Tuesday

5th Jul 2022

Opinion

Breaking Macedonia's vicious circle

  • Skopje: "Citizens have become hostages in this depressing scenario" (Photo: Dennis Jarvis)

Like its Balkan neighbours, Macedonia is no stranger to street unrest.

Lately, Nikola Gruevski’s conservative cabinet has faced waves of protest. But last Tuesday tensions spiralled out of control as youth threw eggs at the faux-neoclassical facade of the government headquarters - a proud example of the so-called Skopje 2014 project populating the capital with reminders of Alexander the Great’s timeless glory.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Riot police arrived promptly at the scene. But the crackdown only strengthened the resolve of student activists who pledged to come back – as they did the evening after. Shouting “resignation!” at the top of their lungs, the protesters are clearly not in the mood for giving up.

Popular anger has been building following the recordings released by Zoran Zaev, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, which implicate Gruevski and his closest entourage in wiretapping journalists, manipulating elections, and deploying the police to harass opponents.

The authorities and their media allies are doggedly fighting back - blaming it all on the machinations of foreign security services and the billionaire financier George Soros, a favourite scapegoat.

Zaev is facing criminal proceedings. But if the intention was to mute discontent it clearly did not work.

Anger exploded with fresh vigour after the latest “bomb”, as the recordings have been dubbed, showed the prime minister discussing with top officials from the interior ministry the alleged cover-up of the murder of 21-year old Martin Neshkovski by a policeman in June 2011.

The dramatic escalation should not surprise anyone. Macedonia has long resembled a pressure cooker.

The country is trapped in a vicious circle, where the Greek veto on its EU accession cements self-styled defenders of national honour in power. The outside world cares little unless the spectre of inter-ethnic conflict rears its head.

But Gruevski has expertly played off rival Albanian parties, using his control over the public sector spoils to ensure they are brought into line. Citizens have become hostages in this depressing scenario.

Shared blame

Though the VMRO-DPMNE government (ruling since 2006) may be seen as the main culprit, the opposition shares the blame.

Zaev is to be credited with doing a service to transparency and accountability, but he and his associates lack credibility. It was not Gruevski who invented the governance model melding high-level corruption, clientelism, and the misuse of the state’s repressive apparatus.

He simply perfected what the Social Democrats had developed while they were at the helm in the 1990s. In Branko Crvenkovski, former prime minister and president, Gruevski has a convenient bugbear anytime he faces graft accusation.

More to the point, there is a divergence between the horizontal activist networks and the main opposition party eager to harness the anti-government wave. Zaev’s call to protestors to keep their powder dry until he, as the high commander, summons them for a large-scale rally on 17 May has provoked dismay.

To its credit the EU has woken up to the fact that Macedonia is in danger. Sadly, it is also part of the problem too. With lots of good intentions, Brussels hosted talks by the two main parties with MEPs Ivo Vajgl, Richard Howitt and Eduard Kukan, acting as mediators at the behest of neighbourhood commissioner Johannes Hahn.

But that has played in the hands of Gruevski in defusing crisis and dodging responsibility.

Casting the crisis to a duel between the VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democrats confirms the government narrative and marginalises a recalcitrant civil society. Which, of course, is at the end of the day the constituency pushing for the kinds of democratic values championed by the EU itself.

Are we witnessing the fresh sprouts of a “Macedonian Spring” or a Maidan (or rather “megdan”, to use the Turkish original which is current in Balkan languages)?

Some have floated the idea of a transitional government in the lead-up to free and fair elections scrutinised by the EU. Then again, there is the Turkish scenario, with Gruevski following Tayyip Erdogan’s 2013 clampdown of the Gezi Protests and winning power once again in future, carefully timed and prepared, polls.

Such a development would no doubt deepen Macedonia’s isolation, though the government will surely continue to pay lip service to EU accession.

Influential EU member states should step in, whether publicly or behind the scenes, to draw red lines to Gruevski and negotiate a roadmap out of the crisis.

The so-called Berlin Process involving the Western Balkans and the EU is the right platform, with a summit in Vienna due in August. But this is only a short-term fix.

Two conditions

There are two conditions for long-term progress.

First, civil society should use its newly found strength to hold authorities to account, whoever happens to be in power.

Second, Macedonia, once a frontrunner in the Western Balkans, should start accession talks sooner rather than later. That might be far from the bitter political realities of the day.

However, if I were Alexis Tsipras, the Greek PM, I would certainly recognise fellow souls in the youth marching down the streets of Skopje and think again.

Dimitar Bechev is visiting fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics and author of Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Macedonia

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Macedonia violence prompts EU appeal for calm

The EU, the US, and Nato have urged calm in Macedonia after a firefight with “terrorists” in which 22 people died and which threatens to ignite ethnic tension.

Tens of thousands urge Macedonia PM to go

Tens of thousands of protestors on Sunday called for the resignation of Macedonian leader Gruevski - the biggest demonstration in 24 years of independence.

The Digital Services Act — a case-study in keeping public in dark

Companies and lobby groups like Spotify, Google and International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) were able to lobby member states using live knowledge of the trilogue discussions on content-ranking systems, advertising and liability for search engines.

Is China a challenge to Nato? Beijing responds

The Chinese mission to the EU responds to last week's Madrid Nato summit, which stated China posed "systemic challenges" and warned against the "deepening strategic partnership between Russia and China".

The Digital Services Act — a case-study in keeping public in dark

Companies and lobby groups like Spotify, Google and International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) were able to lobby member states using live knowledge of the trilogue discussions on content-ranking systems, advertising and liability for search engines.

Council must act on core of EU migration package

By only screening, fingerprinting or relocating (some) refugees, or by outsourcing our border control to Turkey and giving Erdogan our keys, we will not solve the current problems.

News in Brief

  1. EU Commission told to step up fight against CAP fraud
  2. Ukraine needs €719bn to rebuild, says PM
  3. Germany records first monthly trade deficit since 1991
  4. Pilots from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden strike
  5. Report: EU to sign hydrogen deal with Namibia
  6. Israel and Poland to mend relations
  7. Von der Leyen: EU to set up Ukraine reconstruction platform
  8. Three killed in Copenhagen shopping mall shooting

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  4. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  6. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022

Latest News

  1. EU Parliament sued over secrecy on Nazi MEP expenses
  2. Italy glacier tragedy has 'everything to do' with climate change
  3. The Digital Services Act — a case-study in keeping public in dark
  4. Report slams German opposition to new child sexual abuse rules
  5. Is China a challenge to Nato? Beijing responds
  6. ECB announces major green shift in corporate bond-buying
  7. Ex-Frontex chief 'uninvited' from parliament committee
  8. Czech presidency and key nuclear/gas vote This WEEK

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us