Monday

18th Feb 2019

Opinion

Balkan Putinism, besieged

  • Anti-Gruevski rally in Macedonia, shortly before a bigger pro-Gruevski rally (Photo: sdsm.org.mk)

Macedonia’s prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, is a dark horse. His life path, like that of most autocrats, is distinctly unimpressive. His only truly striking feature is the power he’s managed to acquire.

Last Sunday (17 May), as tens of thousands of protesters rallied to demand his resignation, he looked like an embattled tyrant whose days are numbered.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

On Monday, he managed to pull a Putin on his foes. In a show of strength, he staged an even more massive pro-government counter-protest. “Macedonia is strong!” he shouted defiantly. “Macedonia will not surrender!”

Provincial strongmen, when cornered, tend to react in two ways.

The first kind will initially agree to a compromise after which they will do their best to softly kill the deal through obstructionism and delay tactics.

The second kind will flex their muscles and stick to their guns. As the conflict goes on, they will get progressively more ruthless, refusing to give up ‘till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane’.

Gruevski seems to belong to the latter sort.

In a recent piece, I proposed the term “Balkan Putinism” to describe the distinguishing characteristics of political regimes in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

I argued that their feeble governmental institutions, finely controlled media, and dependent NGOs constitute a democratic facade designed to conceal a deeply corrupt, authoritarian, and mafia-like structures.

The ongoing crisis in Macedonia provides a telling example how this Balkan-style brand of Putinism behaves when placed under siege.

Any hope of predicting its future moves depends on understanding their success – the skill with which these regimes manage to juggle geopolitical affiliations, keep a low profile in great powers’ capitals, and appease the West by nominally falling in line with its strategic priorities.

Bordering an overburdened EU - think Greece, Ukraine, Brexit, and the migration crisis - Gruevski and other regional strongmen have noticed the EU has neither time nor energy to pursue an assertive neighbourhood policy.

As long as the Balkan powder keg is kept reasonably dry, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker will not lose sleep over media censorship in Serbia, Montenegro election fraud or Gruevski’s massive wiretapping scheme.

Balkan states lack the size and strategic importance to be the high-stakes poker game that Ukraine has become, that Egypt was in 2010, or that Yugoslavia was in 2000.

Beyond neutral mediation

If the Macedonian opposition hopes to succeed in getting rid of Gruevski’s regime, they will need to find a way to force the EU’s hand beyond “neutral mediation”.

How do they do that? Here are some things to consider.

First, strongmen of Gruevski’s sort can never be removed from office through elections. Rigging the vote is an essential feature of all “managed” or “illiberal” democracies.

The certainty of an election victory has been vital in elevating Putin beyond a mere presidential contender, to a personification of a regime that has replaced its competence to govern with the ability to win elections.

The same cynical tune could be heard at Gruevski’s rally on Monday: “You want to change the Government? Use elections!”.

Protests are, therefore, the only option at the Macedonian opposition’s disposal.

Second, because these essentially undemocratic regimes rely on numerical strength, they should not be challenged from the position of superior numbers. The ability to swiftly and efficiently reassert power, mobilising armies of flag-waving supporters, is central to these regimes’ internal legitimacy.

When faced with a wave of popular protests in 2011, Putin packed the Luzhniki Stadium with 130,000 supporters. The message carried more force than the police violence at Bolotnaya Square.

Gruevski’s counter-protest served to emphasize this point: whatever manpower you raise, we’ll muster twice as much.

Macedonian protesters, therefore, must rely on resolve and perseverance before quantity. That would, likely, mean erecting barricades, as well as withstanding clashes with police and titushky-style thug brigades, which are, at some point, bound to happen.

Third, if push comes to shove, leaders like Gruevski will offer some sort of a transitional deal, or concessions similar to the ones Hosni Mubarak was prepared to make in January 2010.

They may be ready to incite serious conflicts among ethnic or religious lines, to drag the country into chaos in order to position their own (partial) survival as a condition for peace.

The recent terrorist attacks in Kumanovo (Macedonia), whose timing was, at the very least, chillingly suspicious, serve to strengthen the intuition.

If it comes to Gruevski proposing a deal, a powerful media front is likely to present it as a conciliatory sine qua non. But such a compromise would be disastrous for Macedonia’s future.

However low Macedonia may be today on the EU’s order of business, we should follow its developments attentively - not least because a small group of powerful, dictatorial gentlemen south of the Danube is also keeping a close eye on this country, hoping there’s no dominos around.

Fedja Pavlovic is a philosophy student at Leuven university in Belgium. Send him a tweet at @FedjaPavlovic

EU options on the Macedonia crisis

Corruption, ethnic power struggles, Russian meddling: Macedonia risks dragging the Western Balkans backward. But the EU has options.

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.

EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland

Viktor Orban of Hungary and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski seem to share the idea that the rights of some may come at the expense of the rights of others, and public institutions should serve the majority, and not all citizens.

Could Finnish presidency fix labour-chain abuse?

There can be no more excuses for business. They will be held for responsible for their failure to take action to prevent the risk of human and labour rights through their supply chains.

Brexit vs Grexit: The six stages of losing to the EU

Theresa May's venture seems very similar to the attempt by Alexis Tsipras in 2015 to persuade Brussels to accept his terms for the bail out - a huge negotiation failure, presented to the public as the best possible deal.

News in Brief

  1. Czech PM: May's EU elections 'most important ever'
  2. 'History will judge us': May tells MPs on Brexit
  3. Trump warns EU on release of Islamist fighters
  4. Venezuela expels 'conspiratorial' MEPs
  5. Holocaust dispute upsets Israel's EU lobbying
  6. Spain's Sanchez calls snap election on 28 April
  7. 15,000 Belgian school kids march against climate change
  8. May suffers fresh Brexit defeat in parliament

What does Poland want from the EU?

We propose several changes to the EU, derived from the political philosophy behind the current Polish government, and what Poles expect from the EU - this could be seen as a manifesto Poland wants the next European Commission to tackle.

Migration and May elections - time to get facts right

If misinformation in the field of migration can bring a government down, as in the recent case of Belgium following the country's adoption of the UN migration pact, then it can doubtless produce a populist majority in the European parliament.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Latest News

  1. Merkel defends Russia ties, ridicules Trump on cars
  2. British MPs condemn Zuckerberg's misrule of Facebook
  3. EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland
  4. ESA pushback against new EU space agency plan
  5. Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table
  6. Could Finnish presidency fix labour-chain abuse?
  7. Brexit and trip to Egypt for Arab League This WEEK
  8. Belgian spy scandal puts EU and Nato at risk

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  8. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  9. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  11. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  12. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us