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Asymmetric Threats Challenge Macedonia before Easter and Elections

By Chris Deliso

A investigation has discovered that Macedonian security services are currently tracking several home-grown jihadists who had returned from Syria among the wave of migrants and refugees beginning in mid-2015.

In total, over 80 radical Islamists, including two feared potential suicide bombers, are now under constant surveillance. With Orthodox Easter coming on Sunday, terrorists could execute attacks to inflame religious and ethnic tensions in the small country- which is currently the key border state stopping mass uncontrolled migration into Europe.

If Macedonia falls, and thousands of militarized migrants pass through, the cohesion of the European Union may be fatally undermined. However, despite these risks, Western services are not offering any help in countering violent extremism.

This could not be happening at a worse time, as the police and army are already overstretched. They have to not only safeguard the country’s southern border from migrants – as requested by the European Union – but also keep a constant presence in Skopje and other cities against violent protesters organized by the leftist parties, Soros NGOs and Western governments- the so-called ‘Colorful Revolution,’ which the vast majority of the local population does not support.

Unnecessary Threats Diminish Capacities

Despite the destructive behavior of these hooligans, the police have acted professionally. What is striking about these protests – recently fleshed out by radical anarchists from Greece, Spain, Italy and other countries – is the internationalization of what was typically an internal Macedonian issue. On the other hand, no police were needed to contain last week’s major rally by the GDOM citizen’s organization, an entirely peaceful and pro-democratic rally of 60-70,000 persons. This event was almost completely ignored by the Western media.

The numerically insignificant Colorful Revolutionaries, on the other hand, have received fawning adoration in the Western press. Interestingly, they have also been highlighted in the Russian international press, which will lead to increasing confusion over the movement’s goals, identity and personnel.

In the past two weeks, these activists have destroyed public buildings, thrown paint at national monuments, buildings and police, and generally made their presence felt. The activists’ behavior is also marked by an unusual spirit of hatefulness, again indicating that foreign radical views have affected a generally peaceful national mentality.

This was attested when one young woman approached a policeman and snarled that she wished him “another Kumanovo.” This was a reference to last May’s counter-terrorism operation in which eight policemen (both Macedonian and Albanian) were killed while eliminating a terrorist cell masterminded from Kosovo. It is very unusual for a Macedonian to wish harm to a police officer charged with protecting her; it is just not the national mentality. This again indicates the influence of hardcore, nihilistic foreign activists on impressionable young minds.

These politically motivated protests are occurring at a time when the country should be preparing for June 5th elections. However, members and friends of the main opposition party, SDSM, which plans to boycott the vote, have been spotted at these protests, instead of on the campaign trail. Western diplomats have given tacit support for violence by refusing to specify who was guilty, and by refusing to encourage all parties to participate in election.

These diplomats are thus directly contributing to instability in the country, and thereby acting against their own national interests.

Meanwhile, on the Border

A recent FRONTEX report showed that Macedonia’s border control efforts have resulted in a 90 percent decrease in monthly illegal crossings from Greece. The EU-sanctioned operation to close the Balkan Route, with the help of European police stationed at Macedonia’s Greek border, has been very successful. However, this has both driven up prices for migrants, as smugglers now take them on more dangerous routes, and also radicalized the migrants who refuse to leave Idomeni.

The increasing militarization of these migrants has been seen in recent attacks on the border fence. They are coordinated with the help of Greek, German, British, Italian, Spanish and other anarchist groups. Idomeni has become a magnet for this revolutionary cause in recent months, with Thessaloniki offering a rear support base.

Some Macedonian activists who are operating in political protests have overlap with these groups and the migrant cause in general. They are partly responsible for internationalizing the political protest scene in Macedonia through this connection. warned in December of the potential convergence of anarchist and migrant activist operations, and indeed we are seeing the results now.

The Macedonian state already banned some foreign activists from entering the country following the March illegal crossings offensive from Idomeni. If they are forced to do so again, with either foreign migration or political activists, it will create further bad press for the country as ‘innocent activists’ will be seen as punished by an ‘oppressive regime.’ In fact, it is likely that activists, local and foreign, will continue to try and provoke police to help their overall goal of postponing elections.

Terrorism Threats and Turkish Security Cooperation

However, if political antics were the main issue, this whole misadventure might just be an annoyance. But the fact that safeguarding last week’s protest required considerable pre-planning, and a phalanx of police cars and trucks along half of Bulevard Partizanski and over to the government meant that valuable time and resources were wasted, while much more serious threats receive less attention. Since the nihilistic protesters are expected to continue through May and into June, the same challenges will remain for an already overstretched police force.

Nevertheless, Macedonia somehow manages to survive, time after time, infuriating and bewildering its enemies. This is due to diligent police work and the fact that it still has some powerful allies. Turkey was the only one of 17 regional and NATO allies that answered Macedonia’s request for urgent assistance in the months leading up to last May’s foiled terrorist plot. The non-assistance of Western powers was strange, considering that they all claim to support the country’s security and territorial integrity.

For its part, Macedonia has also helped Turkey on numerous occasions with intelligence cooperation. Since neither are EU members, they are especially affected by a lack of intelligence sharing with Western countries, and experience the distrust that this fosters. Especially because of the terrorism situation in Iraq and Syria, and the concomitant migrant waves, intelligence services have to be on full alert.

For one example of bilateral cooperation, Macedonia in October 2014 helped the Turkish MIT identify two Al Nusra members who were from Macedonia, and hiding in the east of Turkey. The jihadists had shot at Turkish police while crossing in from Syria at some point previous to that. “We can say that Macedonia is a close friend,” says one retired Turkish military official for “Always they were there, if we needed information.”

Terrorism, the Migrant Wave and Current Vulnerabilities

As a recent Washington Post article which quoted analyst Ioannis Michaletos showed, crossing from the Middle East to Northern Europe was very easy until Macedonia sealed the Balkan Route. While the border is sealed currently, again, any destabilization within Macedonia could result in a security vacuum and border violations. In this case, more terrorists could infiltrate Europe.

It is not clear whether such a strategic motivation could be guiding potential terrorists in the Macedonia. Information from Turkey indicates that two other potential suicide bombers from Macedonia were killed in military operations in Syria in recent weeks, so it is believed there are (only) two potential suicide bombers in Macedonia now. However, the large number of suspected foreign fighters who cannot be charged with any crime is a serious concern, as they can be activated (or moved abroad) at any time.

The situation is also extremely foggy because American officers with Balkan experience have liaised with elements of the Syrian opposition out of Gaziantep during much of the Syrian crisis. It is thus not clear whether any information supplied to Macedonia from Turkey could have come, in all or in part, via others players in the field such as the US, Israel or Germany. For now, at least, Macedonia is just thanking Turkey.

Anti-Terrorism Legislation and Implications

Before the steady deterioration in Macedonian trust in America that has characterized the last 16 months, there actually was some visible security cooperation. The Macedonian government passed a law similar to others the US was supporting throughout the region. This, the law on Foreign Fighters was passed in parliament on September 3, 2014.

