Macedonian politics: an explainer


The Colourful Revolution targeting government buildings  was one of the more unique forms of protests in recent years. IMAGE: Fieke Snijder

A legion of political issues have plagued one of Europe’s smallest states for over a decade. Stalemates, scandals, and international rivalries have stagnated the country for two years. But, with a new government elected a week ago, Macedonia may have received its prerogative to change.

Blood rains down Zoran Zaev’s head, the newly elected Prime Minister, spilling onto his designer shirt as he is encircled by others in protection from an angry mob of protesters. Masked men push politicians and journalists aside, while an elderly gentleman grasps the curly hair of an MP, flinging her unceremoniously to the ground.

A desk chair flies over the heads of the crowd, while camera tripods are repurposed as battle-sticks. Women flee, climbing over a balcony onto a stack of office furniture. The red and yellow of the Macedonian flag victoriously waves high above the mob.

The events of April 27th in the Macedonian Parliament flung the EU-candidate country to worldwide attention. The election of ethnic-Albanian Talat Xhaferi as Speaker of Parliament prompted a crowd of protesters to storm the building.

As the dust settles over a month later, the social democrat SDSM party settles hesitantly into their seats. Meanwhile, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party has taken a final bow.

The smoke has cleared, leaving the question: what just happened in Macedonia?

What was all the fuss about?

Macedonia has been embroiled in a sticky political crisis for the better part of the last two years. In 2015 VMRO-DPMNE, the ruling party for twelve years, was brought down by Zoran Zaev. He had alleged the incumbent Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of illegally wiretapping 20,000 Macedonians.

The scandal led to mass protests calling for the resignation of Gruevski’s government. After EU mediation, the VMRO-DPMNE government agreed to resign, but postponed elections twice.

While Gruevski’s party was awarded a small lead over SDSM in the eventual elections held in last December, it refused to accept the conditions of its former coalition partners from the Albanian bloc, making it unable to form a majority.

SDSM took their opportunity, and allied with two Albanian parties. However, the President of Macedonia, a largely ceremonial role, refused to allow SDSM to form government. He cited fear of the ‘Albianisation’ of Macedonia, but in all probability wanted VMRO-DPMNE, his ally, to remain in power.

According to political analyst Jasmin Mujanovic, these tactics are nothing new in Macedonian politics. “VMRO-DPMNE have shown a scandalous capacity for violating rules and decency of parliamentary democracy,” he says. “It is up in the air whether they will continue to engage in violence and attempt to topple the government.”

The President eventually succumbed to international pressure by handing the mandate to SDSM to form a government. However, SDSM’s new democratic legitimacy is questionable: they failed to win elections, and only 62 of 120 members of parliament approved the government on the last day of May.

Why did it all come to this?

The political stalemate of the last two years comes after years of political turmoil. Macedonia once appeared as a poster-child for independence and democracy. It was the only Balkans country to peacefully exit the heated Yugoslav wars, declaring independence in 1991. However, the post-socialism landlocked country has become scarred with fault-lines from battles that continue to erupt.

One such battle has been the relation with neighbouring Greece. The name Macedonia, Greece insists, belongs to a northern part of Greece’s territory.

Greece has blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU on the basis this conflict. In order to maintain a good relationship with Greece, some of the international community were forced to recognise Macedonia only by the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Political analyst Mujanovic believes this ‘ridiculous dispute’ is a factor that encouraged former PM Gruevski’s tendency towards one-party rule. “Once Macedonia was blocked from the EU/NATO path, you started seeing Gruevski really consolidating control in the country. It created a frightening situation, on top of all the problems with crime and corruption.”

“We have to remember that in the mid-2000s, Macedonia was already on the cusp of NATO membership,” Mujanovic says. “It was nothing but the name issue that stopped their eventual membership. If Macedonia had joined at that time maybe the international community would have had firmer leverage over the Gruevski government. Perhaps that would have prevented some of the worst scenes that we have seen in Macedonia over the past few years.”

This wasn’t the only point of contention in Macedonia recently. The country has been stalling its own EU negotiations since becoming a candidate in 2005, according to Mujanovic. “Many Balkan states play a game where they have rhetorical commitments to EU integration. They siphon funds from the accession process, and then stall these processes for as long as possible,” he explains.

Many media outlets insist Macedonia’s political crisis is largely due to tensions between ethnic-Macedonians and the ethnic-Albanian minority of approximately 25 per cent. However, Mujanovic cautions against overplaying the ethnic tension, arguing it is primarily political theatre.

Political theatre or not, ethnic tensions are evident. Albanians have been campaigning for greater rights for years. Macedonians fear that this call for rights is a tactic by their neighbours to achieve a ‘Greater Albania’.

“Ethnicity is used as a political leverage point, but ethnicity itself is not the political dividing line,” explains Mujanovic. “Parties politicise the question of ethnicity for their own political game, usually to preserve themselves in power.”

Former governing party VMRO-DPMNE mastered this tactic, according to Mujanovic. “They spent years governing in coalition with Albanian parties,” he says. “It is absurd that they started warning overnight that Albanians will fragment the country and have a secessionist project.”

However, Mujanovic admits he wishes Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama had denied the secession claims a little more forcefully.

“But in the final analysis, none of these countries have the capacity to be a ‘Greater Anything’. Albania, Serbia, Croatia – they serve just to raise tensions, they’re fodder for the tabloids,” Mujanovic states.

“Everyone becomes too busy being alarmed of the next war to pay attention to the dispossession and corruption that is actually happening in day to day life.”

What are the next steps?

The next step, according to Mujanovic, is to get the ball rolling again on NATO, even if it is purely symbolic. “There is no reason why Macedonia can’t join under its current name, even though the insistence on that acronym is absurd.”

Mujanovic remains cautiously optimistic whether the new government will be the sunset of Macedonia’s political crisis. “I think a new government in Macedonia is very positive, for the Balkans as a whole.”

But Mujanovic is still a realist about the history of Macedonian politics and the potential of the new party. “They will be able to point Macedonia in the right direction, but the process will be slow.”



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