BALKAN BLOG: Russia the only winner as Macedonian crisis deepens

BALKAN BLOG: Russia the only winner as Macedonian crisis deepens
“Ethnic issues are still a powerful tool for mobilisation in Macedonia”.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 2, 2017

Almost three years since the start of the current political crisis and three months since the latest snap elections, Macedonia was finally on the cusp of forming a new government. But conservative President Gjorge Ivanov’s refusal to give the mandate to the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) – which finished virtually neck and neck with the ruling VMRO-DPMNE in the December 11 snap election – has thrown the country back into political deadlock and worsened the rift between the two big parties.

Not only that, but Ivanov’s rejection of an SDSM-led government committed to fulfilling the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority has added an explosive ethnic dimension to the already dangerous political cocktail. All of this could give Moscow an opening to rebuild its influence in the Western Balkans.

Given the election deadlock, neither SDSM or the VMRO-DPMNE could form a government without bringing at least some of the ethnic Albanian parties represented in the new parliament on board. VMRO-DPMNE, which narrowly won the election, was the first to try to form a government but was unable to do so as it failed to strike a deal with its long-time coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

It briefly seemed that VMRO could be heading into opposition after more than a decade in power. The SDSM managed to form a majority with the help of three Albanian parties, but this proved to be its undoing, providing a pretext for Ivanov to deny the party the mandate. This means Macedonia could now be heading for another round of early elections, the preferred option of VMRO. SDSM leader Zoran Zaev responded immediately to Ivanov’s decision, describing it as a “coup”.

The president has also drawn criticism from the European Commission. “We have repeatedly stated that all leaders of the country, including the president, must respect the outcome of the recent elections,” said EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn in a tweeted statement late on March 1. “In a democracy, one must acknowledge parliamentary majorities, even if one doesn’t like them.”

Ivanov, who is close to VMRO, had previously showed reluctance to allow an SDSM government to be formed. After VMRO’s initial failure to form a government, instead of giving the second mandate to the SDSM leader (the normal procedure in this situation), he said he would give it to whichever party managed to put together a majority.

He then said on March 1 he would not give a mandate to SDSM leader Zoran Zaev on the grounds that his concessions to the Albanian parties would put the country’s sovereignty at risk. In a televised address, the president said he would not give the mandate “to a person or party that promotes programmes for destroying the country’s sovereignty, integrity and independence”. 

Details of the deal hammered out between the SDSM and the DUI, the largest of the ethnic Albanian parties, have not been disclosed. However, in January the DUI and two smaller parties adopted a platform as a precondition for supporting a new government. The platform includes a requirement for the Albanian language to be used at all levels of government even in areas with no ethnic Albanians. The unified stance of the Albanian parties put them in a position to have a major impact on policymaking for the first time.

The lack of further details led to fervid speculation in Macedonia about possible changes to the national anthem, banknotes and other state symbols. Protesters took to the streets draped in strips of red and yellow material representing the Macedonian flag, which symbolises a sun on a red field.

Stoking tensions

There are also genuine concerns - albeit stoked by VMRO - that the concessions made by the SDSM could lead to the end of Macedonia as a unitary state, paving the way for some kind of federalism that would enable ethnic Albanians to forge closer ties with neighbouring Albania and Kosovo.

A quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1mn population are ethnic Albanians, most of them living either in Skopje or the west of the country, which borders Kosovo and Albania. Tensions started to build in the late 1980s, initially in sympathy with the treatment of fellow Albanians in Kosovo. The situation continued to escalate continued through Macedonia’s first decade of independence, culminating in a violent inter-ethnic conflict that broke out in 2001. The situation was calmed by the Ohrid Agreement, which gave additional rights to the Albanian minority, including the official use of the Albanian language in parts of Macedonia with a substantial Albanian minority.

However, there have continued to be sporadic clashes, the most serious being in 2007, the year before Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, when some Albanian extremists sought to break away from Macedonia to join Kosovo. In May 2015, there were also armed clashes in the town of Kumanovo between security forces and members of a previously disbanded ethnic Albanian paramilitary group.

This history of ethnic conflict raised alarm bells in Skopje when it was revealed that political leaders from both Kosovo and Albania had been involved in the drafting of the ethnic Albanian parties’ platform. This helped to bring people out onto the streets for the protests that have taken place daily since Zaev announced he had submitted his request for a mandate to Ivanov on February 27.

