if he failed to retract his decision Macedonia would be “on the verge of an explosion”.

Even VMRO-DPMNE’s junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) said the decision was “hasty” and called on Ivanov to reconsider.

The VMRO-DPMNE has also spoken out against Ivanov’s decision, as it will result in court proceedings against Zaev – who was charged in January 2015 of plotting to overthrow the government – being dropped, as well as those against government figures.

However, Ivanov is rumoured to have secretly agreed the move with VMRO-DPMNE members, Deutsche Welle radio in Spkoje reported, quoting sources from the party.

It therefore appears to be a ploy by the ruling elite to hold onto power as the elections approach. This is further evidence of Macedonia’s slide towards authoritarianism and the evolution of VMRO-DPMNE from a group of young, pro-westerns reformers into an entrenched elite.

Dwindling hopes

According to OSW, the party’s initial agenda when it was first elected in 2006 gradually gave way to “nationalist slogans and the consolidation of its autocratic methods of governance”. This turnaround was partly the result of Macedonia’s stalled negotiations with both the EU and Nato, blocked by the longstanding dispute with Greece over the country’s name.

As hope of entry to the two organisations dwindled, and Macedonia was overtaken by its neighbours, VMRO-DPMNE tightened its control over domestic institutions. “Power in the state and the party was taken over by a narrow group linked to the prime minister,” the OSW report says. It details how VMRO-DPMNE consolidated its grip on power “through the subordination of state institutions to the party’s interests ... Institutions such as the administration, the police, the public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary have been filled with party appointees.”

According to Koneska, ““The ruling elite may refer to the EU norms of democracy and human rights in their rhetoric, but their main concern is to stay in power and out of prison.”

Freedom House’s April 12 Nations in Transit report said that Macedonia had the largest decline in democracy of any country in the region, and the Balkan region’s worst record for media independence. This year is likely to be critical for setting the country’s future path - whether towards greater democracy or further into authoritarianism.

“The conduct and outcome of the elections, and the work of the judiciary in the investigation of the illegal surveillance activities exposed in 2015, will be key factors in setting the direction for democratic governance in 2016,” the report says.

While the EU facilitated the Przino agreement, the bloc’s ability to support Macedonia’s future democratic progress is likely to be limited. Brussels held out EU integration as a carrot in the negotiation process, indicating possible progress after the 2016 election, but it is unclear how any concrete progress can be made without Greek approval.

“The political influence of the EU is waning. They have very few levers left and I am not convinced they can go back to save the Przino agreement. They could threaten to stall the integration process, but this has already been stalled for years,” says Koneska.

Further complicating the situation is Macedonia’s role in the migrant crisis, which escalated in late 2015 and early 2016. As countries along the Western Balkans route to Germany and other North European countries closed their borders, Macedonia became a bulwark against the influx of migrants from Greece, whose “wave through” policy increasingly jarred with the hardening stance of other EU member states.

The migrant crisis “has strengthened the ruling elite’s position and discouraged support for democratic experiments, as the process of democratic transformation may be accompanied by a weakening of state institutions and the escalation of internal tensions, which would reduce Macedonia’s ability to protect the border,” the OSW report said.

The crisis has also pitted Macedonia against Greece, where around 11,000 refugees and migrants are stranded at the notorious Idomeni border camp, raising tensions between the two countries, which does not bode well for Macedonia’s integration into the EU or Nato.

When it comes to getting Macedonia back on track, the EU might have already used up all its political capital, and it no longer carries the weight it once did within the country to allow it to broker a solution a second time around. This raises the possibility that without the incentive of EU accession, Macedonia’s path could permanently diverge from its neighbours as they continue to progress toward the EU.