Macedonia plunged back into political crisis

Macedonia plunged back into political crisis
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje March 15, 2018

Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov has refused for the second time to sign the law that makes Albanian the second official language in the country, even though legal experts say he is obliged to do so. 

Ivanov’s action has made the political situation in Macedonia more fragile again, and security has been tightened following threats against ruling party MPs. 

The country had started to recover from a major political crisis since the new Social Democratic government came to power in mid-2017 and pledged reforms that will bring it closer to EU and Nato membership. However, the latest developments suggest that the situation in Macedonia is far from being stable.

The controversial language law was adopted on March 14 for the second time at a tense session in parliament. According to the parliament's new regulations, the law should be signed by the president within seven days and parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi said that Ivanov is obliged to sign the decree.

Ivanov had previously vetoed the bill following its first adoption in January, saying it was unconstitutional. According to the constitution, the president cannot veto a law approved by MPs for the second time, but Ivanov said he will refuse to sign the bill into law as it was adopted in an “inappropriate parliamentary procedure”.

“As president I will not allow this. The constitution and my conscience do not permit me to sign a decree approving such a law,” Ivanov said in a video broadcast posted on his website late on March 14.

The president added that the law was adopted in a “violent way” in the parliament, which cannot be considered as expression of democracy

“The law on the use of languages, in the manner in which it is written, and voted in, will cause a complete blockade of the work of the institutions and in such conditions the issue of redefining of our constitutional order is likely to be opened up,” Ivanov said.

He reiterated that the law is unjust and repressive. As it favours only one minority language, it will deepen inter-ethnic tensions in the country, he claimed.

Constitutional debate

A debate has now opened up within Macedonia over the law and the manner in which it was adopted. 

The leader of the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, said the party will challenge the law through the Constitutional Court and will launch a lawsuit against Xhaferi for breaching the constitution by not allowing the parliament to discuss amendments filed by the opposition. His party claims that the law will undermine Macedonia’s sovereignty and national unity. 

VMRO-DPMNE MPs were angered when Xhaferi refused to allow discussion of the amendments and put the law to the vote on March 14. The opposition tried to prevent the adoption of the law, but Xhaferi interrupted the session and declared the law adopted. 

As tempers rose, VMRO-DPMNE MPs surrounded the speaker’s chair, and ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski threw a glass of water over Xhaferi, but an escalation of the fight was prevented by parliament security.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev denied claims on March 15 that the law is unconstitutional.

However, experts stressed on March 15 the need for the controversial law to be assessed by the country’s highest court.

“The president must sign the law now, but an opinion from the Constitutional Court on the law should be sought,” Mirjana Lazarova-Trajkovska, a former judge in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was cited by broadcaster Telma. Other experts cited by media also say that the law should be sent to the Constitutional Court.

The French ambassador in Skopje Christian Thimonier was cited by Telma as saying that the March 14 events in the parliament will be noted by the European Commission in making a progress report and giving its opinion on launching accession negotiations. The government of Macedonia, an EU candidate country since 2005, expects to obtain a positive unconditional recommendation for the start of EU accession talks this year.

European Commission spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said that the Commission expects the law to be sent to the Venice Commission as announced in the reform programme dubbed “Plan 3-6-9”, news agency MIA reported. Kocijancic said that the implementation of the law should be in accordance with European standards.

MPs threatened 

Meanwhile, police have strengthened security measures following the March 14 vote, particularly in areas where MPs from the governing Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party live, due to the threatening messages received by phones and by Internet.

No one knows how much dangerous the threats are, but media wrote that most SDSM MPs are keeping a low profile following the threats.

A car owned by an SDSM lawmaker from the city of Vinica was set on fire, which was the most serious incident reported so far following the adoption of the law.

In Skopje, a group of citizens is also collecting signatures for a petition against the law. New protests cannot be ruled out. 

A day earlier, Albanian and Kosovan officials hailed the adoption of the law, which makes Albanian second official language in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are estimated to make up a quarter of the population of 2.1mn.