Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -
Short-lived relief and optimism, swiftly tempered by doubts and then rising concern about the sustainability of the “solution”: this seems to be the EU’s modus operandi in Southeast Europe at the moment. In Greece, most famously, but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and now in Macedonia.
On June 23, Ivo Vajgl, the EU rapporteur on Macedonia, told bne IntelliNews that he expects Macedonia’s political crisis to continue, and welcomed US engagement in the situation, which has been simmering dangerously for nearly five months now.
The EU candidate state’s political crisis burst into life in May when thousands took to the streets to demand the government’s resignation. This followed several months of drip-drip allegations over the wiretapping of 20,000 lines that implicated conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as well as senior ministers and officials. Recordings released by the opposition leader Zoran Zaev purported to reveal Gruevski’s government discussing rigging elections, undermining judicial independence and manipulating the media.
On June 19, an independent report commissioned by the European Commission – but not (yet, officially) representing its view – blamed Gruevski’s government and the security services for the massive wire-tapping scandal. It also pointed to “apparent direct involvement of senior government and party officials in electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion, criminal damage”.
By contrast, the Macedonian government claims the recordings are illegal and doctored, and has also accused Zaev of plotting a “coup” while deploying the old fall-back position of autocrats everywhere that the country is being undermined by sinister foreign forces.
The situation has been exacerbated by a still-murky clash in May between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanians – several from Kosovo and veterans of the Kosovo war – that left 18 dead and dozens wounded. Concerns have grown about Macedonia’s neighbours -- Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania – being dragged into a regional crisis.
An academic observer of the region, James Ker-Lindsay of the London School of Economics, warns that Macedonia is in “a very precarious position” and risked further backsliding into repressive authoritarianism.
Weeks of EU-brokered talks had seemed to have finally achieved a breakthrough on June 2, when Gruevski and Zaev agreed to hold early elections by April 2016. This was to an extent a climbdown by the government, which had previously pointed to its existing democratic mandate. Gruevski, premier since 2006, was re-elected comfortably last year, though Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) have boycotted parliament ever since, alleging electoral malpractice.
The relief was short-lived, though. Talks in Brussels to iron out the details of the agreement on June 10 broke down after 12 hours.
The four main parties – Gruevski’s VMRO-DPME, the SDSM, and two parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority – will return to the negotiating table on June 29. Vajgl told bne IntelliNews that the gap between government and opposition had diminished to one sticking point, but an absolutely fundamental one – who governs the country in the run-up to the election. The prime minister is insisting on staying in place, while Zaev is calling for a transitional government without Gruevski. In a bullish speech on June 22, Gruevski told a VMRO rally that it commanded the support of half a million voters – more than ever before in the country of 2mn – and vowed “punishment” for the opposition’s “anti-state” actions.
According to Vajgl, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn is willing to fly to Skopje to oversee any political deal, but only if an agreement is guaranteed. This is unlikely, according to the rapporteur, a Slovenian MEP, who thus expects the crisis to continue.
bne IntelliNews understands that the EU (including perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel) once saw Gruevski’s mandate as legitimate, but has now lost patience and is keen to dislodge him – but the Macedonian premier is proving annoyingly tenacious. Meanwhile, Brussels has long been attempting to coax the SDSM back to parliament without success. “There is no doubt that the government has been engaged in a wide variety of very serious political misdeeds,” Ker-Lindsey, a senior research fellow focusing on Southeast Europe at the LSE, says. “However, the opposition has also come in for criticism behind the scenes. Many officials blame it for the failure to reach an agreement in Brussels.”
Cvetin Chilimanov, a conservative commentator, says that the VMRO has had some success in talking diplomats round to its view that the opposition are no angels, constituting an ex-communist old guard with its own skeletons in the closet. The government’s supporters insist that civil society organisations, including those backed by George Soros, are compromised by their links to the opposition. Certainly, the narrative that Zaev and the opposition are angelic advocates of liberal democracy is starting to wear thin.
Hopes of compromise
Despite his expectation of short-term deadlock, Vajgl sees two glimmers of hope. The first is a compromise deal that would see Gruevski stay in position until three or four months before the election, before being replaced by an interim government for the run-up – both sides thus being able to present this as a victory. The second is greater engagement from the US, which may be able to exert leverage on the Macedonian players, perhaps by holding out the prospect of smoothing the country's bid to join Nato. Membership of Nato and the start of talks on EU accession have long been blocked by Greece due to a dispute over Macedonia’s name, which Athens says implies irredentist intentions towards northern Greece.
Many in Macedonia and beyond blame Greece’s intransigence at least in part for the current situation, saying that the government started its authoritarian creep once it became clear that Nato and EU membership were distant prospects. There is some logic to this, but moving the country more swiftly towards accession to both bodies in the current situation would seem rather like a reward for bad behaviour. Indeed, Ker-Lindsay says that there is now a real possibility that the European Commission will rescind its suggestion that talks commence immediately, after six consecutive years of recommending such negotiations only to be blocked by Greece.
But the fact remains that here, as with Greece, the EU is in fire-fighting, belated-crisis-management mode. As Kurt Bassuener, a policy analyst, pointed out in a recent paper for the Democratization Policy Council, Macedonia’s problems are structural, and many predate Gruevski’s election. An election alone will not fix what’s broken, and not only because the VMRO are still odds-on favourite to win it. Even if protests fade, “the status quo is unsustainable”.
Bassuener notes that the “soft power” pull of EU accession is not the panacea that some thought it would be, as is becoming apparent in other Balkan countries as well. He says that both external blocks (from Greece and indeed Bulgaria) and internal blocks (the seizure of much of the state apparatus by one party) need to be addressed. And this, he says, will require more muscle. “If this is up to the goodwill of the Macedonian government, or if this is mediation rather than arbitration that has leverage and willingness to apply it, we are going to be spinning our wheels, and the situation could get worse,” Bassuener tells bne IntelliNews. “The West collectively is under-utilising its potential leverage in Macedonia, and this needs engagement from the US and Nato, not just the EU.”
Such interventionist policy, even peaceful, in sovereign countries that are supposedly allies, is unfashionable. And with the EU distracted by Greece and the US and Nato by Ukraine, amongst other conflagrations and strategic challenges, the scope for engagement may be limited. But history shows it’s not wise to turn a blind eye to the Balkans.
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