However, the bill only passed because the ruling VMRO-DPMNE, which the US and its partners now oppose, had the votes to get it done. At that time, both SDSM and the smaller Albanian party, DPA were boycotting parliament. And, while no one voted against the law, several members of the Albanian coalition partner DUI abstained or were absent. The US has never considered this basic fact regarding who was responsible for implementing their own desired security policy in the country.

Then, on September 24, 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2178, popularly known as the ‘foreign fighters resolution,’ similarly motivated by the ISIS threat. The resolution had been strongly backed by the United States, which released a fact sheet on the State Department website.

Macedonia, like neighbors Kosovo and Albania, which also passed such laws, was clearly on the side of the international community. However, unlike those two countries, arresting potential terrorists is very sensitive because of the ‘ethnic factor.’ If non-Albanians arrest an Albanian Muslim, it is considered a provocation to either the nation or the religion, and the inevitable irritation of some of the community creates a scenario for violent protests. However, if the same operation is done in Kosovo or Albania against ‘one of their own,’ there is no similar scenario for protests, except from the Islamist bloc, which is easily contained.

This is part of what makes the US role in the region so hard to assess. The US did nothing to assist the Macedonian state in stopping the Kumanovo plotters, and it also did nothing to help Kosovo prevent them from entering Macedonia illegally.

On the other hand, after the heavily nationalist funerals for the “heroic” would-be terrorists were held in Kosovo, the US took (at least privately) a harder line. “We were very angry about how they handled that,” one senior US diplomat in Kosovo told “We said to the leadership, ‘what are you doing?’ They were clearly manipulating ethnic tensions over the deaths of people who were definitely not national heroes.”

The ISIS Threat and Terrorism Potential

According to the above-mentioned Washington Post investigation, ISIS has developed a sophisticated operation in Europe, masterminded from the Middle East. It has a network of sleeper cells and mobile operatives (via the refugee streams) which are not known to one another, and which are not informed about their final target until shortly before an operation occurs. This was confirmed by the confession of two young ‘migrants,’ who were supposed to have taken part in the Paris attacks, but were ordered to stay put when travel delays prevented them from arriving on time.

This command-and-control system also prevents potential damage to the entire network, because individual operatives or cells have no information about other ones being run concurrently. This is a classic technique used by intelligence services to prevent a whole network from being compromised if one cell is dismantled. The arrested ones would simply not have the information needed for police to take down the whole network.

This is what is concerning about the current situation in Macedonia. There has been, and continues to be, way too much political interference, rather than security cooperation from the country’s supposed allies. As usual, only Turkey is being counted on for proper assistance.

It is not known if the local jihadists currently under surveillance have direct links with the Brussels and Paris attackers, but very generally, authorities do know that they have “some connections” with likeminded groups now in Belgium. And, though they are not connected to today’s political and ideological activists in and around Macedonia, the latter would absolutely take advantage of any destabilization from a terrorist attack for achieving their own interests.

 Ground Assessment of Coming Threats: 10-Day Forecast

Macedonia faces (at least) four hard security threats, in addition to Islamic terrorism, in the period leading up to the June 5th election. These include further attempts to breach the border by migrants and activists, potentially violent protests in Skopje and other cities by local and foreign political activists, and even a small-scale attack from disgruntled ex-UCK fighters.

Fourth, numerous sources have claimed that both Ali Ahmeti, the DUI leader, and Nikola Gruevski were targeted for assassination in the past year. Ahmeti’s people have reportedly foiled three such plots, all of which came from the Kosovo Albanian opposition and underworld. Obviously, any assassinations in peaceful Macedonia would have a destabilizing effect. There are other assassination scenarios involving other people for other motives, but we will discuss that another time.

All of these threats will persist over the coming period. But, for the short-term, we can offer these assessments for the next 10 days or so.

May 1, which is Orthodox Easter, is a key date with national and religious significance. Potential terrorists now under surveillance could be activated to disrupt the most important Christian holiday. Since Islamist exhortations to violence have historically come during Friday prayers in radical mosques, police will surely be monitoring mosque activity carefully on Friday, April 29. On the other hand, an order via secret channels coming from the Middle East would be almost impossible to detect.

May 4 is the second major date, because of the potential for migrant-related violence. On that date, the European Commission will release an advisory report on Turkey’s progress towards visa-free travel. While Hurriyet has noted that practical issues will prevent many Turks from even enjoying free travel for months, no matter if Turkey fulfills all 72 benchmarks, attention – and possibly, symbolic action – is gravitating around this date. The EU-Turkey deal is opposed by nearly everyone: by the right, as too conciliatory to Turkey, and by the left, as inhumane (in that it enforces deportations). No matter what is decided, we can expect ‘No Borders’ activists to make renewed border incursion efforts around this date and afterward.

Macedonia To Seal Southern Border, Employ ‘Unconventional Methods’ ahead of Anticipated Migrant Surge editor’s note: those interested in regional security will find the following exclusive report useful. Hopefully, migrant-facilitation groups that have been teaching people how to illegally cross international borders will also incorporate the relevant data into their ready-made ‘travel guides’- if they in fact care about the safety of those they claim to support.

By Chris Deliso

After months of security planning and several weeks of diplomatic consultations with Austria, Visegrad and Balkan countries, Macedonia will seal its border completely from all refugees and migrants, can report. Barring any unexpected developments, this will happen between February 23 and March 13.

Simultaneously, the Balkan country is employing a range of conventional and unconventional border security measures – reported here for the first time – that demonstrate a certain native ingenuity, in anticipation of a massive surge of attempted migrants due to the arrival of spring and ramped-up military activities in northern Syria.

This Macedonian policy is causing particular consternation and alarm in Berlin and Athens. It will thus attract great interest at the Munich Security Conference (February 12-14), to be attended by President Ivanov. The president recently stated that since border fencing has been built, some 33,000 illegal crossings have been thwarted by army and police.

As new information below reveals, Germany and Greece are in a secret alliance over the migrant issue; they are opposed by the Visegrad countries, which constitute the core of a second and rival European alliance. Macedonia, therefore, has become the front line in a struggle between much bigger powers, owing to its strategic position- as in several wars of the past.

Macedonian Policy in Context: Security Concerns, Psychology and Policy Calculation

Since January 2015, Macedonia has survived an unprecedented combination of security threats; these include an ongoing political crisis sparked by an attempted coup, a narrowly-averted terrorist plot (a threat which credible intelligence indicates may return), and finally the refugee/migrant crisis, in which the equivalent of half of the national population transited the country in under a year. Any one of these threats could have destabilized any other country, but Macedonia is not any other country.

In light of this combustible mix of threats, appropriate measures were taken within an institutional framework. already discussed this in detail in December, here. Everything we are now seeing (and will see) derives ultimately from this institutionally-driven process, one driven by pre-emptive threat assessments beginning last spring.

