EU calls for resumption of political dialogue in Macedonia

By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2015

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The EU General Affairs Council has expressed grave concern about the deteriorating situation in Macedonia, where there are no signs of an end to the year-long crisis between government and opposition.

In an April 21 statement, the Council, which is composed of European affairs ministers from EU member states, called for a resumption of political dialogue in Macedonia, where the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), has been gradually releasing damaging information in an attempt to force Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government to step down.

“All allegations should be investigated by the relevant authorities, including those allegations of potential wrongdoing being made public, with full regard for due process, the principle of independence and the presumption of innocence,” the statement reads.

SDSM leader Zoran Zaev warned earlier this year that he had obtained recorded conversations of Gruevski and other top government officials in cooperation with an unnamed foreign intelligence service. After Gruevski refused to bow to pressure, the SDSM has been gradually releasing pieces of information from the dossier dubbed “the bomb” within Macedonia.

In February, Zaev accused Gruevski of ordering a massive wiretapping campaign that targeted more than 20,000 Macedonian citizens. According to Zaev, Gruevski and his cousin Saso Mijalkov, director of Macedonia’s Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (UKB), ordered the wiretapping of journalists, religious and opposition leaders.

Since then, Zaev has made several more allegations, including that Gruevski had taken a €20mn bribe from Chinese firms in return for awarding them two highway construction concessions worth around €570mn.

The government says the accusations are unfounded, and represent an illegal attempt to overthrow the government. Zaev and three others, including former intelligence chief Zoran Verusevski, were charged on January 31 with plotting a coup after he threatened to release the taped conversations.

Officials from the US as well as the EU have also called for the crisis to be resolved. During a visit to Skopje on April 16, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee commented that questions had been “raised about the possibility of abuse of government power, which also needs to be addressed”. 

“These issues demand answers, and they demand accountability. We’ve urged the government and its institutions to take the allegations, the insinuations of malfeasance, of possible illegal behavior, very seriously, at least as seriously as the government is taking the charges against Mr Zaev, the leader of the opposition,” Yee said.

Most MPs from the SDSM have been boycotting the parliament since the April 2014 general elections. The SDSM claims the elections, which resulted in a victory for Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE, were rigged. Since then, the opposition party has been calling for Gruevski to step down, and a technocratic government to be put in place pending snap elections.

Two rounds of talks between VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM have already taken place under the aegis of European Parliament members, but with little progress so far.

If the crisis remains unresolved, there are fears of an escalation, with some forecasting Ukraine-type scenarios. There is also the potential for the conflict to acquire an ethnic dimension.

The current crisis is seen as the most serious threat to Macedonia’s stability since the conflict between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, which ended with the 2001 Ohrid agreement. Zaev has already threatened to take the SDSM’s discontent with the government to the streets with demonstrations, according to local media reports.

In an interview with bne IntelliNews, Macedonia’s deputy prime minister in charge of European integration, Fatmir Besimi, warned of the dangers of the lengthy delays to Macedonia’s EU integration. Inter-ethnic issues in Macedonia remain sensitive, but could be eased by further integration into the EU, said Besimi, a member of the government’s junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

Even before the 2014 election, Gruevski’s government had been accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian. The April 21 EU Council statement confirmed this, referring  particularly to concerns in the area of rule of law, fundamental rights and media freedom, “which are core democratic values at the heart of the EU and its enlargement policy”.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has observed an alarming slump in press freedom over the last decade. Back in 2009, Macedonia was ranked 35th on RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index. By 2015, it had dropped to 117th place out of 180 countries - making it the fifth lowest ranked country in Europe, above only Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey. 

Among those wiretapped were more than 100 journalists, Zaev told a February 25 press conference. Commenting on the wiretapping revelations, RSF Germany’s executive director Christian Mihr said, “This large-scale spying on journalists constitutes a massive assault on media freedom, threatening every aspect of the rule of law.”

More recently, two Macedonian journalists have reported receiving death threats. On April 21, NOVA TV editor Borjan Jovanovski said a funeral wreath with a message “Final Farewell” was placed in front of his house, according to an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report. The following day, journalist Zoran Bojarovski said he had received death threats via Facebook.

“This horrendous act adds to the already fragile media environment situation in the country and sends yet another message that critical voices are to be silenced,” said the OSCE representative on freedom of the media Dunja Mijatović in an April 22 statement

Restrictions to press freedom, combined with the ongoing political crisis, could hold back Skopje’s quest for EU membership. The country once appeared to be a frontrunner among the Western Balkans countries, achieving candidate country status in 2005, but since then its integration path has been blocked by the unresolved name dispute with Greece.

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