Gruevski keeps Macedonia guessing

Gruevski keeps Macedonia guessing
By Kit Gillet and Dimitar Koychev January 14, 2016

It is now just one day before Macedonia’s prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, is scheduled to step down, paving the way for a new interim government and elections on April 24. But at present no one knows if this resignation will happen or if those elections will end up needing to be postponed.

Gruevski’s resignation was agreed last July as part of a hard-fought deal that seemed to at least partly resolve the deep political crisis that has wracked Macedonia for more than a year.

For months last year, opposition parties and supporters took to the streets to protest against the government, with opposition leader Zoran Zaev releasing weekly “bombs” – incriminating wiretapped conversations, said to be of government ministers openly discussing corrupt deals. The tapes were allegedly recorded on the orders of Gruevski and leaked to Zaev.

The Przino Agreement, hammered out with the help of Brussels, led to, among other things, calm on the streets and the return to parliament of Macedonia’s biggest opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had refused to participate for more than a year, arguing that parliamentary elections in August 2014 had been rigged.

This always-fragile political calm could now be in jeopardy once again. The elections scheduled for April are supposed to be organised by a new government, one headed by a new prime minister nominated by the ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, and due be sworn in on January 15. However, even at this late stage, it is still unclear if this will happen.

The most likely scenario right now appears to be the postponing of elections, whether by a few months or longer, along with the resignation of Gruevski. The reason for this is the as-yet incomplete implementation of key provisions of the Przino Agreement.

At present there are two major shortcomings still needing to be resolved: inadequate progress in boosting media freedom and the checking of the voters’ lists. Both of these issues have been raised by European Parliament members Ivo Vajgl, Eduard Kukan and Richard Howitt, who visited Macedonia on January 11-12.

On January 13, Zaev said in an interview that conditions had not yet been created to ensure fair elections. He added that media regulations and checking the voters’ lists are the two most serious outstanding issues. In the interview, Zaev said that solving these issues by the January 15 deadline is impossible, but that his party was open to new election dates, between April and September.

However, the stance of VMRO-DPMNE continues to be that elections must be held on April 24, as originally planned, Deutsche Welle reported on January 13.

The ruling party did not comment on the issue of Gruevski’s resignation, nor the nomination of his replacement. “Everything will be known when the time comes”, party representatives told the paper.

According to the Przino Agreement, a new government has to be sworn in by January 15, 100 days before the parliamentary elections. The new government will be limited to organising the election.

How to bow out gracefully

Looking at recent polls it becomes clear why VMRO-DPMNE wants to push ahead with elections now. According to the results of the latest publicly available opinion poll, conducted by BRIMA Gallup in the period October 29-November 3, VMRO-DPMNE leads by a significant margin among voters, although the survey included only ethnic Macedonians, as ethnic Albanians traditionally vote for the ethnic Albanian parties.

Some 33.3% of respondents said that they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE if elections were held the following week, whereas SDSM was supported by just 14.7% of those polled. The share of respondents who did not answer was 21.9%.

Yet if VMRO-DPMNE really wanted to push ahead with the elections surely the party would be more vocal about when Gruevski will step down, and also would have named an interim prime minister candidate.

A decision on how to proceed is likely to be made on January 15, when Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner in charge of European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations, who was instrumental in the negotiations last year, is set to visit Macedonia.

Ahead of his visit, Commissioner Hahn said: "15 January is a key deadline of the political agreement, the implementation of which is important both for the government and the citizens of the country. I expect that the outstanding elements of the political agreement will be resolved before or during my visit, allowing the election authorities to organise credible elections according to the agreed timetable."

Gruevski was in the US on January 11, and met with US Vice President Joe Biden, who pushed the Balkan leader to follow through with the brokered agreement. The two “agreed on the importance of continued implementation of the Przino Agreement and taking the actions necessary to ensure credible elections”, according to a statement issued by the White House.

What this means in reality is harder to assess. Will Gruevski choose to bow out gracefully? Having held power since 2006 he has in the past shown determination to retain his post. However, after the political mess of last year it is unlikely European and US leaders would countenance him reneging on his agreement to step down.

In December, the leaders of Macedonia's four largest political parties reached an agreement on the nominations of three independent experts that will complete the State Election Commission (SEC). It was considered an important milestone in the implementation of the agreement that resolved the political crisis last July.

At almost the same time the European Commission said it is “prepared to extend its recommendation to open accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia conditional on the continued implementation of the June/July political agreement and substantial progress in the implementation of the urgent reform priorities”.

Macedonia has made significant progress in implementing the Przino Agreement, and following the pressure from the EU and US this week, foreign leaders will be hoping the country keeps moving forward. If it doesn’t, expect some serious ramifications.