“Ethnic issues are still a powerful tool for mobilisation in Macedonia,” says Cvete Koneska, analyst at Control Risks Group, although she adds that, “the potential for violence is lower than immediately after the conflict, as people have realised they have other tools to address issues”.

Ironically, the current upturn in ethnic tensions comes after a sharp move away from the typical pattern of voting along ethnic lines in the December 2016 election. The SDSM managed to get enough votes to try to form a government largely because many Albanians voted for the party rather than for the DUI – which had been discredited by its long association with VMRO – or the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). “Until now, people have voted along ethnic lines so this is a very interesting signal that society is graduating, as voters look beyond ethnic groups to vote on political lines,” says Koneska.

Vote rigging

In the December election, VMRO took 51 parliament seats compared to 49 for the SDSM. By contrast, the two parties took 61 and 34 seats respectively in the 2014 election. The upturn in support for the SDSM versus VMRO and the DUI has been largely attributed to the top-level corruption revealed to voters when the SDSM started leaking illegally wiretapped conversations in early 2015.

Those implicated include VMRO leader and long-serving Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who stood down in 2016 as part of a deal aimed at resolving the lengthy political crisis, and several other ministers. Gruevski has been named in scandals including the illegal demolition of a Skopje residential development belonging to one of his political rivals, the torture in police detention of former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, and the purchase of a €570,000 armoured Mercedes from state funds.

The SDSM has been a staunch backer of the special prosecutor set up to investigate suspected wrongdoing – including extensive vote-rigging in 2013 and 2014 – revealed in the tapes, while it has been clear that a new VMRO government would not extend the prosecutor’s mandate beyond June this year.

Where Macedonia goes from here is unclear. The SDSM cannot form a majority without the support of the Albanian parties. VMRO surprisingly offered to support an SDSM government to avoid the Albanian platform being adopted, but given the bitter political rivalry between the two parties it would be hard to imagine this being a stable arrangement.

VMRO’s preferred option of a new round of elections now seems the most likely outcome. However, this would likely not be acceptable to the SDSM or the Albanian parties, which have been so close to power in the last few days after more than a decade of VMRO rule.

What has long been clear is that VMRO leaders are determined not to give up their hold on power. The stakes have been even higher after the creation of the special prosecutor, since under the SDSM its work would continue and quite possibly lead eventually to trials or even prison sentences for Gruevski and other top party officials.

“The VMRO-DPMNE camp, which in the course of more than 10 years of government took control of almost the whole state apparatus, is worried above all about the announced settlement of numerous corruption scandals,” wrote Mateusz Seroka of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) on March 1. “For this reason, it reaches various tools for blocking the seizure of power by the opposition.”

SDSM activist have long claimed that installing VMRO loyalists throughout all state institutions has made it impossible to bring about a change of government through the electoral system. They only came close to power this time because of a boycott of the parliament followed by mass protests in 2015 and 2016, leading to an internationally brokered agreement to hold new elections.

VMRO’s reluctance to leave office is consistent with the gradual slide towards a more authoritarian style of government in the later years of its rule. The party that initially came to power was a group of reformists keen to attract foreign investment and steer Macedonia towards EU accession. But Skopje became disillusioned by its repeated failure to make progress as its EU path was blocked by Greece.

European Commission criticised state capture in Macedonia for the first time in its annual enlargement report published in November. “Serious challenges to the democratic governance of the country continued, raising concerns about state capture of institutions and key sectors of society,” the report said.

As VMRO was forced to give up its hold on power, activists have turned on the international actors they once courted, chiefly officials from the EU and US state department and NGOs - over perceived interference in Macedonia. There is a growing number of ethnic Macedonians - though not Albanians or other minorities - who now consider Russia to be their country’s best ally, rather than the EU or US.

Moscow has appeared to support VMRO recently. In a February 2 statement, the Russian foreign ministry expressed support for the party, and accused Western countries of "manipulating the will" of the Macedonian citizens, as expressed in the recent election.

“Shameless Machiavelli-style manipulation of voters will threaten to explode the situation in Macedonia and disturb the fragile stability of the entire Balkan region,” the ministry said. Russia had previously spoken out against “counterproductive external influence” immediately after the election.

This has raised concerns that Russia, which did not previously appear to be involved in Macedonia, could be trying to use the ongoing instability in the country to its advantage. Macedonia previously appeared to be dedicated to advancing towards EU and Nato membership, but as this looks increasingly less likely, Moscow may now fancy its chances of picking off the country to shore up its influence in the Western Balkans.