Macedonia's EU, Nato aspirations take a blow after election debacle

By bne IntelliNews June 9, 2008

Dominic Swire in Prague -

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski may have been celebrating following the landslide victory of his centre-right coalition in the elections, but an announcement by the Electoral Commission on June 7 that partial voting would have to be repeated after irregularities had been found, coupled with an escalation of the diplomatic spat with Greece, mean his hopes of swift accession to Nato and the EU lie in tatters.

The Electoral Commission's latest count show that the ruling coalition, led by Gruevski's centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party, won 48.2% of the vote, enough to give him a majority in the country's 120-seat parliament, thus succeeding in its bid to strengthen its mandate and win a majority in parliament. The opposition coalition led by the Social Democrats won 28 seats, and 13 seats went to Albanian parties.

However, the election was overshadowed by allegations of intimidation, ballot stuffing and armed violence that left one dead and dozens injured. And Electoral Commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski told reporters that a partial re-run would be staged at 186 polling stations where ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and violence had taken place during the June 1 election. All this is particularly embarrassing for the government since these elections were expected to demonstrate Macedonia's democratic credentials and suitability for joining Nato and the EU. "This vote is a tragedy for supporters of Macedonia's EU and trans-Atlantic future," said Denis McShane, a former Europe minister for the UK who was in Skopje as an election monitor for the Council of Europe. "Nobody can form a government on the basis of an election in which police have stuffed ballot boxes and thugs are attacking polling stations."

Name calling

As if these problems weren't enough to derail hopes of a swift accession to the EU and Nato, Macedonia's relationship with Greece has been steadily getting worse, making the prospect of reaching a solution to the ongoing name dispute between the two countries look less likely than ever. Greece objects to its neighbour calling itself Macedonia because they believe it implies territorial claim over a region of Greece with the same name. The impasse reached a new low in April when Athens carried out its threat to veto Macedonia's Nato membership.

Since the election the situation has got worse. Just days ago a Greek peacekeeping mission of 50 vehicles and 140 soldiers heading for Kosovo had to turn back at the Macedonian border because the soldiers did not have civilian passports. Greek military complained that it was the first time Macedonian border guards had made such a request. Days later, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski cancelled participation in a regional summit in Athens after Greek authorities refused to give permission for his plane to land because it displayed the name "Macedonia."

Macedonia is keen to join Nato because the political and military stability it guarantees is likely to attract further investment into the country. Likewise, Nato is keen for Macedonia to join soon as it would further ensure stability in the hotbed of the Balkans. Speaking at the end of May, Nato chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Macedonia could join Nato as soon as July 9, so long as the name issue with Greece is cleared up. However, with relations between the two countries heading in the direction they are, Scheffer's hope looks fanciful at best. "Gruevski has won re-election on a strongly nationalistic platform and he has even gone so far as to say that he would refuse to change the country's name due to Greek pressure; all of which doesn't bode particularly well for concessions being granted on the issue," says Dragana Ignjatovic from economic forecasters Global Insight.

Even if an agreement is reached at a diplomatic level, this would not necessarily mean an end to the problem. Gruevski's stated desire of putting the matter to the electorate in a referendum is likely to further postpone a solution, particularly during the current climate in which it is unlikely that the average Macedonian will want to be seen giving any ground to Greece.

It's a similar situation in Greece, according to recent report by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, which says the current Greek government would most probably be voted out of office if they were to contemplate compromise on the issue. "The two sides have locked themselves into positions that make compromise difficult to reach, mainly in order to project the sense of unshakable credibility of their bargaining positions," reads the report.

The Vienna Institute goes on to argue that the Greek tactic of threatening to veto Macedonia's entry to Nato and the EU is unlikely to result in anything more than a delay in advance towards integration with these institutions. To achieve anything else, Greece would need to persuade individual members to put pressure on Macedonia to change its name. However, neither Nato or the EU are likely to do this for fear of being seen to interfere with internal affairs of other states, especially with regard to political, as opposed to security issues.

The study concludes that such a delay in membership is unlikely to be seriously damaging for Macedonia in the long run. "The stability and growth of [Macedonia's] economy has been achieved under much worse circumstances than those that the country is facing now," it says. However, such a vote of confidence will be scant consolation for all those that were hoping Macedonia would join Nato in April.

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