A second factor critical to understanding Macedonian policy is the character of the people and their collective experience. Macedonia is a small, relatively conservative and family-oriented country (regardless of ethnicity). Foreign diplomats have mistakenly assumed that their ability to turn people against each other based on political differences gives them similar superpowers across all levels of society. However, Macedonians will not accept participation in any adventures that could compromise their family and national security.

This is what the Germans, EU and UNHCR failed to understand when thinking they could bribe the country’s leaders into accepting 30,000 refugees in camps. This opposition was reiterated on 10 February by Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki, who promised that Macedonia will “not turn into a refugee camp.”

Another psychological factor that must be considered is the fact that for the last 25 years, Macedonians have been continually blockaded, vetoed, lied to and betrayed by foreign ‘allies’ and neighbors. They do not have any reason to trust anyone, and thus they do not. Given its difficult history, Macedonia has decided not to entrust its own security to any outside forces.

Most fundamentally, regarding policy, Macedonian leaders know that Germany and the EU cannot even guarantee any migration deals they may reach- whether for Macedonia or anyone else. This is because everything ultimately depends on their own ability to negotiate with Turkish President Erdoğan, who can open the floodgates of migrants that would totally destabilize Europe whenever he chooses.

Being thus the most powerful man in Europe for the foreseeable future, Erdoğan should enjoy pressing his advantage to extract whatever financial and policy concessions possible in the months ahead. Erdoğan has considerable interests in Syria, where a multi-actor invasion seems more and more likely, meaning a greater concentration of refugees heading north in months ahead.

Macedonia is thus aware of this fundamental geopolitical reality and wants to avoid becoming collateral damage in this battle between today’s Great Powers.

Germany’s Double Game

International media has recently been reporting on the second layer of fencing Macedonia has started putting up along the southern border. This activity has angered Greek officials who, informed sources tell us, complained about it privately to Germany. Their unholy alliance owes to Greece’s (quite understandable) desire to pass on migrants arriving from Turkey as soon as possible, and Germany’s (less understandable) desire to keep taking them, as well as the whole euro-bailout Imbroglio in which the two countries are eternally entwined. At the same time, however, Germany has been publicly talking about the need to reduce migrant numbers, and privately leaning on Austria to get this done.

Yet after Greece complained to Germany about the new layers of fencing, the German foreign ministry on February 8 dispatched a ‘verbal note’ to numerous Macedonian ambassadors, in which it said that Macedonia should have asked for permission from Greece before building a fence on its own territory.

As if this was not distasteful enough, the German demarche also made the ludicrous warning that Greece “might not support” Macedonian Euro-Atlantic integration because of such decisions. Of course, it is Greece that has already been blocking such integration for the past 25 years. No one possibly believes that the Greek position can be affected by Macedonia building or not building a fence.

What we are therefore likely to see is a sustained German diplomatic and media offensive against Macedonia, as German leaders become increasingly angry that a small and unimportant country would resist Merkel’s orders. This offensive will involve planting doubt about national capacities, spreading disinformation about the country, and generally fomenting unrest. For example, Deutsche Welle on February 10 called Macedonia “a questionable choice” as Europe’s actual land border, following Greece’s inability to guard its own borders. Predictably, the report contextualized this by saying that Macedonia is amidst “a deep political crisis.” The title of the article was “Macedonia’s refugee dilemma.” But as we will see, there is no dilemma- the plan is already in action.

Conventional and ‘Unconventional Methods’: Securing the Border

Almost all foreign media coverage of Macedonia’s role in the refugee crisis has revolved around emotive, human-interest stories of refugee suffering. This is simply because it drives political pressure for big players, and because it makes money. This kind of reporting sells newspapers, gets clicks, and also boosts fundraising for aid groups, from the smallest NGOs to the biggest UN aid agencies. Indeed, in the cynical business of humanitarian relief, the photographing and interviewing of suffering refugees in the wild is the ideal form of ‘product placement.’

So, since no one has yet offered a simple factual analysis of the hard security aspects of Macedonian border security, we provide the following information about the combination of creative measures being used, which has a disproportionate effect when compared to the modest budget and personnel used.

In short, if you’re thinking of illegally crossing into Macedonia- good luck.

Personnel: along with numerous police and border police, 1,000 Macedonian Army soldiers can be strategically placed across the long border. According to a February 5 interview on Telma TV with presidential advisor Ivica Bocevski, the original planning for this began when the president declared a crisis situation in August. “At present, around 150 of the soldiers are regularly active at the border,” said Bocevski, adding that the number “grew to around 600 when placing the protective barrier.” It was decided that the country had the means to deploy, feed and accommodate 1,000 soldiers for as long as necessary and this estimate remains the same currently.

Additionally, small numbers of international police from Visegrad and Balkan countries have been deployed to the border following bilateral agreements- scuppering any fantasies the EU might have had for taking control of the situation. These officers are mostly being deployed at Gevgelija and taking part in inspecting and verifying refugee documentation. There is also serious talk of sending Austrian soldiers to the border.

This large number (and variety) of personnel gives Macedonian security forces the ability to react rapidly to small or large-scale disruptions across the long and mountainous border. Since Macedonia is not an EU member, it also provides valuable diplomatic support.

For example, since November Macedonian border police have seized from incoming refugees approximately 8,000 false passports which had been stamped as legitimate by Greek police in the islands, when these people had come in from Turkey. Of these documents, some 885 have been witnessed and documented by the partner police forces from EU states. The latter can therefore confirm the long-time Macedonian argument that Greece has not been effectively or carefully identifying people entering its own EU border.

Police Dogs: Specially-trained police dogs are being used to sniff for intruders, explosives and drugs. These dogs are quite friendly, of course, once you get to know them.

The Defensive Fencing System: this extends not only around the most heavily transited route near Gevgelija and the highway/railway; there is now fencing across the River Vardar, and in the internationally-divided waters of Lake Dojran to the east and Lake Prespa to the west, as well as in other vulnerable areas.

Stretches of razor-wire fence extend in some places to 3.3 meters in height. The new layers of supporting fencing are being added as a preventative measure, since traffickers were occasionally cutting the first fence and escaping through. The new fencing layers allow police and army time to react in cases when traffickers get through the first layer.

However, things do not end there. Between two (and sometimes three) layers of fencing, Macedonian security forces have irregularly placed culverts and ditches, so that an unfortunate trespasser might not even make it to the second layer. Further, at some points within the defensive system, a trespasser will set off high-pitched sonic emissions that disorient and stop an individual, forcing him to return to where he came from or be immobilized until police arrive.

Helicopters and Drones: Macedonia currently has six drones monitoring the skies over the border, which is useful in inaccessible forested areas. Army helicopters are also used when necessary in the border area.

Thermal Imaging Cameras: the Macedonian security forces currently operate 11 trucks mounted with thermal imaging cameras, for use during night operations.

Camouflaged Watchtowers: traffickers trying to cross the border through mountainous areas and other uninhabited places should consider that the army has established numerous watchtowers from which it can observe all movement over a wide swath of territory.

