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In Macedonia, Foreign Perceptions Indicate Government’s Blind Spots

March 25, 2009

While considerable foreign support remains for Macedonia and its leadership, the tenor and tone of recent foreign media reports reveal possible trouble ahead.

By Christopher Deliso

After a snowy weekend in which first-round presidential and local voting unfolded peacefully and without major reported incidents of fraud, Macedonians are feeling relief that they seem to have passed their latest test without much trouble. World media coverage reporting has generally portrayed Sunday’s event in a positive light (something noted proudly by domestic media such as A1 TV). EU Special Representative Erwan Fouere commended local authorities and voters for their efforts, as did the US government soon thereafter.

For the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, which quickly announced outright first-round victories in 23 mayoral races, compared to chief rival SDSM’s 4 first-round wins, the outlook seems rosy. The party heads into the April 5th run-off in strong positions in several other mayoral races, and has achieved a commanding lead for its presidential candidate Giorge Ivanov (35 percent, compared to 20 percent for SDSM’s Ljubomir Frckoski).

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various scenarios whereby either would have to win with outside support from followers of defeated candidates Ljube Boskovski or the leading ethnic Albanian, Imer Selmani (both at around 15 percent in the first round), and the numerous hazardous ramifications that could arise from any eventuality- except to note that potential problems do exist and are being scrutinized carefully by both those involved and by outside observers.

Significantly, however, if Mr. Ivanov is elected, it will mark the first time in exactly ten years that VMRO-DPMNE will find itself in control of both the government and presidency (their winning candidate that time, Boris Trajkovski, held office until his untimely death in a plane crash in 2004. Branko Crvenkovski, longtime leader of the SDSM, has occupied the office since then, but is not running again).

However, despite the current confidence on the side of the government and its supporters, leaders might want to be more wary of perception issues abroad, if several pre-election world media reports are anything to go by. Representing views held by influential media in different parts of the world, these reports when analyzed in context indicate that certain trouble spots continue to exist, which could mar the government’s prospects in the future and, if not addressed, also reduce sympathy for the country as a whole.

Such reports convey views that a government paying attention to its fortunes would certainly be keen to pre-empt. Numerous diplomats and other political observers have noted with varying degrees of alarm the current government’s apparent indifference to the outside world’s perception of it. Internally, the government seems to have learned well from American models, exhibiting since 2006 much of the purposeful discipline and secrecy that marked the Bush administration at its strongest, together with an workmanlike focus on self-promotion of its agenda and achievements in the local media. However, unlike the opposition, the leadership has not made similar efforts at self-promotion abroad.

Dubious Depictions

One result of this is that Macedonia’s internal political situation is being presented imperfectly in the international media. If one were to judge by the quantity and quality of foreign media coverage of opposition candidates, the fact that Mr. Frckoski won only 20 percent of the first-round vote would seem incongruous. German news magazine Der Spiegel, for example, presented the SDSM candidate radiantly. The opposition candidate was also very sympathetically portrayed in a report from the Financial Times.

The ruling party, however, neither presented its candidate positively before the international media, nor highlighted the numerous high-profile issues over the years that have made their rival one of the most divisive and controversial figures in modern Macedonia. The fact that they have failed to do so will have harmful effects for their own long-term fortunes, regardless of who wins on April 5th.

While it is true to an extent that opposition figures generally have more time to spend speaking with reporters than do governing politicians, the Macedonian government candidates” relative invisibility internationally in the pre-election period allowed the opposition to dominate — and shape — the discourse on domestic and foreign policy in the foreign media. This was evidenced by the Financial Times, which broadcast the SDSM position, implying that the VMRO-DPMNE is seeking to brutally impose its will on the country, risking national stability in the process.

“Amid growing fears of economic recession,” the article read, “the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation — Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) has even greater power to intimidate voters from the ethnic majority population, political analysts said.”

The article further warned, “the ruling party’s bid to centralise power would be regular politics in a less fragile country.” In Macedonia, however, it seems that “the government holds enormous leverage, especially among young adult men, critics said.”

Who these “critics” are is not explicitly stated: however, the article continues by quoting the SDSM candidate as saying: “they’re blackmailing young guys, saying: ‘Find 20 more guys to vote if you want to extend your employment contract.'” Yet gratuitous public sector hiring as a means of boosting party support is hardly something unique to the current government. All the other parties have done, or would do, the same if given the chance. The real problem here is finding ways to change Macedonia’s ingrained patronage system, which has deep societal roots, a process which would require a long-term series of interconnected solutions across a variety of social spheres.

Nevertheless, few news articles have the interest or word count to delve into such underlying formative issues in any depth. So the government should be concerned when the FT, after alleging its complicity in other corruption and intimidation tactics, concludes by warning that: “unfortunately, incentives for the ruling party to play by the rules have evaporated.”

A “One-Party State”

Outgoing national president Branko Crvenkovski plans to rebuild his SDSM party, a major effort for which these elections are a vital first step. The party needs to ensure that, even if it loses the current battle, the media opportunities it is providing will help it to eventually win the war.

