Update on April 28, 2017:

The crowd of the VMRO-DPMNE supporters attacked the Macedonian Parliament, beat-up couple of MPs from the opposition camp and occupied it for few hours in reaction to the election of the new Speaker.

On April 27, 2017 the Macedonian Parliament managed to break the obstruction of the VMRO-DPMNE minority, who were clogging the parliament discussion for weeks with “filibustering tactics”, and finally voted the new speaker of the Parliament. The new Speaker who has arisen from very tensed voting and gained support of all 67 members of the SDSM and Albanian parties coalition is Talat Xhaferi, Albanian MP from political party DUI. After the vote of the new Speaker was announced, crowds of VMRO-DPMNE nationalist supporters, who have been continuously protesting in front of the Parliament for weeks, broke the police cordons and occupied it for couple of hours. Police put virtually no fight in the first moments to prevent them from doing so. The crowd, which consisted of also number of balaclava-clad hooligans, started to attack SDSM as well as Albanian MPs ending with 4 of them wounded, including Prime-Minister-to-be Zoran Zaev, leader of the SDSM. Police intervened just hours later, clearing the Parliament building from protesters later in the night. Both the EU as well as the US called for calm and restrain, strongly denouncing the use of violence and recognized Talat Xhaferi as the new Speaker of the Macedonian Parliament.

This unfortunate development could only deepen the internal-political crisis in Macedonia, there is a threat it will spin totally out of control and raise inter-ethnic tensions. Up until this point the crisis was political, though VMRO-DPMNE has been waging a fear campaign over possibility of Albanians getting more rights, threatening that it will mean the end of Macedonia and its split along the ethnic lines. The Albanian minority was not responding to these provocations until now and showed restrain. However, last night also couple of Albanian MPs were beaten by the nationalistic crowd.

At this point the most important will be the reaction of the EU and the US as their actions until now during the whole crisis were relatively moderate and only at the level of declarations. This has embolden VMRO-DPMNE leaders to step-up their pressure and block forming of the new government under the SDSM leadership and de-facto holding on to power. Declaring support for the new Speaker of the Parliament is just a beginning – now more clearer messages towards the VMRO-DPMNE must follow, as there is a threat that violence could repeat, if the SDSM will try to vote confidence of the new government in the Parliament. The EU and the US should consider using of targeted sanctionsagainst some of the key VMRO-DPMNE figures to prevent the political situation deteriorate into something even worse.

The original blog published on March 30, 2017:

At the latest European Council meeting, the leaders of the EU member countries felt the need to reiterate the EU’s commitment for countries of the Western Balkans with integration ambitions due to the recent development in the region. One of the reasons why the Western Balkans was again on the “menu” was the situation in Macedonia.


How it all began, anyway?

Macedonia has been experiencing deep internal political crisis since parliamentary and presidential elections in April 2014. The opposition accused then government parties, that they consolidated power through mass election frauds. In response, the opposition boycotted the Parliament sessions. The crisis significantly deepened in February 2015, when the opposition started to publish wire-tapping records, provided them by an anonymous leaker(s), originating from the Macedonian secret police UBK, collected over years during tenures of the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s party VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) Governments (2006 – 2016). They included phone-discussions among highest state representatives discussing highly politically sensitive matters, own involvement in criminal cases as well as outright corruption.

The revelation of high-level corruption led to anti-government protests under the leadership of – then – strongest opposition party SDSM (Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia) requesting the Gruevski’s Government to step down, declare snap elections and secure proper investigation of numerous criminal and corruption cases revealed in the wire-taps. The Government resisted and the protests escalated with thousands of people from both camps protesting against or in support of the Government. Opposition staged the occupation protest lasting for weeks in front of the Government building in Skopje. The response to the internal crisis in Macedonia from the international community including the EU was at this point weak.

Then in May 2015, special police raid in Kumanovo – ethnically mixed city – against group of Albanian suspects got wrong, turned into blood-shed that cost lives of at least 10 persons and dozens of wounded. This was probably the wake-up call for the international community, that became concerned that blood could be again spilled in the Balkans and that the inter-ethnic tensions, that are still subliminally present in Macedonia, could flame up. The EU and the U.S. diplomacies have put themselves into mediating the agreement between the Government and the Opposition. The result of lengthy negotiations was a compromise called “Pržino Agreement” concluded in July 2015.

The Agreement envisaged: return of the opposition to the Parliament; early elections to take place in April 2016, before that Prime Minister Gruevski will step down in January 2016 and the mixed care-taker Government consisting of representatives from both camps will lead the country towards the early elections. Apart from that the Special Prosecutor’s Office was established, whose main role is the investigation of criminal cases, that were mentioned in leaked wire-taps.

The implementation of the Agreement was protracted, with opposition blaming the VMRO-DPMNE for delays and obstructions. Subsequently the early elections were postponed first for June 5 and finally took place on December 11, 2016. The time between April and December 2016 was filled with mass protests, organized by the Macedonian civil society and supported by the political opposition, requesting the VMRO-DPMNE to live up to terms of the Pržino agreement.


