Saturday

10th Apr 2021

Opinion

Does Hahn get the Macedonia crisis?

  • Hahn: 'In general the report on [Macedonia elections] was positive' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Last week’s statement by commissioner Johannes Hahn on Macedonia’s election track record comes at the worst possible moment for efforts to resolve the political crisis.

At an event hosted by the National Council, a think tank in Washington, on 4 June, Hahn said the last elections in Macedonia (in 2014), as with other votes, had been monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR and “in general the report on them was positive”.

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  • Gruevski at a congress of the EPP group, from which Hahn also hails (Photo: epp.eu)

It’s not the first time he’s made controversial statements.

On 15 February, he questioned claims on violations of press freedom in Serbia.

In both cases, his office was quick to issue corrective statements. But the damage was done and Hahn gives the impression of a commissioner out of touch with reality.

In the case of Macedonia's electoral record, did he read the OSCE/ODIHR report?

The commissioner, of all people, should know that issues such as media environment, party political financing, ability of all parties to campaign free from intimidation, and use of state funds by the ruling party, are all part of the assessment on democratic standards.

Ever since prime minister Nikola Gruevski came to power, in 2006, Macedonia’s elections have been problematic.

The same errors have been repeated, or made worse, time and again.

In the early vote in 2008, election day itself was marred by violence, with one fatality and several people injured.

In the 2013 local elections, according to the OSCE/ODIHR report, "partisan media coverage and a blurring of state and party activities did not provide a level playing field for candidates".

The report also says "allegations of voter intimidation persisted throughout the elections and the OSCE/ODIHR EOM observed several cases of apparent misuse of state resources for campaign purposes”.

“This raised concerns about voter ability to cast their vote free of fear and retribution".

Intimidation of public sector workers has also been a regular concern.

It’s of special relevance in a country which has the most bloated public sector in the entire Balkan region.

To give just one example, the OSCE/ODIHR report of the 2009 presidential and local elections speaks of public sector employees being "particularly vulnerable to threats that their jobs would be in danger if they did not support the governing party".

Given his comments in Washington, Hahn should, urgently, read the OSCE/ODIHR report on the early elections in 2014.

It does say the elections were "effectively administered" and that election day "went smoothly”.

But it adds, in the words of Geert Ahrens, the head of the mission: "The run-up failed to meet important OSCE commitments, including the separation of state and party, on ensuring a level playing field, on the neutrality of the media, on the accuracy of the voters list and on the possibility of gaining redress through an effective complaints system".

If one also reads the wire-tapped conversations leaked by the Macedonian opposition, the OSCE/ODIHR, to put it mildly, errs on the side of caution.

The wire-taps depict a fully captured state.

They speak of voters being threatened with losing their jobs or bribed with welfare payments; of school directors instructed to put pressure on teachers; of civil servants ordered to provide lists of friends and relatives who will vote for the ruling party; and of companies being fined or threatened with arbitrary inspections if their staff vote wrong the way.

On one tape, Gruevski’s interior minister, who later resigned, is heard boasting of how his party’s electoral headquarters and call centre are located inside the interior ministry, with no restraint on their partisan work on election day.

EU deal

The EU-brokered deal, on 2 June, says early elections should be held in 10 months following reform, such as vetting of voter lists.

But the evidence indicates that Macedonia needs to do much more.

It needs to decontaminate its entire political system. This will require much more time.

As Hahn prepares to host the next round of talks between Gruevksi and the opposition leader, in Brussels on 10 June, he should understand that quick fixes won’t resolve the crisis.

Opting for an interim government with some ministerial posts held by the opposition but with Gruevksi and his party in control amounts to rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.

A growing number of Macedonian people want real democracy, freedom, rule of law, accountability, and basic decency.

If anything, the crisis is an historic opportunity to break Macedonia’s vicious circle, for the EU to redeem the enlargement process, and to demonstrate that its values have meaning.

It goes much deeper than a power struggle between two political blocs.

Hahn needs to understand the only lasting solution is one which addresses root causes.

Trust

The interim government should also include people from outside the two blocs and shouldn’t include any government officials tainted by the wire-tap scandal.

On the contrary, it should provide full accountability by enabling an independent and internationally monitored investigation of the wire-tap allegations.

It should be given sufficient time to ensure institutions are able to organise proper elections, free from past irregularities.

It should give space to civil society and to students so that broader Macedonian society has trust in the transition process.

The EU should also join forces with the OSCE and with the Council of Europe to help Macedonia end its nightmare and to get ready for EU and Nato integration.

Nikola Dimitrov is a fellow of the Hague Institute for Global Justice and a former Macedonian ambassador to the US and the Netherlands. Erwan Fouere is a fellow of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels and a former EU special representative to Macedonia

Disclaimer

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

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