Other Special Measures: the mountainous border that comprised the ‘Macedonian Front’ 100 years ago is too expansive to be fully manned, so it’s reassuring to know that some 3,300 booby traps have been hidden here and there along the way. These range from simple stick-and-rope apparatuses to bear traps.

This provides a viable and cost-effective measure against traffickers. Local hunters have been advised about the precise areas to avoid. By the way, local hunters have a tendency to consider themselves deputized, like their peers in southern Texas.

There is also said to be a network of underground tunnels and other things that “we can’t discuss for now,” one official says. The general concern, again, is to preserve the element of surprise against traffickers who will probably be armed and dangerous.

Finally, there is always the chance – especially during summer – of exploding grenades and shells left over from the First World War. (These collector’s items are primarily found in the Mariovo mountain area, where people still go in search of similarly buried French army cognac and gold from that period).

Wildlife: wild animals such as bears, wolves and wild boar all inhabit Macedonia’s southern mountains. The country’s snake population includes three poisonous viper species. Especially in aqueous areas, snake populations generally increase in springtime.

Along with the risk of physical injury accompanying contact with wild animals, aspiring trespassers should also consider that some of these creatures have been fingered in organized crime- as with the bear found guilty of stealing honey from a beekeeper by the Bitola court in 2008. The bear remains at large.

Slovakia’s Deepening Relations with Macedonia: Interview with Ambassador Martin Bezák editor’s note: in this comprehensive new interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the informed insights of Martin Bezák, one of Slovakia’s most experienced diplomats in the Balkans. Since 2013 ambassador to Macedonia, Mr Bezák has also served in Slovakia’s diplomatic missions to Belgrade and Athens. In 2005-2006, he was also Deputy Director and Head of the Balkans Unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe.

In the present interview, Ambassador Bezák discusses Slovakia’s evolving bilateral relations with Macedonia, in the areas of diplomatic, cultural and business ties, as well as initiatives for promoting better regional cooperation at a time of great challenges to the general European project. In addition, readers are treated to several exciting new details that further highlight the developing bilateral relationship.

Martin Bezak Slovakia Macedonia interview Balkanalysis

In the opinion of Ambassador Bezák, the shared legacy of Ss Cyril and Methodius “is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world.”

Background and Bilateral Relations

Chris Deliso: Ambassador Bezák, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, it is noteworthy that you have come to this position here with such extensive regional experience already. So, how did your previous experience in diplomatic missions to the former Yugoslavia and Greece, for example, prepare you for your current position in Macedonia? Was there anything particularly valuable that you learned during these postings?

Martin Bezák: Yes, my previous assignments all influenced or helped me in some way. I had the privilege to be in Belgrade during some of the most crucial times for the Balkans; during the NATO bombardment and sanctions, in the period following Milosevic and during the state of emergency that was called after the Djindjic assassination. Those were tough times.

I also had the privilege to serve under Ambassador Miroslav Mojžita, who I consider probably the finest diplomat Slovakia has had, and under Ambassador Miroslav Lajčák, who is our currently foreign minister, an excellent diplomat, and a former High Representative and EUSR for Bosnia and Herzegovina. So this is a good school of diplomacy I have benefited from.

Regarding the local situations, from Belgrade, we also covered Macedonia at that time, so I have actually been in touch with the country since 1999. And of course my assignment to Greece helped me understand better that country and their view on the crucial unresolved issue that still hampers Macedonian EU and NATO accession. So, with my experience coming at both ends of Trans-European Corridor 10, perhaps it is quite logical that I am currently posted here in Macedonia, where I am also currently the youngest accredited ambassador, at age 43.

Finally, I might add, the fact that my son was born in Skopje gives me another kind of ever-lasting personal bond with Macedonia.

CD: Very interesting! So, in that light, it would be interesting to know how you characterize Macedonian-Slovak relations today, and how have they advanced in the period since 2011- the time when we interviewed your predecessor, Robert Kirnag. Do you have any thoughts?

MB: The basic characteristic for Slovak-Macedonian bilateral relations is that they are traditionally very open and friendly, without any open issues that could burden our bilateral cooperation. In 2009 was the opening of the Slovak residential embassy here in Skopje, something that definitely contributed in a positive way to the development of our relations.

Here I would like to say that things would be even better if there was a Macedonian embassy in Bratislava, or at least an honorary consulate.

CD: Really, there isn’t? That is a surprise.

MB: No, but I can say that there are certain dynamics in both directions at the moment, and so I really hope that by the end of this year at least an honorary consulate will be opened by the Macedonian government in Bratislava. This would have a positive impact on trade relations and economic promotion as well.

However, even despite this lack, the current political dialogue is advancing quite well. There is a certain asymmetry, though, in that the great majority of our meetings are taking place in Bratislava. My task is to balance this trend.

New Developments: Economic Cooperation and Air Connections

CD: Are there any specific opportunities for increased cooperation, and perhaps bilateral achievements you would like to mention?

MB: In economic diplomacy there is huge potential that is not being used to the full potential we would like to see. But, in the weeks and months to come, certain initiatives will be taken to bridge this gap.

For example, in February in Skopje, the first meeting will be held of the Joint Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation. This is co-chaired by the deputy ministers of economy. Simultaneously the first-ever Slovak-Macedonian Business Forum will happen, from 22-23 February. Further, in March the Slovak-Macedonian Business Club, based in Skopje, will be established.

Also, in the field of public diplomacy and the cultural promotion of Slovakia in Macedonia, we are doing well. An important part of our mission now is to provide consular services, and we have upgraded these services in the past two years. We are issuing passports, IDs and visas here now- this wasn’t the case before.

CD: That’s great to hear. These new initiatives sound most welcome. If I can ask as well, what have you learned about Macedonia, having been here for some time now? Is the country different in any way than you had expected?

MB: Macedonia definitely is a nice place for living and working as a diplomat. The country is small, which gives you an advantage to know almost every corner of it. The people are very friendly, the food is good and the wine is even better. Of course, since my very first experiences with the country in the late 1990s, it has changed a lot, and Skopje especially. From one perspective that has been a little controversial, but on the other hand, it was very helpful in bringing tourists, and also from my country.

On that note, I am proud to announce that from the end of March, we will have the first-ever direct flights from Bratislava to Skopje, operated by Wizz Air. This will definitely help bring many more Slovak tourists to Macedonia and vice versa.

CD: That is excellent news! But how did the preparations for it work? Was it a simple business decision from the company, which after all is a Hungarian one, or did you lobby in any way for this route to be added?

MB: Yes, we did lobby for this route, as we had a bilateral agreement on air transport. Of course it is ultimately the primary interest of the company, to decide on the cost-benefit analysis of any route, so we are happy they agree it is worth having. The first flight is scheduled to be on the 28th of March.

CD: So, what is the awareness level of Macedonia among Slovaks? What do you they think, if anything, when they hear of the country there?

