Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -
Macedonia’s political crisis appears to be reaching a damaging deadlock after a series of damning taped recordings has fuelled allegations of serious crimes by officials of the ruling VMRO party, including election rigging and extortion. As tensions grow, Macedonia’s deputy prime minister in charge of European integration, Fatmir Besimi, tells bne IntelliNews that the EU must re-engage with the country and wider Balkan region to prevent a dangerous escalation along ethnic lines.
In an exclusive interview, Besimi says the decade-long delay in Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations had emboldened forces opposed to democratisation and Euro-Atlantic values. Besimi, an ethnic-Albanian, warns that inter-ethnic issues in Macedonia remain sensitive, but could be eased by further integration into the EU.
Besimi is a member of the government’s junior coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), an ethnic-Albanian party that succeed a guerrilla movement that fought the Macedonian authorities in a brief war in 2001. “We must be aware of this situation, and it should not be allowed to go in a way that would cause further damage,” says Besimi, speaking from Skopje. “It should not be the case that this transfers from a political crisis to an ethnic crisis.”
While the deputy minister did not care to speculate about inter-ethnic scenarios, he said they could be “a lot more difficult to solve than the political crisis”.
Over recent weeks, Macedonia has been rocked by a wire-tapping scandal focused on Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and several of his senior ministers and officials. Tapes presented by the opposition appear to implicate the premier and his allies in election rigging, undermining the independent judiciary, manipulating the media and using the apparatus of the state to cement the ruling party’s grip on power.
The recordings surfaced after the leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM), Zoran Zaev, was charged with plotting to overthrow the government in a “coup” in late January. The government alleges that the tapes – which Zaev terms “bombs” – were heavily edited and acquired by Zaev with the help of an unnamed foreign spy agency, with the Macedonian media implicating Greece. Zaev in turn says the tapes are evidence of a massive wire-tapping programme that has bugged 20,000 people.
Besimi, like Gruevski and his allies, insists there must be a proper investigation into the claims before any conclusions are reached. And if any wrongdoing is proven, the culprits must be brought to justice. “It is too early to say and speculate about the allegations, and what is the truth and not,” he says, stressing the need for transparency and rule of law in the investigation process. “My view is that people who have been involved in illegal affairs – not just wire-tapping, but in the content – should be held responsible.”
The opposition and its supporters – as well as some independent analysts and journalists – take the view that the tapes show Macedonia’s judiciary to be so compromised that any investigation carried out by its officers would be meaningless. But Besimi says that if anything good can come from the crisis, it could be the country demonstrating that its institutions are robust enough to manage the situation and resolve it without fear or favour. “We need to make sure that Macedonia comes out of this stronger, with institutional credibility strengthened, with the rule of law enhancing freedom of expression, and guaranteed human rights,” he says. “We are expected to show certain progress, and therefore it’s important how this situation will be managed.” Macedonia needs to show that its institutions meet criteria required in the EU integration process, Besimi adds.
Bombs and autocracy
The latest “bomb” – the 11th – was released on March 18, and allegedly reveals an extortion racket run by VMRO officials in the city of Strumica. Serious as the allegations are, the government has stood firm, and opposition protests are yet to gain much traction. However, there is widespread speculation that Zaev may have some damaging evidence related to the 2012 Smilkovci Lake killings, in which five ethnic (Slavic) Macedonians were murdered. Six ethnic Albanians were sentenced to life in prison for the murders last year after the arrest of a group of alleged jihadists. The arrests led to mass protests by Albanians, who account for around 25% of the population, and the convictions have been contested by some.
One of Europe’s most recent armed conflicts, in 2001, was fought between Albanian guerrillas and the Macedonian government. Ethnicity-related clashes have occurred since, hence the concerns voiced by Besimi and others, including European Parliament rapporteur on Macedonia Ivo Vajgl, that the current situation could escalate unpredictably.
The deputy prime minister asserted that the Nato and EU integration process would help soothe remaining tensions between Albanians and Macedonians, and secure stability and liberal democracy in a country that has felt tremors of unrest and is now showing deeply worrying signs of autocracy.
Macedonia has been an official EU accession candidate since 2005. However, its EU and Nato membership bids are both stuck in limbo because of a veto from Greece, which objects to the country’s name, claiming that it implies irredentist ambitions over the Macedonia region of northern Greece.
It’s a regional thing
Concerns about the region’s progress of transition towards liberal democracy and Atlanticism are not unique to Macedonia, with criticism also levelled at Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia’s ethnic Serb entity – as well as EU members including Bulgaria and Hungary.
The idea of inexorable European and Nato integration, and the triumph of liberal democracy as the inevitable telos for Central and Eastern Europe has been severely put to the test by the Ukraine crisis, and the rise of leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who question the benefits of the Euro-Atlantic system.
Besimi believes that the current crisis in Macedonia – and the considerably more serious war in Ukraine – calls for new thinking for the region from Brussels to reinvigorate the process of EU integration. “As a representative of an ethnic Albanian party, I believe that Euro-Atlantic values will help the country build better interethnic relations, and guarantee fundamental human rights, good governance and the rule of law. This in turn will guarantee what [Macedonia's ethnic] Albanians are looking for, in terms of equal opportunities and rights,” he says.
Moving to the democratic model has its own challenges, the deputy prime minister points out, but it’s something that countries in the region must all do. The delay in the EU integration process affects the expectations of people about EU perspectives and raises the arguments of eurosceptics, Besimi adds.
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