Not quite “early” elections

After heated and polarised pre-election campaign, the votes were organised on 11 December. The elections ended up with a tie – opposition SDSM earned just two seats less than the winning VMRO-DPMNE (51 seats) out of 120 seats total in the Parliament. Four more parties passed the threshold – all of them smaller ethnic Albanian parties: Democratic Union for Integration (DUI, former junior coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE in previous government coalition); newly founded conservative “Besa Movement”; coalition “Alliance for Albanians” and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). Right after the elections, it became clear that the key to any post-election government coalition have Albanian ethnic political parties. This situation favoured the SDSM, who went to the elections as universal social-democratic party, not restricted to the ethnicity and actually lots of Albanians voted for them. On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE ran the campaign on Macedonian nationalistic sentiments and that alienated some of their potential coalition partners.

Nikola Gruevski as the leader of winning party was given the mandate to form the government, however, failed to secure majority within the 20 days’ deadline, because they didn’t find agreement with the former coalition partner DUI. He returned the mandate, but President Gjorge Ivanov in a surprising turn of events did not give mandate to the leader of the second strongest party – Zoran Zaev of the SDSM. Rather he declared that for the sake of stability and unity of Macedonia, he will give mandate only to that political leader who will bring him signatures of at least 61 MPs. Zaev entered into lengthy negotiations with Albanian parties represented in the Parliament, now united as the “Albanian Platform” around joint goal to improve status of Albanians in Macedonia.

They found common grounds and so Zaev headed to the Presidential Palace with signatures of 67 MPs from SDSM, DUI, BESA and the Alliance of Albanians. Two days later, President Ivanov in another change of mind announced, that he still cannot grant the mandate to Zaev, because part of his government would be “foreign country’s platform”, apparently in reference to the “Albanian platform”. Parallel with that the VMRO-DPMNE supporters launched series of country-wide protests against potential “SDSM – Albanian platform” government coalition, saying it would lead to “con-federalisation” and subsequently “dissipation of Macedonia” along the ethnic lines. Instead, VMRO-DPMNE calls for another early election to take place in May 2017 along with the planned municipal elections in order citizens distribute votes anew. SDSM and Albanian parties oppose, quoting the Constitution they were supposed to get the mandate from the President to form the Government as they declared clear majority.

Therefore, the country is currently in a stalemate and the crisis is just deepening. There is still the interim Government, the Parliament has not yet met though it is already over 3 months after the elections, legislative process is stopped, protests in streets continue and the inter-ethnic tension is growing. All representatives of the EU and the U.S. called upon the President Ivanov repeatedly to give the mandate to the party that obtained the support of majority in the elections.

The VMRO-DPMNE called it “mingling into the internal affairs of a sovereign state”. This narrative was quickly picked up by Russia, warning against “Western interference into domestic affairs of Macedonia” and declaring support to the VMRO-DPMNE and the President Ivanov. From Russian side, it was yet another cold calculus – on one hand could poke the EU and the West over their efforts in the Western Balkans, and on the other hand, it sowed discontent among segments of Macedonian society as well as other countries in the region.

What could be the way out of the crisis?

The SDSM and its allies are trying to by-pass Presidential de-facto veto on government forming, through the Parliament. For that, they would need to convene the Parliament and elect the Speaker. After that, they might try to initiate the vote of confidence for the proposed cabinet consisting of SDSM and Albanian parties’ representatives. However, the SDSM speaks about this scenario just as the “Plan B”. They still hope President Ivanov will change his mind, honour the Constitution and grant the mandate to form the Government to Zaev.

Conclusions

There are number of root causes of the current political crisis in Macedonia. First and foremost, strong political polarisation and deep distrust between the SDSM and the VMRO-DPMNE. SDSM gained in the early elections quite decent support and above expectations also Albanian votes. On the other hand, VMRO-DPMNE and its former coalition partner DUI – experienced significant loss in support. For the SDSM, it is “now or never” opportunity to form and lead the Government of Macedonia. For VMRO-DPMNE, it would mean straight way to opposition and for many of its representatives possibly to jail, if corruption and criminal cases that were leaked in wire-taps’ recordings would be properly investigated and prosecuted. That is a pretty good motivation to try to stay in power at all costs.

Secondly, there is still potential inter-ethnic tension and this could deepen with protests and activities of Macedonian nationalists against representation of Albanians in the Government. It is worth noting, that when VMRO-DPMNE was negotiating with DUI about creation of the coalition, there were no protests against that, though DUI voiced the same requirements as it tabled later for talks with the SDSM in regard to strengthening the position of Albanians in Macedonia.

Thirdly, the international context has also significant impact on development of the crisis. The EU and the U.S. actively engaged to find the solution out of the crisis already back in 2015. But their influence weakened over time. The Presidential elections in the U.S. brought the new Administration, that has not showed too much of interest in the Western Balkans or Macedonia. The EU’s position has been weakened as well – with Brexit and migration crisis. Apart from that, there is the ongoing dispute between Macedonia and Greece over the so-called “name issue“, due to which Greece has been blocking the integration process of Macedonia both to the EU and the NATO. Protracted disagreement on how should the country be called, caused significant delays in country’s European integration. Coupled with above-mentioned crisis, caused that EU lost much of its leverage, it possesses in form of the integration perspective and transformation. Now it seems that the carrot is too far and the stick too small for the VMRO-DPMNE or the President Ivanov to honour the Constitution and the will of the democratically elected majority. With the lack (or not enough) of pressure from abroad to help to solve the political crisis in Macedonia – it seems that the light at the end of the tunnel is still too far.

Ján Cingel

Acting Head of the European Neighbourhood Programme

GLOBSEC Policy Institute

 

Photo: Twitter/United For Macedonia