MB: The overall knowledge about Macedonia in Slovakia is relatively low. Most Slovaks know about Macedonia from football, as we are traditional rivals. But more recently, it is interestingly in the context of the migrant crisis that the knowledge of Macedonia increased, since the media has reported so much about the issue and the country is on the route.

A Shared Diplomatic and Cultural Heritage, and Slovakia’s International Role

CD: Migration is indeed a pivotal issue, which I would like to return to a little bit later. But first, I wanted to clarify another issue: what is the historical basis of Slovak bilateral diplomatic relations with Macedonia in the post-1991 period? Was there any specific orientation or vision that your leaders had over the years?

MB: In a few weeks, we will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Slovakia and Macedonia. There are a lot of similarities between the two countries, even in terms of constitutional development. Both were in the past part of multinational federations- and both were smaller parts. At approximately the same time, within a distance of one year, they both gained their independence.

Plus, I don’t want to omit this really strong bond which is constituted by Ss Cyril and Methodius. The bond which comes out of this legacy, in my opinion, is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world. And this shared cultural bond has provided a very solid basis for development of relations in the post-independence period.

There is a common strategic foreign policy as well, for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Slovakia has so far been more successful in this, but on the other hand, our very success obliges us to help our Macedonian friends in their path towards these integrations. We do this by extending our experience, which is quite unique, and still relatively fresh. We are willing to share this experience- and not only the awareness of our successes, but also of our mistakes, as this is what sincere friends do- to help each other learn from their mistakes.

CD: That is all very significant to note, and it is important to see Macedonia has a committed ally in Slovakia. On a more international scale, your embassy co-hosted an event in Skopje late last year, on Slovak participation in the post-WWII period in San Francisco and involvement with the UN there. How important do you see the UN as being in today’s world? Is Slovakia able to use any of its diplomatic influence through UN channels to complement its role with Macedonia and the larger region?

MB: The migration crisis, and the struggle against terrorism in light of recent tragic events, confirm the argument that none of the national, regional or global crises can be solved without joint efforts and the involvement of the UN. Current threats require a strong emphasis on conflict prevention and mediation as well, and in this regard, the role of the UN is quite unique and irreplaceable.

For Slovakia, the goals and principles of the UN charter are at the basis of our foreign policy. And there are a lot of examples as to how Slovakia contributes to these values. In Cyprus, for example, it is a relatively little-known fact that Slovakia plays a crucial role as the mediator of inter-party dialogue between the Greeks in the south and the Turks in the north.

CD: Really! I had never heard of this.

MB: Yes. For over two decades, the Slovak ambassadors in Nicosia have organized bi-communal meetings at the Ledra Palace Hotel, in the divided city’s no-man’s-land.

CD: That is a marvelous fact, but seems completely random. Why would Slovakia have had this role in the first place?

MB: Well, it is a historical function. The independent Slovak state inherited this from the time of Czechoslovakia; one of its ambassadors then started this forum as the only channel for direct meetings between political parties from the north and south, keeping Greeks and Turks in good contact. So this is just one important example of how Slovak multilateral diplomacy can be seen in action today, under the UN system.

Secondly, I should add that Slovakia is a leader in such critical areas as security sector reform in different countries. This is important in post-conflict countries, and Slovakia has played a key role in such nations, particularly in Africa, with an emphasis on how to reform the security sector after the armed conflict has ended.

There are other examples of Slovak diplomats who have been engaged in the UN system at high levels. From 1991 to 2001, the SG Special Envoy for the Balkans was Eduard Kukan, the same man who was also foreign minister and is now one of the facilitators from the European Parliament here. [Editor’s note: read the 2012 Balkanalysis interview with Eduard Kukan here]. His assistant at that time was Miroslav Lajčák, who was later of course, the UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and, as said, now Slovak foreign minister.

Exclusively for your website I would like to tell you that there are rumors that Mr Lajčák will be nominated as Slovakia’s candidate to be the next UN Secretary General. From what I know, if he decides to run, the government will support him as the only Slovak candidate.

Migration and Security Relations

CD: Thank you, that is a very interesting bit of news. We will keep a lookout for such news. Now, perhaps we can discuss migration, which is the most important issue for Macedonia, and for Europe, entering 2016. Since last summer, migration policy has of course been on the top of everyone’s agenda. However, the EU, UNHCR, and many other states failed to correctly understand and assess the issue even as it was becoming very apparent to those of us living in the region. What measures should be taken, according to Slovakia?

MB: This is a very complex and actual issue. What is our approach… first of all, you have certainly noticed that Slovakia is not in the ‘Brussels mainstream’ on how to tackle this phenomenon.

We said that we promote complex, comprehensive and sustainable solutions, since the crisis has very many aspects. As such, it cannot be solved through a simple administrative approach- by this, I refer mainly to quotas.

Not less important, we also are saying that Europe should focus on how to solve the whole problem- not just the consequences, but also the causes. What does a sustainable solution mean, in practice? What is the remedy?

First, we must insist on better protection of Europe’s external borders. Functioning hot spots, where registrations should be maintained, must also operate. Secondly, the EU needs to create a better readmission policy for migrants. And we need better cooperation between European intelligence services, and a more robust common foreign and defense policy of the EU. You know, we have instruments in existence- we are just not using them effectively enough. There is the Lisbon Treaty, Frontex, and so on. We need better synergy between the EU and NATO, which already has existing capacities. If I am not mistaken, in the Eastern Mediterranean NATO’s Active Endeavor security operation is ongoing, and this could play a role as well.

CD: Very interesting arguments. Can you explain further about the legal challenges from Slovakia and other countries over migration quotas? This has been one of the most significant events to try and slow down what has been a rather autocratic policy process steered by the Germans…

MB: On migration quotas, we launched a legal action against the European Council of Ministers of the Interior. The Hungarians did the same. The Czechs announced that they would also do so, but they have not done so thus far.

We were forced to do this because we believe that, for Slovakia and for Europe, a quota system is not a real solution to the migration problem. This developed largely because of the way the discussion was held within the EU. The discussion was neither comprehensive nor sophisticated enough; nor was it sufficiently inclusive.

There are a lot of open questions about quotas. Did anyone define the absorption capacity of individual countries, and the EU as such, before assigning numbers to them? What would the right number be, and who is to decide? The figure of 120,000 was decided after some debate. Who made this up? Is it the final number?

CD: I don’t think so. Now they are talking about millions…

MB: Yes, that figure was from the time when this discussion started, last year. But now we are at the point where over one million people entered the EU during the last year, and the arrivals are obviously continuing. So, in our estimate, migration quotas have the potential to create more migrant flows- would-be migrants see the announcement of quotas as a sort of invitation.

And this in turn creates many difficult questions. Who will be selecting and deciding who goes where? How can Brussels know what is appropriate for Slovakia, and indeed, for any other EU state?

CD: I agree with you completely. It is common sense. But when someone makes such a case, they are usually accused of discrimination and so on.

MB: This is not about discrimination- it is about real integration. We want to ensure the capacity for meaningful integration, and to avoid creating ghettoes, a condition of living that is first of all bad for the migrants themselves.

