Hot summer ahead for Macedonian politicians

Hot summer ahead for Macedonian politicians
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje July 25, 2016

Experience has shown that setting deadlines for Macedonian politicians means nothing. The four main political parties reached an EU/US-mediated deal on July 20, which is expected to help in overcoming the persistent political crisis, but its implementation will be tricky as many disputed issues are still open.

Under the agreement, the parties should implement a set of measures by end-August to create conditions for free and democratic elections, then set a date for an early general election. All parties agreed that new elections are the only way to exit the crisis.

However, immediately after the international community announced the news about the long-awaited agreement, NGOs said they were disappointed as they were not included in the talks and expressed concerns about the implementation of the deal.

NGOs skeptical

“From the previous experience we saw delays in implementation, such as with the Przino agreement. Now we will see how the agreed steps will be implemented,” Biljana Bejkova from NGO Ajde told bne IntelliNews.

The Przino agreement was signed in 2015 and was intended to resolve the crisis that emerged when incriminating wiretapped conversations involving top officials were leaked by the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). However, the implementation of the agreement was very slow, deadlines were frequently not met and many rifts erupted between the parties.

Two dates were envisaged for early elections, first April 24 then June 5, but the vote did not take place as opposition parties and the international community claimed there were no conditions in place for a free and democratic vote. The Macedonian crisis deepened further in mid-April when President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, including top politicians under criminal investigation, which sparked mass protests in the country, dubbed the Colourful Revolution. The pardons were later revoked.

Asked about whether Colourful Revolution protests will continue following the deal, Bejkova said that NGOs will follow closely the implementation of the agreement and depending on developments they will take “appropriate steps”.

The Colourful Revolution civil movement said in a statement on July 21 that it will stay vigilant and will monitor the implementation process closely.

In a potentially positive sign, the first deadline after the agreement, July 22, for amending the Electoral Code, was met. The changes were approved in the parliament by an overwhelming majority.

Despite this, the August 31 deadline is very close for all issues to be resolved thoroughly, although there may be enough time to set a date for early elections. “However, if conditions are not met for a free and democratic vote there is no point setting a date for the election,” Bejkova said.

She added that there are many open issues which need to be addressed, in particular fully establishing the Special Prosecution Office (SPO), which was launched to probe crimes by top politicians revealed by the wiretapping scandal. SPO offices in courts and the interior ministry still need to be set up to allow it to work efficiently, according to Bejkova.

She added that some issues related to media reforms are still open, and some - like an ad hoc committee which should consist of party members - are problematic. According to the EU delegation in Skopje, the ad hoc body will be composed of five people of whom at least one will be ethnic Albanian.

“We will see how it will function,” Bejkova said skeptically.

The four parties involved in the crisis talks were the governing VMRO-DPMNE, its ethnic Albanian coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the SDSM and the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).

The lack of involvement of civil organisations has been criticised by both Bejkova and the Colourful Revolution movement.

According to the movement, the fact that civil organisations were not included in the talks either as observers or as consultants raises the suspicion that the governing parties will use all means at their disposal to prevent implementation of the agreement. “Such risks can cause a loss of confidence in the whole process again,” the movement said.

Bejkova noted that the agreement among parties did not specify the role that NGOs will have in the process and how it will work. “[T]here is only one sentence in the statement which refers to civil society,” Bejkova said.

Prior to the agreement, NGOs asked to be part of the negotiation process. According to Bejkova, NGOs are to be included only in the reform process, which will continue after August 31, but not in the talks between parties, which cast doubt over the transparency of the negotiations.

Opposition is optimistic

While the deal was criticised by NGOs, it was welcomed by SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, who was optimistic about the deal, saying that the party’s two main demands - further steps for clearing the voters’ list and media reform - had been agreed.

In terms of media, he said he expected balanced media reporting and adhesion to professional standards. Currently, most television stations in Macedonia, which is a highly politicised society, are under government control with almost no coverage or space for the opposition to express its opinion. There are no televised debates with members of different political parties.

“The electoral roll will be cleared and instead over 1.8mn voters (Macedonia has a population of 2.1mn), it will have 1.55mn to 1.58mn,” Zaev said in a party statement on July 22. “This is something new and fair, which protects against electoral abuse.

On July 20, it was also agreed that if elections take place in 2016, a new government created in line with the 2015 Przino agreement will be voted in by the parliament 100 days before the agreed day of the elections.

According to the SDSM, if all conditions are met by end of August, early elections are possible on December 11.

VMRO-DPMNE did not publish a statement following the agreement. However, according to its leader Nikola Gruevski, an early election is the desired option and the only way for Macedonia to put an end to the crisis.

“We are interested in this agreement being fully implemented,” Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister from VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Todorov, told news provider Kurir, adding that the governing party is ready to fully implement all obligations on time, without any obstructions.

The SDSM believes it will win the election if the voters’ registry is cleared and conditions for a free vote are met. However, the latest survey published in June by Brima Gallup showed that VMRO-DPMNE still leads the SDSM with 27.1% support against 15.8%, broadcaster Sitel reported at the time.

SDSM has been in opposition since 2006, losing early elections in 2008, 2011 and 2014. The party has repeatedly blamed the governing party for organising unfair elections.

Observers such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have claimed VMRO-DPMNE uses all instruments at its disposal to attract more voters, including promising employment in the public administration, pressure on employees in the administration and using its control of the media and ability to broadcast expensive television campaigns.

On July 11, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in a report that a climate of intimidation persisted, attributed to a fear of retribution existing in state companies and institutions. OSCE/ODIHR also raised concerns "regarding the deterioration of media freedom due to political pressure and owners interfering in the work of journalists.”