BALKAN BLOG: Stakes high in the dirty fight over Macedonia’s future

BALKAN BLOG: Stakes high in the dirty fight over Macedonia’s future
Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has accused the electoral commission of acting unlawfully.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest December 23, 2016

While most people across Europe are celebrating Christmas on December 25, in Macedonia (where the holiday is mainly marked on January 7) residents of the Tearce municipality will be casting their votes in a re-run of the December 11 election that could be critical to determining the country’s future direction.

Just two seats separate the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in the 120-seat parliament after the SDSM hiked its share of the vote in the election. If the re-run vote is won by the SDSM the two rivals would have exactly the same number of seats.

This wafer-thin margin has already led to raised tensions in the country, where VMRO-DPMNE is determined to form the next government, and SDSM is equally committed to stopping it.

The snap election intended to resolve the political crisis in Macedonia has in fact had the opposite effect, dashing hopes that Macedonia could return to normal after nearly three years of political turmoil following the last round of elections. In fact, the situation appears to be worse than ever, with rising concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the country after angry scenes outside the state election commission (SEC) during VMRO-DPMNE protests in recent days.

According to local media coverage, VMRO-DPMNE supporters threatened to burn down the SEC headquarters and the US embassy in Skopje over claims of American interference in the election. There are also unconfirmed reports that family members of SEC officials have been threatened. The protests so far have been peaceful, though increasingly aggressive, but analysts have not ruled out further escalation as former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE tries desperately to retain its hold on power.

At one of the protests on December 17, Gruevski read out a five-point proclamation from the party’s leadership that confirmed its uncompromising stance. It accused the SEC of making “unlawful” decisions, even though it had rejected almost all of the complaints from the SDSM and ethnic Albanian party Besa. Other points included a warning to international observers to stay out of Macedonian politics. Another party official said during the protest that VMRO was “nearing the end of our patience”.

“The angry rhetoric we have seen shows the high stakes for both the parties that declared victory after the election. Gruevski obviously considers his political future is at stake so he will try to do everything possible … Trying to seed distrust towards state institutions is a dangerous path for a political leader to take,” says Natalia Otel Belan, deputy regional director, Eurasia and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).

Much will depend now on both the result on December 25, and on what course of action the SDSM will adopt. If it does not succeed in forming a government, the party has the choice of whether to continue to boycott the parliament or to play an active role within the assembly as a check on a new VMRO-DPMNE government.

The parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority also have a critical role to play. The main parties - VMRO-DPMNE’s long-term coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) - saw their support falter as voters deserted them for the SDSM and the newly formed Albanian party Besa. Still, the DUI’s backing could allow VMRO-DPMNE to form a government - assuming it decides to continue to support Gruevski, which is by no means assured.

“The snap election has weakened Gruevski, as this is the first time he will be unable to negotiate with potential coalition partners as the dominant power,” Mateusz Seroka, of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) wrote in   a December 14 analyst note, though he still forecasts an eventual deal with the DUI.

State capture

Should this be the case, there are further concerns that an embattled new VMRO-DPMNE government – which is already deeply fed up with international criticism of its hollowing out of the country’s democracy –  could lead Macedonia further into authoritarianism.

Macedonia, like fellow CEE countries Hungary and Poland, has already seen a move away from liberal democracy and towards rightwing populism. In recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban outlined his theory of “illiberal democracy”, and has pursued policies to limit the independence of the courts and the media. There are also worries about the growing control of Polish institutions by the Law and Justice Party. On December 19, the party took full control of the constitutional tribunal after its head Andrzej Rzeplinski, a prominent critic of the party, stepped down.

VMRO-DPMNE has been in power since 2006, and has made many changes predating those in Hungary or Poland. During Gruevski’s rule the party extended its grip over state institutions, the judiciary and the media to such an extent that in its latest enlargement progress report in November, the European Commission warned of state capture in the country.

Other observers have also voiced concerns. Freedom House found in its Nations in Transit report in April that while countries across Europe moved further away from democracy in the previous year, Macedonia’s regression had been the sharpest. “[A] populist ruling elite came to dominate the weakly organised political opposition and dismantled checks and balances in favour of a powerful executive, leading to a breakdown in political dialogue in 2014,” the report said.

Another study by the watchdog on press freedom found that Macedonia was the only country in the SEE region to be rated “not free”.

Observers fear that under a new VMRO-DPMNE led government, this slide towards authoritarianism could intensify. Belan believes all the signs at present “point to the fact that Gruevski’s party will become more authoritarian if they are the winner of this election … Even if they build a coalition with a more moderate party I don’t think they will change their course of taking control of state institutions,” she says.

Even before the current crisis had fully unfolded, there were fears that the leverage of the EU, the US and other international actors to influence the situation in Macedonia were waning. The EU “expended huge amounts of political capital” to broker the 2015 Przino agreement, Freedom House has pointed out.

But the ability of the EU to influence Macedonian politics using the carrot of progress towards membership has been severely compromised by the country’s consistent failure to advance because of Greece’s veto. Macedonia became an EU candidate country back in 2005 but since then has made virtually no progress, being overtaken by Montenegro and Serbia. It has been a similar story with Skopje’s ambitions for Nato membership. Small wonder then that Brussels and Washington are losing their power to influence Macedonian politicians.

The extreme frustration with the international community erupted post election, with the threats made by VMRO-DPMNE supporters during their demonstrations outside the SEC. Another disturbing development was the appearance of an image showing photographs of US ambassador Jess Baily, EU ambassador Samuel Žbogar and several other international diplomats doctored to look like death notices. Despite the implied threat to the diplomats neither Gruevski nor other Macedonian politicians expressed outrage at the image, which was posted on the Imgur photo sharing site.

International actors have continued to call on Macedonian politicians to ensure the situation does not deteriorate, and another internationally brokered deal cannot be ruled out, but it is clear their powers are waning. This leaves Macedonians facing the unappealing prospects of either continued political chaos or a slide further into authoritarianism. Far from resolving the situation, the elections have escalated it.