Political tensions in Macedonia intensified last week when protesters and supporters of the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) stormed the national assembly and assaulted opposition MPs. The wounded parliamentarians had just elected Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian, as their speaker. This move had opened the possibility of a new government led by a coalition of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and its Albanian partners, who together command a majority in parliament.
Macedonia’s President, Gjorge Ivanov, declared the election of the speaker illegal, and there is little doubt that it will be challenged in the VMRO-controlled constitutional court. The new speaker has informed President Ivanov that SDSM expects to receive a mandate – which it had previously been denied – within ten days. But if no mandate is forthcoming and a new government is still elected in parliament, there may be more violence. Even if the next steps occur peacefully, the VMRO leadership has made clear that the party’s removal from government will come at a high price.
The Gruevski Problem
At the centre of the current stand-off is former Prime Minister and head of VMRO, Nikola Gruevski, who is fighting not only to hold on to his de-facto control of the government, but also to preserve his freedom.
Two years ago, a wiretapping scandal revealed that the government had tapped the phones of over 26,000 people, including politicians, journalists, and civil society activists. After the scandal broke, the European Union brokered a deal that included the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the crimes exposed by the recordings. Gruevski and a number of associates were subsequently indicted. Ivanov tried to preemptively pardon them but had to retract the pardons thanks to pressure from the EU and US.
The EU's failure to influence the crisis only highlights its impotence in the Western Balkans today.
If a new government is formed, however, prosecution would surely go ahead, and Gruevski and his partners could end up in jail. VMRO is therefore trying to block any movement from forming a new government, and wants to force new elections instead.
With such an election in mind, VMRO is actively stoking inter-ethnic tensions with fearmongering about the prospect of an Albanian take-over. This type of ethnic nationalism was on prominent display in the assembly last week, as thugs chanted nationalist songs while attacking opposition parliamentarians. Although the crisis is at its core political, this pandering to nationalist sentiments means that the risk of inter-ethnic violence is ever-present.
Ethnic Albanian leaders in the region have also played up nationalist sentiments, with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently hosting Albanian parties from Macedonia in Tirana, where they agreed on the so-called Tirana Platform that set out conditions for the parties to enter a coalition in Macedonia. He has also made extended visits to Kosovo, and refused to rule out the possibility of an Albania-Kosovo union.
Such talk of ‘Greater Albania’ has been a gift to VMRO. In particular, the Tirana Platform allowed President Ivanov to claim that the SDSM-led coalition was a result of foreign interference, providing VMRO with a pretext to deny them a mandate to form a government.
Russia has been vocal in supporting the VMRO-led status quo and criticising the EU and US for interfering. If there is another round of negotiations under international auspices, Gruevski is likely to demand that Russia is at the table as a counter-balance to Western pressure. SDSM and the Albanian parties, meanwhile, are happy to use the spectre of Russian interference as their own bogeyman, allowing them to attract Western support and discredit VMRO.
A Europe Distracted
Yet Russia is not the main source of instability in Macedonia. Russia is becoming more assertive across the region but is merely stepping through a door left open by the EU. Consumed by internal crises and external threats in recent years, the EU has not paid enough attention to the region and has lost much of its attractiveness and credibility in the Western Balkans.
In the past months, the EU has sent its top brass to Skopje to push for a solution. But their failure to influence the crisis only highlights the EU’s impotence in the Western Balkans today.
The Macedonian political elite has a strong desire not to allow the EU, in the words of a local politician, “to meddle in our business.”
Part of Europe’s problem is the mixed messages it has sent about whether the countries of the Western Balkans will be able to join the union in the foreseeable future. President Juncker’s infamous statement that enlargement would not take place during his mandate, for example, sent a discouraging message to an already despondent region. The growth of xenophobic populism in the EU, meanwhile, has only strengthened anti-enlargement sentiment, as demonstrated by recent resistance in the Netherlands to an EU association agreement with Ukraine.
Macedonia, for its part, was granted candidate status in 2005, but Greece has since blocked it from even starting negotiations. This is largely a consequence of both states’ continued dispute over the offi-cial name of the country. The same fate befell Macedonia in its quest for NATO membership.
This state of limbo has given more space to corrupt elites, who have little interest in strengthening the rule of law, reforming the judiciary, or improving governance, as the acquis would require. The Macedonian political elite has a strong desire not to allow the EU, in the words of a local politician, “to meddle in our business.”
The Macedonian crisis now has the potential to destabilise the wider Western Balkans by sending a message that those who do not want to respect the democratic rules of the game can get away with using violence, and that the EU will do nothing to stop them. The idea that some EU member states had, to at least show disapproval symbolically, such as by not inviting Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Popovski to the informal EU meeting (‘Gymnich’) in Malta, failed to materialise. Instead, a licence to beat, rule autocratically, and rely on majoritarian democracy of the Orban type, is what the EU is giving to the region.
While this crisis is ultimately for the Macedonians to resolve, the EU should be ready to intervene more forcefully. Soon individual sanctions may become necessary. Yet in the meantime there are other sticks that the EU can use against VMRO, such as political isolation. A positive step was welcoming the election of the new speaker and receiving him in Brussels. Now the EU should be ready to acknowledge the election of a new government, even without a mandate from the president, and engage proactively with it.
The current crisis is primarily about political power, with the attendant risks of undermining a peaceful transition of power, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary. Soon, however, the instrumentalisation of inter-ethnic tensions could transform the political crisis into an ethnic one.
To prevent this, the EU has to be ready to act more decisively. Europe must stand firm on the principle that inciting ethnic violence is not an option in the Western Balkans today – regardless of who is in power.
Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.