Macedonia defies illiberal trend in otherwise gloomy Freedom House report

Macedonia defies illiberal trend in otherwise gloomy Freedom House report
With the exception of Slovenia, all countries in the SEE region are either Semi-Consolidated Democracies (yellow) or Transitional Government or Hybrid Regimes (orange).
By bne IntelliNews April 12, 2018

Macedonia was one of the few bright spots on Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit 2018 report, which assesses democratic governance in 29 post-communist states. 

Along with a handful of other Balkan nations, Macedonia showed an improvement in terms of democratic liberties last year. These were the first improvements in Macedonia’s score on the influential ranking since 2018, ending seven straight years of decline after a new government came to power in May. 

“The most promising chance for a democratic breakthrough in Europe today is in Macedonia. Although the country is small, the opportunity is big: Success in Macedonia would mean breaking up a decade of state capture and peacefully resolving bilateral disputes that have held back political and economic progress in the region,” Freedom House said. 

Macedonia’s democracy score improved to 4.36 points on the index published on April 11, down from 4.43 points in the previous ranking. The index rates countries on a scale of one to seven, with one being the best score. 

Looking ahead, 2018 is likely to be a test of the reform commitment of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and its coalition partner, ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which just survived a no-confidence vote in the parliament on April 11. 

There are some concerns about Macedonia’s future. The normalisation of parliamentary work, with full participation of both government and opposition parties, will most likely be a critical issue during 2018, says the report. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which was in power from 2006 to 2017, has boycotted the parliament for months, only returning to take part in the no-confidence vote. In addition, interethnic resentments over the proposed law on languages, which will make Albanian a second official language, could also appear during the year, at the expense of already damaged ethnic relations, the report underlined.

On the whole, however, the recent progress in Macedonia is in contrast to several of its near neighbours as well as the wider Central and Southeast Europe region, which saw a speed of illiberal politics that, the report said, “undermines the foundations and prospects for democracy”. 

“Illiberal politics are becoming the new normal in Europe,” commented Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, in a statement. 

“Government-led smear campaigns against civil society groups, journalists, and the political opposition were pioneered in Russia and Central Asia, but they are increasingly common across the region. This is no longer a problem we can claim is limited to one or two countries. To protect democracy, leaders need to confront attacks on democratic principles, especially when those attacks are close to home.”

The 2018 report showed the widest reaching score declines in the project’s 23-year history, with a total of 19 countries seeing their democracy scores decline. As in 2017, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies in the region. 

With the exception of Slovenia, a Consolidated Democracy, the SEE region is split between Semi-Consolidated Democracies (Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia) and Transitional Government or Hybrid Regimes (Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Moldova). 

There was backsliding among the former frontrunners in the region, with Freedom House issuing warnings over the situation in both Romania and Serbia. 

Serbia’s score continued its four-year slide, and as the consolidation of power under President Aleksandar Vucic continued, the country risks falling out of the Semi-Consolidated Democracy category.

“Last year, Vucic ‘castled’ himself from the prime minister’s seat to the presidency, then handpicked a new prime minister with limited powers … Such manoeuvres undermine constitutional order and the independence of national governing institutions,” commented the NGO’s senior researcher Zselyke Csaky. 

The report also laments the end of a “positive trend” in Romania given the government’s “relentless attempts to weaken the justice system, sideline the anticorruption agency, and essentially legalise corruption”. It refers to the failure of mass protests in early 2017 to rein in efforts to amend legislation to protect top politicians from prosecution. 

“Romania’s politicians will face protests as long as they insist on trying to weaken anticorruption institutions,” said Csaky. “The fact that such protests are even necessary is a sign that the country has a long way to go in effectively combating corruption.”

The scores of Bosnia, Bulgaria and Montenegro also all worsened. While Bulgaria managed to reestablish political stability last year, the country’s media environment has deteriorated significantly, with an increase in hate speech and violence against journalists. “Transparency of media ownership continued to be a serious problem, as was the fusion of media and politics, media monopolies, and lack of transparency of funding sources,” the report noted.

Bosnia’s score also worsened, with 2017 being “another year of wasted opportunities” in the country. “There was not a single aspect of life that was not polluted with inflammable rhetoric and cheap politicisation, all originating from the most influential political leaders. While disguising their own private agendas as mechanisms for the protection of ethnic interests, and presenting them as issues of national importance, politicians in reality did nothing to improve citizens’ lives. It has become clear they do not have any sort of a long-term constructive plan for the country, and instead focus only on their current mandates,” the report noted.

The expectations for 2018 are also pessimistic as Bosnia will hold general election this autumn, and ethnic tensions and political disputes are expected to characterise the whole year, with likely deadlocks in the decision-making process.

 Meanwhile, Montenegro’s score worsened to 3.93 from 3.89 amid a persistent political crisis following the opposition’s decision to boycott parliament. This crisis, as well as persisting tensions between the opposition and the government characterised the political situation in the country in 2017 and are likely to continue dominating it in 2018. Montenegrins will go to the polls to elect a new president this weekend, but with a victory for the country’s top political figure Milo Djukanovic virtually a foregone conclusion, nothing is expected to change as a result. 

On the other hand, while there were no changes on such a dramatic scale as in Macedonia, the situation in two other small Balkan countries, Albania and Kosovo, improved slightly. 

Kosovo’s democracy score improved in 2018, with Freedom House citing some improvements in electoral processes and in the civil society sector. However, the fight against corruption stalled due to a lack of political will. 

Albania’s score also improved, and Freedom House said that for Albania, 2018 holds the promise of improved governance — but it also warned of the danger of authoritarianism.

“With a comfortable majority in parliament, the ruling Socialist Party and its Prime Minister Edi Rama enjoy a genuine opportunity to carry out important reforms that have the potential to reduce corruption in the judiciary and bribery in the public administration while enhancing good governance,” it said.

On the other hand, the report warned that complete control that Rama has over the Socialist Party and the solid majority he enjoys in parliament, combined with a tight control over the executive, could give rise to authoritarian tendencies that can bring other state institutions under the premier’s control.