“This city now looks like a weird mixture of spooky Disney and Hollywood movie about Alexander the Great”, a Macedonian scholar tells me sarcastically, pointing at the neoclassical buildings and monuments that now define Skopje’s city centre. The ornamental galleons moored in the Vardar river do indeed bring Peter Pan and Captain Hook to mind. Metres from here stands a newly erected bronze monument of a horseman, surrounded by marble fountains and fiery lions. Officially called ‘The Equestrian Warrior’, everyone knows that it represents Alexander the Great, while across the river stands the statue of his father, King Philip II of Macedon.
The huge landmark architectural project, ‘Skopje 2014’, aimed to extol the lineage of modern day Macedonia with Alexander the Great. Besides inevitably incurring the wrath of neighbouring Greece, the project has been attacked for its impact on the modernist architecture that rebuilt Skopje from its ruins after the 1963 earthquake. The costs of the project so far total some €670 million, a stunning figure for a country with a budget of some €3 billion.
In all the array of fake antiquity, civil society actors and commentators see such a stark metaphor of the profound grip on power and of the megalomaniac delusions of grandeur of the ruling conservative VMRO party. Shunted out of sight are the decade-long failures of the country’s efforts at Euro-Atlantic integration. Further, the social crisis has seen hundreds of thousands Macedonians migrate abroad (some estimate around 400,000 between 2010-14, out of a population of two million), in a context of massive unemployment (over 30 percent) and with a minimum salary of €135 a month.
Perhaps as a sign of these other realities, the new-old monuments are nowadays covered in colourful graffiti after the recent demonstrations that rocked Skopje for the second time in little more than a year. Government officials, and their Russian allies, were again swift to deride such protests as orchestrated by ’foreign agents’. Yet civil society actors talk of an unfinished ‘colour revolution’ to reverse Macedonia’s democratic rollback.
This Sunday the country goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. But few think the election will mark any real change.
These countries are caught between a corrupt, unreformed elite, which has no interest in truly moving towards European norms, and an EU with little strength to pull in that direction
The election itself is taking place as part of the 2015 Przino agreement. The European Union facilitated these power-sharing accords in the wake of a political crisis and protests triggered by a wire-tapping scandal that involved senior VMRO officials and for which the then prime minister Nikola Gruevski himself was accused. Systematic corruption and even a murder cover-up were revealed at the highest political levels. But election monitors are warning of severe irregularities, from bogus voters on the electoral roll to the ruling party abusing its pervasive position in state structures to ‘mobilise’ civil servants to vote or control media coverage.
What essentially lies behind this situation, largely applicable to much of the region, candidate and non-candidate countries alike, is the fact that these countries are caught between a corrupt, unreformed elite, which has no interest in truly moving towards European norms, and an EU with little strength to pull in that direction.
The EU’s reputation has suffered a clear reputational loss in Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans thanks to doubts around the future of enlargement and the assorted problems inside the EU. Yet the slowness of the enlargement process has become an alibi for elites and interested stakeholders alike to conceal the fact that, firstly, empowered elites, who the EU expects to be driving actors for change, are uninterested in any substantive Europeanisation that would damage their power structures or criminal networks. Secondly, the power to compel Macedonia, Serbia or Bosnia in the direction of deep reform has been undermined by the perception that member states themselves can flout commitments and undermine solidarity or even clamp down on human rights. Finally, the EU has lost leverage over ruling elites because of its own soft, largely technocratic, approach to negotiations with ruling elites. Worse, progressive and reformist actors see EU officials as outwitted by Balkan leaders or at times even in cahoots with them, to prevent real democratic change for the sake of stability. Potential allies in these groups are increasingly losing faith in the EU.
One flaw in the EU’s approach, across the region, is its dogmatic preference for power-sharing arrangements, exactly along the lines of Przino. It presumes that the mostly unreformed Balkan ruling elites are open to power-sharing rather than power-grabbing and public asset-stripping. EU institutions and some member states rush to praise such arrangements for their alleged capacity to mitigate tensions and prevent violence. Yet these tend to become a framework for consolidating the influence of spoilers and provide their politics with a façade of institutional legitimacy. Similar criticisms can be made of the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine, where France and Germany insist on rushing the implementation of its constitutional elements despite messages of concern from democratic actors there.
Indeed, the same elections Europeans insist on may ironically be the best way of impeding the progress of democracy. In the Balkans, on low turnouts, they mostly serve to mobilise the networks of patronage and play the nationalist card, demobilising any cohesive opposition. In fact, some voices in Skopje see Przino as having provided VMRO with a lifeboat when it risked losing power by popular pressure, à la Yanukovych. Few believe that the Special Prosecution Office established under the agreement – under significant American pressure – to investigate the wire-taps will lead to the conviction of high-ranking officials sentenced by a judge, as the judiciary is not independent.
How can the cause of deep democracy be furthered in Macedonia and in the Balkans? The outlook is not good.
Overall, in spite of the many pressures on them, EU member states need to come to terms with the frustrating reality of hard diplomacy instead of easy patch-ups or the tickbox approach that is so ridiculed on the ground. They must insist on full implementation of commitments undertaken by Balkan rulers and on real accountability mechanisms for governance and the rule of law. To do this and rebuild credibility, EU member states should, idealistic as it seems, put long-term Europe-wide interests first, instead of their bilateral ties and short-term convenience. They must stick to their own fundamental principles in the face of gross violations and balance their relations with elites, or risk becoming complicit in entrenching obdurate elites and populists at just the same time that this brand of toxic politics is gaining influence inside the EU.
If European governments and institutions are not up to the task, then those who still care for deep democracy – such as Europe’s democratic parties at the national or European parliament level – should take it upon themselves to build deeper synergies with the reformist and progressive voices in the Balkans on social justice, human rights and rule of law – and name and shame their peer party partners in the region who abridge these. In this regard, perhaps the most interesting current developments are in non-established frameworks, sometimes out in the streets, like the protests of the Ne Davimo Beograd movement in Serbia. In Skopje similar activism is also growing. Before such people flee to Germany, Austria or the United States, they are there now and ready to help make change – if the EU and others reach out to them.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.