Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Macedonia: the EU's democratic dilemma

  • Hahn (l) with Gruevski: 'Our aim is to help the country get back on its Euro-Atlantic track and reinvigorate its democracy' (Photo: European Commission)

Johannes Hahn, the EU neighbourhood commissioner, will, on Friday (15 January), visit Skopje, facing a dilemma which could determine Europe’s legacy in Macedonia.

Wiretapped conversations, leaked last year by the Macedonian opposition, laid bare the abuses of prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s regime, which has held power for 10 years.

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They testified to: corruption; conflict of interest; blackmail; illicit profiteering; and political interference in the judiciary.

A panel of independent rule-of-law experts, recruited by the European Commission, pointed to overwhelming evidence linking the alleged wrongdoing with senior government and Gruevski party officials.

The commission’s report into the affair also speaks of “manipulation of the voter list, vote buying, voter intimidation, including threats against civil servants and companies, and preventing voters from casting their votes.”

In a functional democracy, the government would have resigned and independent institutions would have brought people to justice.

In Macedonia, opposition parties and ordinary people fought for accountability by organising street protests.

But Gruevski has used his control of media to limit negative publicity.

His party blamed the affair on a plot by an unnamed foreign intelligence service.

It also organised its own street protests, where many loyalists waved the Russian flag, as if to warn the EU that Gruevski could turn away from European integration.

Flawed agreement

The EU played a key role in brokering an accord between the main Macedonian parties in July.

The opposition has stopped releasing wiretap material and returned to parliament.

Hahn’s repeated visits have prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor on the wiretapping revelations and power-sharing deals in important ministries.

But the EU-brokered agreement has two clear flaws.

First: It is designed to dismantle “systemic weaknesses” in the Macedonian state, which give Gruevski’s regime an unfair advantage, ahead of snap elections on 24 April 2016.

But this means trusting alleged criminals at the highest level of government to work, in good faith, on their own demise by creating a level democratic playing field.

Second: The accord binds the process to the April date, whether or not the country is adequately prepared.

Backsliding

The special prosecutor’s office, for one, still isn’t fully functional and faces big challenges.

Pro-Gruevski media have savaged the prosecutor, Katica Janeva. The ruling party has said it “no longer believes in her independence” and has “serious reservations” on the “legality of her actions.”

Media also savaged the EU mediator on the ground, Peter Vanhoutte, when he spoke out on the failure to implement other crucial commitments under the accord.

Most notably, nothing has been done to audit the notoriously mistrusted voters list - a must-have for credible elections.

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based NGO, ranks Macedonia between Tajikistan and Mali in its press freedom index.

But there’s no progress on ensuring more balanced pre-election media coverage or reforms in the media regulator.

If the EU acquiesces to elections going ahead as scheduled in these conditions, it will be complicit in letting people, who face serious allegations of criminal misconduct, get off the hook.

It will perpetuate the crisis and legitimise further erosion of democracy.

Opportunity

Instead, Europe has an opportunity to protect the overarching objective of last July’s political accord - democracy.

By declining to give its blessing to elections, until vital reforms are first put in place, it could help democracy to return to Macedonia and set an example for other elites in the Western Balkan region.

Announcing the agreement last summer, Hahn said: “Let me be crystal clear: The EU has not simply facilitated a short-term stabilising arrangement”.

“Our aim is to help the country get back on its Euro-Atlantic track and reinvigorate its democracy, open society, and governance through elections and sustainable reforms.”

For the sake of the people of Macedonia and for the sake of European democracy, it’s vital that he stands by his words.

Nikola Dimitrov is a fellow of the Hague Institute for Global Justice and a former Macedonian ambassador to the US and the Netherlands

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