Sunday

5th Apr 2020

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

Support quality EU news

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.

Column

Only democracy can fight epidemics

As Li Wenliang, the deceased Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for reporting on the virus, said: "There should be more openness and transparency".

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Latest News

  1. EU's 'Irini' Libya mission: Europe's Operation Cassandra
  2. Slovak army deployed to quarantine Roma settlements
  3. Lockdown: EU officials lobbied via WhatsApp and Skype
  4. EU: Athens can handle Covid outbreak at Greek camp
  5. New push to kick Orban's party out of centre-right EPP
  6. EU launches €100bn worker support scheme
  7. Court: Three countries broke EU law on migrant relocation
  8. Journalism hit hard by corona crisis

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us