Thursday

18th Apr 2019

Opinion

EU options on the Macedonia crisis

  • Gruevski's statue of Alexander the Great, claimed by Greece, in Skopje - another irritant in bilateral relations (Photo: Juan Antonio F. Segal)

Few would be surprised in Brussels or Skopje if the allegations against Macedonian PM Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party - of corruption, electoral fraud, manipulation of judges and media - are true.

Abuse is so widespread in the Western Balkans that even EU personnel are becoming balkanised - just look up the scandals at Eulex, the EU mission in Kosovo.

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It’s hard to find any politician who isn’t tainted.

Ever since the end of the Balkan wars in the 1990s and the 2001 civil conflict in Macedonia, the only thing which has thrived in the region is criminality.

People have adapted to live in a chronic state of economic stagnation, massive unemployment, and ethnic-based mafia elites.

It’s a fragile, cosmetic peace.

In Macedonia, it’s a situation which risks seeing the country slide back into inter-ethnic war.

In order to clear the air, and to show that he cares about Macedonia, Gruevski should hold new elections under strict EU supervision.

But I don’t expect miracles even if he is replaced by the social-democrats, the SDSM opposition party.

This is why the EU must look beyond the current political crisis, and by saying the EU, I mean, especially, Germany - the biggest European player in the Western Balkans.

In order to stabilise Macedonia, Germany must address the wider issue of ethnic Albanian rights.

It will require constitutional reform and genuine rule of law. But the only way the EU can gain enough leverage to transform the country is by starting accession talks.

Germany must find a way to unblock Macedonia’s path, currently under a Greek veto, toward EU membership.

The Greek objection is based on the, quite frankly, preposterous and nationalist-populist idea that the name, Macedonia, implies a territorial claim to a Greek region.

How many more times must we say the status quo is too dangerous for silly games?

Two options

Macedonia is at a crossroads: The EU should seize the moment and consider two options.

One is to revive and upgrade the 2001 power-sharing accord, the Ohrid Agreement, by changing the constitution and by enforcing swift implementation.

The other is also constitutional change, for instance, the creation of a federation of Macedonian and Macedonian Albanian administrative units in a bicameral system, as in Switzerland or, for that matter, in Belgium, with Skopje divided on the model of Brussels.

Macedonia belongs to all the people who live there, not just to the ethnic majority.

Unless there’s real change, the mass protests of last weekend will achieve little more than raising tensions.

Either option should come with a blueprint for economic and social development, for an equitable distribution of foreign investments, and for fairer minority representation in public and private sector jobs.

The Macedonian majority feels like it owns the country.

It channels foreign money into its communities at the expense of Macedonian Albanian enclaves, aggravating poverty and hostility.

The Russia factor

Geopolitical factors must also be addressed.

Russia has, in the past two weeks, accused the EU and the US of orchestrating the Kumanovo incident - a battle between Macedonian special forces and what Gruevski called Albanian “terrorists”.

It’s an accusation designed to stoke hatred.

Russia is isolated over Ukraine, so the more trouble it can cause for the West, whether in the Balkans or the Baltic States, the more sway it has in the international arena.

Germany has spoken out on Russia’s destabilising influence in the region, mostly in Bosnia. But it's active in Macedonia as well.

Russia is trying to force the EU to switch gas transit from Ukraine to a new pipeline, Turkish Stream, designed to reach EU markets via Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia.

It’s saying: “Let us build the pipeline or we’ll set the region on fire”.

The EU stopped a previous Russian gas project, South Stream, in a civilised way, by implementing its own energy laws in Bulgaria.

It can stop Turkish Stream the same way - with rule of law and with carrots for Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia.

Endless speculation

Meanwhile, there are many theories on Kumanovo.

For instance, did Gruevski stage it in order to retain power by distracting people from the corruption scandals, feeding the geopolitical confrontation by accident?

One can speculate endlessly.

But the war in Ukraine shows us what can happen if Russia is given a free hand to manipulate corrupt elites and local chiefs to suit its interests.

The way to keep Russia out of the Western Balkans is to invest in jobs, in infrastructure, and in cultivating reformist, pro-EU leaders, not least by moving ahead on enlargement.

The alternative scenario is a nightmare.

Imagine a Western Balkans in which an ethnic civil war erupts in Macedonia, dragging in the neighbouring Albanian-majority Kosovo, and Albania itself.

Imagine the domino effect of new territorial claims by rival ethnic groups in Bosnia and Serbia.

Imagine the potential resurgence of territorial claims on Macedonia by Bulgaria and Greece, neither of which recognise the Macedonian nation.

It’s a scenario which could make the Ukraine war look like a joke by comparison.

Paying the price

For sure, the West would pay a price in terms of refugees, new security challenges, the wasted billions of two decades of international aid, and Russian resurgence.

But local people would pay more. They would pay with thousands of lives.

The Western Balkans has, on paper, a European future. But it has no guarantee of a European destiny.

Germany must step up its intervention if it really wants stability and prosperity on the EU’s eastern flank.

Edmond Ekrem Krasniqi is the director of DTT-Net.com, a Brussels-based news agency on Balkan affairs

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