BALKAN BLOG: Opposition parties try to copy the Macedonia playbook

BALKAN BLOG:  Opposition parties try to copy the Macedonia playbook
By Clare Nuttall January 10, 2016

When mass protests in Macedonia forced the country’s longstanding prime minister Nikola Gruevski to agree to stand down, opposition groups elsewhere in the Western Balkans took note. Attempts are now being made to dislodge the governments in other countries in the region.

Developments have followed a similar pattern in Albania, Montenegro and to some extent Kosovo. Opposition leaders have used a combination of organising mass protests and disrupting parliamentary activity, while demanding the replacement of the current government with a technical or interim government, to be followed by early elections. In several cases, opposition leaders have rebuffed offers of negotiation, choosing instead to insist on the removal of an entrenched local elite.

However, each country has its own situation, and without a critical mass of support from the population and - critically - from the EU, these tactics are no guarantee of success

In Macedonia, a specific set of circumstances enabled the progression from an opposition boycott of parliament - in protest against what it claimed were rigged elections in spring 2014 - to the mass anti-government demonstrations that precipitated the end of Gruevski’s nine-year term in office.

The snowballing of opposition to Gruevski’s government, voted in with a comfortable margin in 2014, was helped by the release of a series of highly damaging taped telephone conversations involving top government officials. An incriminating dossier, dubbed “the bomb” by the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), was gradually released during spring 2015. As the population learned of their government’s involvement in various corruption scandals, its interference in the judiciary and media and, most contentiously, a mass wiretapping campaign that targeted 20,000 Macedonians, public anger mounted.

This, together with pressure from the EU, forced the government to the negotiating table, and on July 14 a deal was struck under which Gruevski will stand down in January to make way for an interim government that will be led by his VMRO-DPMNE party but will include several SDSM ministers. The government’s main task will be to prepare for early elections in April 2016.

Protesters in Montenegro have a similar set of demands. The opposition Democratic Front, which organised a series of protests this autumn, is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic’s government, the appointment of an interim cabinet and early elections.

More recently in Albania, Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha announced that the opposition would launch a “popular uprising” unless the government agreed to a technocratic government and early elections.

Meanwhile in Kosovo, members of the opposition Vetëvendosje (self determination) party have several times set off tear gas in parliament, forcing MPs to abandon the chamber. Its members have also clashed violently with police on several occasions. While the opposition’s main agenda is the scrapping of two deals with Serbia and Montenegro, it has also called for early elections if its demands are not met.

Entrenched in power

While the precise circumstances in each country are different, Cvete Koneska, Europe analyst at Control Risks believes “these are not isolated incidents”.

“The elites in these countries are in touch, and the opposition also has the chance to see what worked in Macedonia, where the government had also been very entrenched in power for a long time, and try it in their own countries,” she tells bne IntelliNews. “The method and the tools are spreading.”

Part of the motivation for the SDSM’s parliamentary boycott and the release of the “bomb” dossier was that Gruevki’s government, in power since August 2006, had become impossible to dislodge through successive elections.

But Gruevski is a relative novice compared to Montenegro’s Djukanovic, who has been at the top of Montenegrin politics since 1991, serving three terms as prime minister and one as president.

Similarly, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) has been in power continuously since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Its leader Hashim Thaci, currently foreign minister, was prime minister from 2008 to 2014, and is expected to become Kosovo’s next president in 2016 under a deal with the PDK’s new coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

In some cases, questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the last elections. For example the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted “credible reports of cases of voter intimidation” in the parliamentary and presidential elections in Macedonia in 2014, and reported a “high number of allegations of state and party confluence and election irregularities” in Montenegro’s 2013 parliamentary elections.

In others, notably with the longstanding coalition between VMRO-DPMNE and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) in Macedonia, powerful ruling alliances have managed to stay in power through successive elections. Meanwhile in Kosovo, the PDK managed to hold onto power after the June 2014 election by striking a new alliance with the LDK, despite expectations of the young country’s first handover of power.

There is “no chance” people would have voted for a PDK-LDK alliance, Florina Duli, executive director of the Pristina-based Kosovar Stability Initiative (IKS), tells bne IntelliNews. Many Kosovans consider the current government was to some extent imposed by the country’s international backers, to bring to an end months of uncertainty after the election.

“The elites have a whole range of more or less sophisticated tools they can make use of, including the crudest - outright electoral fraud,” says Koneska. She also lists control of public sector appointments and - most importantly - control of the media. “Rather than depending on oppressive methods, the elites control the channels of communication, which is the most effective way to control their message.”