This is where things become more interesting. The SDSM today is a shell of its former self, scarred by years of internal divisions and bereft of direction. As party leaders have privately lamented, and are now publicly acknowledging as well, the party is still largely perceived as being cold, patrician and aloof from the masses. Worse, years of losses on the local and national levels have stripped the party base, and distance from governance has prevented it from using public ways and means to improve its fortunes. Finally, the party has only a very few promising young leaders, some of whom were discouraged by the top-down way in which their current presidential candidate was forced upon them.

Given all of these issues, the opposition’s main strategy in terms of the foreign media is unfolding in three ways. The first will be in pushing the idea that Macedonia is becoming a one-party state, to the point of alleging that an authoritarian regime is being created under Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski; his candidate for president, Mr. Ivanov, would thus essentially be just following orders, a Macedonian Medvedev of sorts. Comparisons with Russia will become more explicit and more persistent and, a bit closer to home, will also be made with Slovakia, where the EU has had concerns over perceived authoritarianism.

Lacking as it does other options or resources, the Macedonian opposition will secondly seek to depict itself as a sort of progressive liberal dissident movement. This has been evinced now in the recent announcement that their campaign is being fought under the standard of EU and NATO integration, and that candidate Ivanov is thus against this process. Regardless of whether anyone believes it at home, the approximation will continue to be made and will continue to resonate in the foreign media.

Third, the SDSM has historically cultivated an image as the more “intellectual” party, and will thus seek to present itself as the solution for a future of lurking crises which the government is ill-suited to handling. Such possible crises would involve the economy, foreign policy issues (such as the ramifications of not compromising with Greece over the Macedonian name and the pace of EU integration), while domestically the alleged danger of ethnic tensions and non-democracy will be pushed up.

Thus far, the government has shown little awareness that the opposition is outmaneuvering it in the foreign media. If the various charges stick, and the opposition succeeds in presenting itself as the victim of a tyrannical regime, already strained international sympathies will start to turn in their favor. And this could serve to derail not only the government’s programme, but also its own term in office.

Bad Habits

At this point it is worth noting that the subtle changes already visible because of media coverage do not owe merely to opposition cleverness. To an extent, the government — since 2006, marked by a tendency towards excessive haste in its goal of achieving bigger and better things, and preferably, as fast as possible — has brought this upon itself. While broader EU and US policy goals and critical reactions to Greek bullying have helped maintain a strong wellspring of support for Macedonia and its leadership, foreign diplomats in Macedonia have chronically complained about a small handful of issues which, when repeated with relative frequency, have gradually sapped their patience.

These include a perceived unwillingness to listen to advice, perceived diplomatic inflexibility, and chronic complaints of upper leadership’s micro-management. Then there are the inexplicable protocol issues, such as officials repeatedly showing up late or unprepared for meetings, or language errors on important documents. These shortcomings, taken together and continued over a prolonged period, have a wearying effect and are making influential foreign voices less sympathetic than they otherwise might be. The opposition is well aware of these trends and has attempted, in its dealings with the international community, to present itself in a more sophisticated and flexible light- in short, as the civilized antidote to an authoritarian regime.

Indeed, it is likely that in the short- to medium-term future the foreign media will increasingly turn to opposition voices for commentary. Although it also interviews Mr. Gruevski, the Der Spiegel piece hardly treats the prime minister with the reverential tone it reserves for candidate Frckoski- “a skilled politician who looks every bit the cosmopolitan world traveler,” who is allowed to weave in self-aggrandizement like “I am in a sense the father [of the nation]€šÃ„¶ I wrote the first constitution and was involved in the treaty following the conflict with the Albanians in 2001.”

The ruling party’s candidate, on the other hand, is dismissed as someone who “favors the hard-line approach” in negotiations with Greece, as representing the side of “intransigence” rather than the implied “willingness to compromise” of the opposition candidate. This depiction has been reasserted in scores of foreign reports. But here the government has done little to help brighten its image in the outside world, or challenge such approximations.

Instead, it has indulged in a harmful preoccupation with ancient history that has become self-defeating, in media terms at least, as witnessed in articles like this, and largely because it serves to distract so much attention from more pressing issues and the needs of actual, living people. (Of course, if the government does in fact go ahead with erecting an enormous statue of Alexander the Great in the middle of Skopje as is rumored, it can expect to lose some of its outside supporters; few have any interest in fighting that particular battle).

Part of the problem of ignoring foreign media, and not only for the ruling party but on a state level, is that a considerable amount of damaging disinformation can be readily spread- and, since there seem to be neither resources nor a strategy of combating it, these interpretations can sink in to the public consciousness abroad, becoming part of the substrata of informational associations that shape perceptions, prejudices and, eventually, the policies of powerful international organizations and governments.

The trick for Macedonia’s government now, basking in the glow of what would be a historic electoral win, is to take the big-picture view, and avoid the trap of hubris. Perhaps they will yet be able to write the happy ending for Macedonia that they have been promising for so long. At least they are in that rare position of enjoying being able to know that the choice is theirs to make.

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