Macedonia is paying the price of Europe’s indifference

Macedonia is paying the price of Europe's indifference

Election posters show Nikola Gruevski, with the word “thief” written across them, in Skopje on 10 December 2016. The former Prime Minister and chair of the VMRO-DOMNE is accused of the illegal telephone surveillance of tens of thousands of Macedonians, plunging the country into a political crisis that has lasted two years. He has until the end of January to form a new government following the 11 December elections.

(Tanja Milevska)

Since 9 February 2015, Macedonia has been mired in political crisis. On that day, the leader of the social democratic opposition (SDSM), Zoran Zaev (whose party had been boycotting parliament since 2014 after the elections were judged to be rigged) launched from his party’s headquarters what he called his “bombshells”: illegal recordings of telephone conversations obtained from a whistleblower from the Macedonian intelligence agency.

Journalists, high ranking civil servants, politicians, judges, activists…they have all been the subject of wire-tapping by the secret services for years. The head of the information services is the cousin of the much-vilified Prime Minister and chair of the ruling party (VMRO-DPMNE), Nikola Guevski, who gave the order to listen to the telephone conversations of thousands of Macedonians.

The recordings have publicly revealed what many of the regime’s opponents have suspected for years: election rigging, direct pressure on judges and prosecutors, threats and blackmail against public servants forced to vote for the ruling party, and even the cover-up of the murder of a young man killed by the Prime Minister’s security officers in 2011.

Political and civic demonstrations followed, leading to a technocratic caretaker government and a report from the European Commission detailing the appalling level of violations of European standards on the rule of law and democracy. And a painstakingly negotiated agreement between the four principal parties facilitated by the EU called “Przino”.

The key points of this agreement were: “free and fair” elections and the establishment of an ad hoc judicial post, a Special Prosecutor responsible for investigating the revelations made in the recordings.

Installed at the end of 2015, the Special Prosecutor and his team worked under tough conditions. They were the constant target of attacks by the ruling party, and had to face the mysterious death of a key witness as well as courts still under the influence of the party.

While Gruevski is not formally the country’s leader, there is little doubt as to his total control over its institutions and a well-honed system of voter intimidation, in place since 2006: subsidies, social assistance, surprise inspections of private enterprises suspected of not supporting the ruling party, the blackmailing of the civil service over children’s education and even the possibility of obtaining in vitro fertilisation...

For years the party has perfected its methods of coercing the electorate without necessarily having to resort to ballot box stuffing to win the elections.


Pyrrhic victory

Faced with the perniciousness of such a machine, the efforts of international observers have been limited and the success of the VMRO in the 11 December elections can be considered a pyrrhic victory. In an interview with Equal Times, the former EU Ambassador to Macedonia, Erwan Fouéré, went further:

“If voter intimidation and the widespread pressure on civil servants as described in the OSCE/ODIHR report were taken into account, the number of votes for the opposition and the new emerging parties would have been even higher.”

For the first time in ten years, the VMRO could not claim an absolute majority. Ironically this absolute majority was to be reached only, and only just, thanks to a coalition with its usual Albanian ally, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), also targeted by the illegal recordings and therefore a potential subject of investigation by the Special Prosecutor.

Despite this dubious victory, the former Prime Minister was given the task of forming a government by the President of the Republic before 29 January.

A tricky task given that it means making peace with the Albanian parties who recently published a platform, under the supervision of the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, setting out their highest, even unrealistic, demands, that some see as virtually impossible to meet in the tense and damaging atmosphere prevailing in the country.

These demands include the condemnation of "the genocide against Albanians in Macedonia during the 1912 – 1956 period", even though the Republic of Macedonia has only existed since 1944.

In Fouéré’s view, this platform is the result of the “deep distrust” that exists between the ethnic communities and responsibility therefore lies with the VMRO. “This antagonistic atmosphere and the profound intolerance inherent in the VMRO-DPMNE has without a doubt led to the inclusion of unusual elements in this platform, such as the reference to ‘genocide’.”

In addition therefore to the deep divisions between the government’s loyal supporters and its opponents regularly accused of being “traitors” or a “fifth column” now come ever growing ethnic divisions, fed since 2006 by the VMRO, and visible notably through the highly controversial project to renovate the city centre, “Skopje 2014”.

At the dawn of the new Gruevski government, the VMRO has already threatened civil society and in particular the organisations financed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The former and new Prime Minister has also been dishing out verbal attacks on the ambassadors of western countries.


Uncertainty and instability

Faced with this situation, the European Union, to which Macedonia has officially been a candidate country since 2005, has remained discrete, not to say powerless, throughout the process, usually restricting itself to oral reprimands.

Since the closure on the pretext of tax evasion of the oldest and most popular, but also private, TV channel and the one most critical of the government, in 2011, the European Commission and EU member states have never really flexed their muscles when human rights and the state of law have been trampled on in Macedonia.

“The European Commission’s weak response shows a dangerous indifference to and lack of appreciation of the gravity of what is happening in Macedonia...Unfortunately over the years and particularly since the violence in the parliament on 24 December 2012, the EU’s response has become weaker and weaker, even when the ruling party flouts the commitments made in agreements negotiated under the aegis of the EU. The recommendation to begin negotiations with the EU should have been withdrawn after the events of 2012.”

“Today the threshold of what is acceptable is so low that the ruling party feels in a strong enough position to do what it wants. This sends a terrible message to the rest of the region and shows that the EU’s leverage is not worth much. Putting stability ahead of the rule of law is a bad approach” explains the former European diplomat.

European diplomatic sources explained to Equal Times that it is very difficult to take concrete measures regarding Macedonia within the Council of the EU, notably on financial sanctions, which were on the agenda of ministerial discussions in 2016, because the ruling party can count on the support of countries such as Hungary and Austria.

On the other hand, Greece has blocked any European-Atlantic progress for the country owing to an historic argument over its name since 2008. And finally, Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission officially shelved all question of enlargement on the day he took office.

Putting stability above democracy and the state of law in the Balkans, or elsewhere, is a doctrine that cannot last for long.

In 2015, Macedonia was again on the verge of explosion following an armed attack on the north-eastern town of Kumanovo. Further north, in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, where, like Macedonia, the population live in poverty and with no future prospects under the rule of corrupt, nationalistic, mafia-style regimes, just one spark could set fire to the Balkan powder keg.

This is even more likely in an unstable international environment such as that created by a Donald Trump presidency in the US and far-right governments across Europe, who will be even less inclined than the current establishment to worry about their southern neighbours.

History has shown us more than once that, for Europe, neglecting the Balkans is rarely a good idea…


This story has been translated from French.