We have even been accused of a lack of ‘European solidarity.’ But if you speak of solidarity, you should stick to it at all times- not only selectively. So in energy security, for example, where is the solidarity concerning Nord Stream, or regarding Ukraine, for just two examples?

In fact, to speak about European solidarity, it is a little-known fact that Slovakia received so far more than 8,000 economic migrants from Ukraine. And we also temporarily received 500 Middle Eastern asylum seekers from Austria, people who had arrived in Austria but who were still waiting for Austrian approval.

CD: These are good points. And I believe that Macedonia, even if it is not an EU member, has suffered a lot of pressure from Germany and other EU states over migration. The country has taken responsibility for its own policy, as we analyzed in a recent article. Most recently, police from several Balkan and Central European countries have been invited to come, and will come, to help Macedonia police its borders. Is Slovakia going to join this contingent?

MB: Yes. Slovakia is part of this action, in order to help our Macedonia friends better protect the border with Greece, and to fight against illegal migrant smuggling. The Slovak government decided on January 13th that it will send 25 fully-equipped police personnel, to be deployed from the 5th of February, primarily on the border with Greece. Slovakia’s police contribution is the biggest per capita out of those countries that replied positively to the request of the Macedonian authorities.

Moreover, on 19 January, a meeting of the Visegrad Group’s ministers of the interior was held, a meeting which also included representatives of the Slovenia, Macedonian and Serbian interior ministries- the V4 Plus. At that meeting, it was agreed that in the next 14 days a special expert assessment mission from the V4 will be dispatched to Macedonia’s southern border with Greece, to see and assess other needs there, like technical equipment.

CD: That is a positive development. Over the past nine months, the situation at the Greek-Macedonia border has been chronically misreported in a way that casts Macedonia in a bad light, both by partisan sources and by aid agencies looking for further funding. To what extent do you think that this new enhanced police presence will correct the outside view, considering that these European police must report what is happening to their home countries, and therefore cause the information to trickle up in the EU?

MB: This is possible, but not sure yet; what we can say is that there are clearly efforts being made by Central European countries to help Macedonia. To what extent this will help, we will have to wait and see. But I do think it will definitely help. There is also a balanced number of police by nationality. There are 10 from Croatia, 20 from Serbia, and six from Slovenia. Then there are 31 from Hungary and 25 from the Czech Republic. But we should also keep in mind that the deployments are being done on several rotations. For example, the Slovak and Czech officers will come at the start of February, while the Hungarians only came quite recently. So we will wait to see the results.

CD: During his November 21st visit to Skopje, Donald Tusk stated that Macedonia has “a right and a responsibility” to protect its borders. We know that the Macedonian state has said it cannot accept more than 2,000 migrants in transit, even though behind the scenes there is still heavy pressure from certain EU forces to fund camps through the UNHCR for up to 30,000 persons. Macedonia has repeatedly stated such a scenario would be a logistical and security problem. Can Macedonia count on Slovakia to speak up on its behalf, whether publicly or in the halls of power in Brussels, on this issue?

MB: Again, as we see it, the issue is fundamentally about quotas. It would be wiser to leave Macedonia to decide on its own what its capacities and capabilities are to handle this issue. If the Macedonians have said several times that their maximum capacity is up to 2,000 persons in transit, Slovakia has absolutely no intention to question this statement.

CD: As we have seen with Kosovo, large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015 were actually coming from the Western Balkans, despite years of Western funding that was meant to create viable states that would expressly keep citizens from trying to move elsewhere in Europe. What should be done to address this issue?

MB: This is obviously a very delicate issue. On the one hand, it is necessary to create a local ownership role, to create suitable social and economic conditions to stop brain drain and economic migration. Second, it is necessary to really reform the asylum procedures in EU member states, since they are not harmonized, and we have now a pattern of misuses of benefits given in certain member states.

Guidelines for Good Diplomacy

CD: During 2015, Slovakia stayed out of the political crisis in Macedonia, one that has had damaging effects on certain other foreign missions’ ability to cooperate with the Macedonian state, as their representatives have ended up compromised in one way or another. Does this local reality give Slovakia a greater role than it might otherwise have?

MB: Slovakia has experience in the Balkans, which has been proven over many years of engagement. We don’t have any hidden agendas in the region, and I can say that Slovakia is thus kind of an honest broker here.

Again, what we can offer is our experience and advice. We have the approach of “two A´s” – assistance and advocacy, for countries in transition. And for this we can use our position within the EU and NATO.

You know, sometimes it is better to keep a low profile, and not publicly expose yourself in order to do the job in a better way. Also, we are working with a view to the future, bearing in mind that Slovakia is now preparing to assume the presidency of the European Council, in the second half of 2016. There will be plenty of opportunities at that time for us to be more visible in this regard.

Slovakia’s Role in Regional Development through the Visegrad Group

CD: This sounds like promising development, which will also increase the stature of Slovakia at an important time. More generally, where do current events figure in with any regional development initiatives Slovakia may have here? Where does your government assess the most need?

MB: In the Balkans, there are already quite a lot of regional initiatives. Some are fruitful, and some are more questionable, in terms of real added value.

But what Slovakia emphasizes in the Balkans, and what I am doing here, is inviting the local actors to examine the possible example of Visegrad cooperation. There are a lot of aspects here that should be followed, considering that the V4 is the most successful such group for regional cooperation in Central Europe. Nowadays it’s an internationally respected brand, even here in the Balkans.

We have a special program, the previously mentioned V4 Plus cooperation. And one of the target regions for it is the Western Balkans. Within this format, we communicate, cooperate, and transfer our experience.

CD: Does this group have an associated fund for projects, similar to other development agencies and indeed the EU?

MB: Yes. This started after our accession into the EU, 10 or 11 years ago. The so-called Western Balkans Fund, as it is called, is kind of a clone of the International Visegrad Fund, and was established in November of last year. The Slovak V4 presidency played a crucial role here. The treaty was signed in November in Prague, during the Czech presidency, but the preparatory period happened when Slovakia held the presidency.

Local and external donors provide for the V4 fund, which has a 10-million euro annual budget. But contributions also come from Germany, from the Dutch, from the US- even from South Korea.

Regional development and good neighborly relations are the two main goals. Behind the success of the V4, I strongly believe, is our focus on a positive agenda. This means that the primary value is placed on the points of common interests of the citizens of the region, while any differences are put aside. The V4 agenda is thus not burdened by open bilateral issues; the initiatives we consider are based on a positive vision: let’s focus on what unites us, what´s beneficial for the region and its citizens, let’s connect, let’s solve bilateral issues bilaterally.

Another aspect that makes the V4 successful, I might add, is that it does not have any institutions, no permanent secretariat, no assembly. So operationally speaking, it is quite informal, very flexible and efficient. Third, it has established a certain solidarity in the region, which we have always felt, even during the more autocratic Vladimír Mečiar period of 1992-98 in Slovakia.

