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The Word on the Street: Macedonians React to EU Candidacy Decision

December 18, 2005

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Rain turning to snow fell throughout a gray, historic Saturday in Skopje, putting a damper on the government’s organized rally/celebration in honor of the EU’s declaration that Macedonia is now officially a candidate state for membership.

While the top brass plied one another with compliments and Irish whiskey during a day of conviviality in Skopje, less than 1,500 people turned out for the planned evening extravaganza on Macedonia Square, in the center of the city. Of these, some were just passing through the center on their Saturday night strolls, others had been bussed in by the SDSM from outlying towns, and a few others seemed genuinely pleased with the turn of events.

As pop singers performed and fireworks and balloons were let off over the city square and the River Vardar, Balkanalysis.com took the pulse of the people in attendance. The results of our informal poll are useful for gauging the mood of the public in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections. The EU’s announcement, made on Saturday morning, ended a dramatic waiting game in which the French had threatened to veto Macedonia’s candidacy because of an unresolved EU budget and fears that future enlargement lacked a strategy. Nevertheless, France cooperated in the end, and Macedonia was ushered in, though no timeline for negotiations was set and no one expects a radical change in the current situation.

Still, the announcement came as an enormous relief for the sitting government which, while it will face only a tepid and disorganized opposition in the upcoming parliamentary elections, was counting on the EU’s positive decision as a justification for the past few years of painful reforms and sluggish economic growth.

While the government greeted Saturday’s announcement with joy and even announced that bars could stay open all night during the weekend (ironically, the last time they did that was in Nov. 2004 to help quash the referendum), the bad weather prevented a large turnout. Indeed, following short speeches and the truncated entertainment segment, the crowd began to disperse quickly through the square, decorated for Christmas with stalls selling cards and small gifts and little fried doughnuts and roasting chestnuts.

Despite the modesty of the event, the obedient local media has apparently been writing with their winter gloves on ever since, presenting the Saturday celebration as a bigger success than it actually was. While official figures are impossible to determine, and the mass was fluid throughout, it’s not likely that more than 1,500 people were there at any given point between 7:30-9 PM, and even that number is probably generous.

Balkanalysis.com surveyed those who did turn out for the celebration, amidst the blasting of speakers and flash of fireworks. The results were revealing in several ways, and the unofficial poll we conducted also provides food for thought.

Macedonian, Albanian and Roma individuals surveyed all had different and sometimes humorous takes on the EU decision. When asked whether the EU’s granting of candidate status signified a big achievement for the SDSM-DUI coalition, a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit poured some coal in the government’s stocking: “…this was just a political decision,” he cracked. “Our government didn’t do or decide anything – Europe did, for their own political interests – and Buchko [PM Buckovski] can’t take the credit for this.”

A 50 year-old Skopje woman continued this bah-humbug theme. “So they think that just this one thing can make up for everything that they did to the people?” she grumbled rhetorically. “They are just criminals who care only for themselves. I hope we will have some better government in the future.”

Many, however, seemed to have “a cassette tape of the prime minister’s speech in their mouth,” as one local cynic put it. Indeed, many of the comments made by passers-by seemed to have come straight out of a government speech or pro-government media announcement.

“This is a great and historic day,” said one 50 year-old Macedonian man from Veles. “Macedonians should be proud. We should finally stop being pessimistic, now we have every right to be optimistic and expect a future in the EU.”

And, one cheerful 30 year-old man cited the perceived economic benefits of EU candidate status, saying that “this is a good signal for every potential investor in Macedonia. This is a signal that we are going to be part of Europe, where everybody must respect the law and the rules.”

Meanwhile, a good-natured Roma man selling lighters in the open-air GTC Shopping Mall leading to the square enthused that, “well, everybody is saying this is something good and we should be happy- so I am happy too.”

In general, however, people were realistic that the candidate status would not be a panacea for social and economic woes and that progress would take time. “This is a very big step for all of us, but that doesn’t mean something will happen overnight. This is just the beginning,” said one 30 year-old woman.

Her companion added that the EU decision represents merely “the beginning of a very long and hard process. I think that not everything will be so easy.” This Skopje woman, also 30, pointed out a widely held fear when saying, “I think that Greece will try to make us problems, like always.”

People from opposite ends of the age spectrum also held out hope that the EU decision might make life easier. “I think this is very good for the future of the young generation,” said a 65 year-old Skopje man out for a walk with his wife. “I hope that they will have a better life than we have now.” Carrying on from this theme, a 19 year-old girl from the eastern town of Stip expressed a common hope, stating overoptimistically that “this is great- I just hope that we will not need visas anymore for going in Europe.”

Now, what effect will all this have on the upcoming elections, for which dates have still not been set? We conducted an unofficial poll among 120 randomly selected people who braved the conditions to attend the celebration in the city square. While this is obviously an informal poll, the results are interesting (one should perhaps just keep in mind that those who were enthusiastic enough to turn out were probably bound to be favorable to the government).

The questions covered a range of topics, from the relative importance of the EU announcement to the outcome of the elections.

Interestingly enough, a full 53.3 percent of respondents said that the EU decision would not improve their quality of life significantly. Another 20 percent said yes, but not in the foreseeable future, while 14.2 percent weren’t sure. Only 12.5 percent of respondents were enthusiastic that the EU decision will dramatically improve their lives.

The arrival of EU candidate status also does not seem to have radically altered political preferences. Some 71.66 percent of respondents stated that the new status would not change their vote, while 15 percent said that it might and another 10 percent had not decided. Only 3.33 percent said that the EU candidate status anouncement would alter their current party allegiance.

This by no means implied that everyone was overjoyed with the current government, however. When asked who they intended to vote for in the coming elections, almost half – a full 40 percent – said that they hadn’t yet made up their minds. Another 43.33 percent declared they would vote for the incumbent SDSM-DUI coalition.

Yet the opposition, which was forced to congratulate the incumbents on their work in attaining candidate status for Macedonia, has been rendered voiceless and the informal poll did not reflect well for their chances in the upcoming election. Only 10 percent of respondents stated they would definitely support main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, while 3.33 percent stood for breakaway opposition party VMRO-Narodna.

Finally, while numerous initiatives to form new parties in time for the elections have been undertaken over the past few months, our belief that they will not have a strong impact (individually, at least) seemed to be borne out by the fact that only 3.33 of respondents stated they would definitely vote for a new party. Indeed, even though many of our 120 respondents did note in passing that they were dissatisfied with both the government and the opposition, the people will probably as usual take what is on offer, perceiving the lack of a real option.

It thus seems that the political significance of the EU decision on a local level, at least for now, is that it has extended somewhat the shelf life of the SDSM-DUI government.

Whereas a ‘no’ from the EU might have spelled disaster for the ruling coalition, the guarded ‘yes’ means that the opposition will have to become much more unified and make its message much more vital if it is going to defeat a government of committed technocrats whose controversial though diligent labors seem to have been rewarded by the EU, which has always been, in fact, the senior coalition partner in the Macedonian government anyway.

 

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