The April 2015 Freedom of the Media report by Freedom House found  a “worrying pattern of press freedom violations” in several Western Balkans countries, with Macedonia the “the worst performer in the region” after a sharp decline over the last five years. In Montenegro too, conditions “have deteriorated since Milo Dukanovic returned to the premiership in 2012”. This left opposition groups in several countries fed up with their inability to effect change through elections.

Not easy to replicate

However, no protest movements have so far managed to gain the momentum seen in Macedonia. The numbers out on the streets in Albania and Montenegro have been no more than a few thousand and by mid November participants in the Montenegrin demonstrations had tailed off to around 1,500.

According to Zlatko Vujovic, president of the governing board of Podgorica-based think tank Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMI), the Democratic Front does not enjoy a high level of popular support, and the demonstrations “are mainly intended to strengthen the Democratic Front’s position”. Vujovic also concurs with suspicions voiced by Djukanovic and other Montenegrin officials that Russia backed the protests in an attempt to derail Podgorica’s progress towards Nato membership.

There is also scepticism in Albania about the Democratic Party’s claims it is launching protests over government corruption. Prime minister Edi Rama’s Socialist-led government only came to power in 2013, replacing the Democratic Party, and while its record is not spotless, it has initiated several anti-corruption reforms, including a campaign against the informal economy launched in September and a raid on the “marijuana mountain” at Lazarat.

It therefore seems unlikely that either country will manage to gain the level of traction to effect change of the type seen in Macedonia.

“Corruption and electoral fraud are not exclusive to Macedonia. However, the magnitude of the revelations against Gruevski’s government and the fact that there was evidence and it was publicly released shook the system. This is not easy to replicate,” says Koneska.

The highest level of sympathy for the opposition’s cause is in Kosovo where, according to the IKS’s Duli, a high proportion of the population also object to the international deals struck by the government, in particular an EU-brokered agreement to give more autonomy to Serb communities within the country.

An estimated 35,000 people turned out for a protest on November 28 (according to opposition figures) and - indicating there are also some within the establishment who sympathise with the opposition’s aims - on November 10 the constitutional court ruled that the implementation of the deal on Serb communities should be put on hold. On the other hand, there has been less sympathy for Vetëvendosje’s methods as, according to Duli, “we have a long history of suffering with violence and most people are utterly against it”.

While the Kosovan protests appear to have the highest chance of success, they are also the ones that draw the least from the “Macedonia effect”. Koneska considers the Kosovan opposition as more ideological than others in the region, while Duli tells bne IntelliNews that events in the country are “spontaneous”. We are “obsessed with our own situation” and “not many people tend to follow regional developments”, she says adding, however, that like other countries in the region, Kosovo has “a common problem of state capture and high-level corruption”.

In a region where EU entry is the primary goal of most governments, the stance taken by Brussels is as important a part of the “Macedonia effect” as the level of popular support in determining whether protest actions will be successful.

“A lot depends on how legitimate the opposition’s concerns are seen to be, especially by the EU. Without their pressure, the Macedonian government would have been much more comfortable denying or ignoring the accusations,” says Koneska. Instead, European and US diplomats leaned heavily on Gruevski’s government, eventually forcing a compromise.

The EU’s view also carries weight among local populations, who tend to think European politicians are more credible and trustworthy than those at home.

By contrast, in Kosovo, the country’s highly influential western backers have tended to side with the authorities against the opposition. After yet another tear gas attack, the EU office in Kosovo said on November 30 that “violent obstruction is neither acceptable nor will it solve any problem for the citizens of Kosovo”. Two days later, US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to Pristina on December 2 that the parliament was “no place for tear gas”.

While international criticism of the use of teargas in the parliament is hardly surprising, Duli considers the approach of international observers has resulted in a lack of scrutiny of suspected high-level corruption because “the same people are the partners of the international community”.

In the longer-term adoption of this combination of techniques designed to put pressure on the government - whether successful or not - can have more serious implications.

Refusal of the opposition to take part in the parliament’s work - as seen for over a year in Macedonia and more recently in Kosovo - for the most part has not resulted in legislation being blocked. In all these cases the government has a majority in parliament, although some laws in Albania and Macedonia require more than a simple majority.

However, Koneska warns that “the problem is that the democratic nature of the process suffers because the government is not debating its legislation. Instead, the parliament rubber-stamps its proposals, so these are not seen as legitimate.”

This can make attempts at reform less effective and undermine democracy, and could ultimately delay countries from the Western Balkans in their path to EU membership.