CD: The Group sounds like it can set a good example and perhaps play a positive role for Balkan countries. What sort of feedback do you get here? Has the Macedonian side been enthusiastic about cooperation?

MB: Yes, I believe that they are. And our legacy of positive experience with the V4 leads me to wish as much Visegrad as possible for the region.

An important fact that people should appreciate, also, is that in Macedonia, the V4 is the only regional format that maintains regular meetings with the president of the state. What is interesting and very important is that this has come on the initiative of the Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov. Every year, he invites the ambassadors of the V4 for a working lunch. We really appreciate this gesture from the president; it is another sign of the quality of cooperation that Slovakia, and the V4 in general, enjoy in Macedonia.

Building Economic Relations

CD: Everyone knows the Macedonia government for almost 10 years now has been focused primarily on attracting foreign investment. Can you give us any information about Slovak investments in Macedonia and/or Macedonian investments in Slovakia? What is the balance of trade between the two countries?

MB: There is unfortunately still no proper direct Slovak investment in Macedonia. Rather there is Slovak participation in investment by the Macedonian state, as with Macedonian Railways, being helped by Slovak producers. Thus the supply of 150 freight wagons produced in Slovakia means the renewal of 20 percent of Macedonia’s freight fleet- the first such renewal in 30 years.

Similarly, another Slovak company provided modernization services for the Macedonian Army’s helicopters calibration of equipment. And one Slovak construction company, Chemkostav Michalovce, is performing repairs and building activities at the state prison at Idrizovo. Quite recently, they also got the second tender for construction of sewage systems between Berovo and Pehcevo in eastern Macedonia.

As far as I know, there are no Macedonian investments in Slovakia. The current balance of trade comes to only about 100 million euros. This is not so much, but with the imminent establishment of direct flights and a business club, I am quite optimistic about the future.

CD: Are there any specific industries that you see as most promising for the future bilateral economic relationship?

MB: The automotive sector is certainly promising- a fact you should know is that Slovakia is the world’s number-one producer of cars per capita. In fact, last year over one million cars were produced in three factories: this equals 184 cars per 1000 inhabitants.

CD: I definitely did not know that, though I can imagine room for convergence given Macedonia’s existing investments from auto parts producers. What are the companies?

MB: Volkswagen, PSA (Peugeot-Citroen) and Kia Motors. And last year, we were also successful in attracting Jaguar Land Rover to make a 1.4 billion euro investment. And yes, future cooperation with Macedonian factories could realistically come through sub-supplies, connecting the clusters.

A second field perhaps would be energy, and particularly in terms of biofuels. Macedonia has practically no experience with the kind of plants that we are already using for producing electricity from biofuels. We would like to transfer our knowledge regarding this, which could lead to growing the right kinds of plants and building power plants using this resource. These are just a couple of the many opportunities for economic cooperation that lie ahead for our two countries.

Developments regarding Cultural Relations between Slovakia and Macedonia

CD: Every year, we note the special day of the above-mentioned Ss Cyril and Methodius, ‘enlightener of the Slavs,’ who traveled from Macedonia to Moravia on their famous pilgrimage. What is the perception of their achievement among Slovaks, in popular culture and daily life? Has it influenced in any way cultural relations or cultural awareness of the Macedonian heritage?

MB: Ss Cyril and Methodius, and their legacy, is an integral part of our modern state and identity; Slovakia is the only country in the world with a direct reference to the legacy of their mission in the preamble of its constitution.

Upon this basis, and in accordance with the ties that are confirmed by this story, we are developing our activities in the cultural and academic field with Macedonia. For example, the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, and the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, which is the nucleus of the saints’ Great Moravia mission, established an international conference on Slovak-Macedonian cultural, linguistic and literary relations.

So far, two such conferences have been held- one in Nitra and one in Skopje. We promoted the publication of the first trilingual version – in Old Church Slavonic, Macedonian and Slovak – of the Proglas (Foreword) of Constantine the Philosopher (St Cyril).

CD: Are there any specific cultural relations, events or organizations between Slovakia and Macedonia that you would like to highlight? Can we expect any exciting developments or events in 2016?

MB: Well, first to conclude, we also did promotion for the first Slovak-Macedonian dictionary, the first tourist guide to Ohrid in the Slovak language, and a few other events, like the first Days of Slovak Cinema in Macedonia, and the first Days of Slovak Gastronomy in Skopje. Now we are planning a second Days of Slovak Gastronomy, in the fall and will continue with other events.

CD: Great news. I am interested in this light to know what efforts are being made to develop exchange student programs between the two countries? Do you have any information on the number of Macedonians studying in Slovakia, and vice versa?

MB: Several such initiatives are taking place, some are bilateral, and some are organized under the auspices of the V4. About 30 Macedonian students are currently studying in Slovakia, mostly in technical subjects. Unfortunately, no Slovak students are currently studying in Macedonia

But there is a special program within the V4 fund called academic mobility, and scholarships through this can be provided through the fund. Presently supported through it is an academic program on conflict resolution, here at the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius: it aims to relay the experience of V4 countries in this regard to students from the Balkans. It is an ongoing program, and has attracted lecturers from V4 countries. The program also provides for excursions of Macedonian students within the V4 countries.

CD: These are all very promising developments. So, to conclude, I must ask you: where do you see Slovak-Macedonian relations in 10 years?

MB: My wish is to see Macedonia as a strong friend and ally of Slovakia within NATO, and a country well advanced on its way to negotiating EU membership. I really hope that by then Macedonia will have established a dynamic diplomatic presence in Slovakia, and I hope that we will have really increased our economic, trade and touristic exchanges. These are my hopes, and I believe they are attainable with the right spirit of cooperation and effort.

CD: Ambassador Bezák, thank you very much for your time and valuable insights, they are very much appreciated.

MB: Thank you as well.

Macedonian Migration Policy and the Future of Europe

By Chris Deliso editor’s note: even though Macedonia plays a crucial role on the so-called ‘Western Balkan route’ for migrants and refugees, no one has seriously analyzed actual state policies on this issue, or what they mean for the future.

Foreign media have instead chosen to focus on the emotive, ‘human-interest’ side of the story and ignored completely key events related to the crisis, inside negotiation details, and execution of state policy. What we thus have is a lot of people making judgments about something they do not properly understand. The following analysis aims to fill this coverage gap, and therefore to provide insight into actual realities on the ground.

On December 22, the International Organization for Migration announced that over one million migrants and refugees had entered Europe in the “record-breaking” year of 2015.

Some countries have been more affected than others in this regard. The migration challenge that has gripped Europe since May constituted a third major security challenge for Macedonia, which was already suffering from a significant political impasse and planned large-scale terrorist violence in the spring. Had the latter threat materialized, the migration crisis that soon followed would have presented far greater challenges- both for the country and for the entire continent.

Remembering the Key 2015 Security Events Bookending the Migrant Crisis

While few analysts (especially non-specialists) or foreign media spend time assessing a threat that does not materialize, it is important to recognize that the May 9-10 Kumanovo police action was the most important preemptive security operation, not only in the Balkans, but in all of Europe in 2015. It preserved the stability and territorial integrity of Macedonia, the key state in the Balkan migration corridor.

Had the country been destabilized – especially during an already hyper-charged period of organized protests and political crisis – security forces would have been unable to cope with the following deluge of migrants from Greece. There can thus be no proper appreciation of the migration crisis without consideration of this fact: Macedonia is where the security response to the migrant crisis began, even before that crisis had fully materialized.

A threat that unfortunately did materialize, the November 13 Islamic terrorist attack in Paris, bookended the May police action in Macedonia. The former logistically (if not ideologically) was executed in a manner identical to what could have happened in Macedonia six months previous.

Paris was the definitive moment when the previously moralizing and humanitarian-minded Western European countries started to take a different look at what the migration crisis could actually imply for their own security. It also benefited political parties’ rhetoric. The popular and political reaction to a possible terrorist threat accelerated EU and national-level efforts to find a solution to the migrant crisis, which is commonly agreed – even by diametrically opposed parties – to have been totally mishandled by a divided and incompetent Brussels.

Macedonian Policy Development in Light of Greek Policy and Execution

Unlike the Western countries, Greece was only too aware of the difficulties of dealing with migrants. It has been grappling with the problem of migrant penetration, albeit in much smaller numbers, for many years. has reported about this issue several times; one analysis, from March, covered illegal immigration and organized crime in Greece, and actually predicted a rising number of migrants and greater EU involvement in 2015. And, way back in 2011, when the root causes of today’s migrant crisis were in gestation, we interviewed the operations chief of Frontex, which had been deployed to the Greek-Turkish border. In a slightly earlier assessment of the organized crime aspect of illegal immigration in Greece, we also isolated the key role of Greece’s Schengen and euro membership in increasing the desirability of the country as a transit zone for migrants. The euro and Schengen are of course the two issues now most serious for Greece’s continued EU membership.

The other state that did get the concept was, of course, Italy- which lost its best guarantor of migrant restrictions when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered during the NATO intervention in his own country in 2011. With the rise of Islamic State in 2014, the refugee totals from Syria and Iraq reached historic proportions, while jihadist links between Syria and Libya grew stronger too, as we also predicted in March.

However, the major story of maritime refugees from North Africa to Italy in the summer was soon overtaken by the growing numbers crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece- a much shorter and safer route, with better logistical connections to the Middle East and Asia.

Italy is not relevant for Macedonian policy, but Turkey and Greece are. Once the migrant crisis began in earnest in June, two things became clear. One was that well-organized groups (both migrant smugglers and supposedly humanitarian NGOs) were working the Turkish Aegean coast and Eastern Aegean Greek islands, expediting the movement of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees. The second thing that became clear was that Greece had neither the capacity nor the interest to deal with them all, and that the EU was equally disinterested in providing solutions.

With no aid forthcoming from Brussels, and no cooperation from Greek authorities, Macedonia was thus left largely to its own devices. Thus from the very beginning, the country understood it would have to take responsibility for its own security and that Greece would continue ‘shipping the problem’ north unless its EU colleagues in Brussels intervened.

Hungary, on the northern end of the Balkan corridor, was the first EU country that had understood this, and decisions like building fences and using media to discourage migrants from coming were criticized sharply by more liberal European countries- though these measures have since been copied by the latter.

In the Macedonian-Greek relationship, it was only after the Paris attacks, and ensuing EU pressure, that some level of cooperation from the Greek side began. This caused great problems for Macedonian police who were not told when precisely to expect migrants, and in what quantities. According to official statistics, during the fall Macedonia recorded 9,000 cases of illegal entries or other incidents, such as migrant attacks on army and border police. This was not helped by events like a mass ‘clean up’ of Lesvos the day before Prime Minister Tsipras’ visit with his Austrian colleague in fall. It was important for Greek domestic politics, and EU relations that the government should appear to be in control of the situation. But on the receiving side, in Macedonia, the experience was a sudden and unannounced rise in migrant numbers overnight at the border. Once again, Greece was estimated to not be a stable partner.

Due to logistical problems, sheer numbers, and lack of cooperation from Greece or the EU, it proved very difficult to document incoming persons, though Macedonian and Serbian police have consistently tried to do so. However, the numerous ways in which deliberate misidentification could occur tend to make these efforts moot. What Europe has now is a ‘Generation Unknown,’ people who could be anyone and no one at the same time. This was an avoidable problem, had the EU been serious about addressing the problem from the beginning. For whatever reason, however, it wasn’t interested in doing so.

Strategic Thinking and the Macedonian Migration Response

Throughout the crisis, Macedonia’s main approach has been informed by the knowledge that northern countries would eventually close borders, and that the country should not end up as a holding pen for unwanted migrants trapped in between EU states to the north and south. So far, this scenario has successfully been averted by a combination of security measures and diplomacy.

In August, Macedonia declared a crisis situation (and not a ‘state of emergency,’ as has sometimes wrongly reported); it applies until June 2016 and will probably be extended if the migrant numbers show signs of once again increasing. Numerous local and international sources indicate that Brussels and some Western diplomats were surprised by this decision, and by the institutional (rather than political) execution of the national policy: they had assumed that because of the ongoing political crisis, Macedonia would be unable to mount a unified stance on migration, and that it would be relatively easy to force policies upon a small and weakened country.

Macedonia’s resolve has thus torpedoed unstated EU and UN plans for turning the country, and the Western Balkans in general, into a ‘migrant dump,’ as an abreaction to the bloc’s own failure to achieve consensus on migration policy. Of course, Macedonia and Serbia had been well aware of this ulterior motive since the beginning and took measures to stop it. A tacit foreign plan to create housing for up to 30,000 migrants (which a UN source confirms for will thus never happen, shifting the burden back onto Greece.

This is because of a strategic estimation frequently encountered in speeches by Macedonian leaders: since the migrant masses are coming from the territory of the European Union (Greece), the influx represents a potential security threat from the European Union itself. This unprecedented reality could affect the security of a sovereign, non-EU state. Macedonia therefore has understood the migrant crisis specifically in terms of sovereign law and in terms of security risks.

Institutional Implementation of Macedonian Migration Policy

Macedonia’s institutional response followed the law on crisis management, which mandates specific procedures. These procedures kicked in following the declaration of the crisis situation in August.

First, a risk assessment group delivered a report identifying security threats and risks to a crisis-management Steering Committee, which then gave its proposal to the president (commander-in-chief of the armed forces), the government (which has responsibility for finances) and the ministries of interior, defense, labor, transport and health, as well as to those municipalities affected by the crisis situation.

As commander-in-chief and head of the National Security Council, President Gjorge Ivanov then tasked the army with securing and protecting national borders and supporting police there. The fact that the state response was based on rule of law, institutional procedures and a broad-based number of individuals and groups eliminated the potential for politicization or partisan behavior. This would be crucial at any time, but particularly in the year of political crisis it became especially important.

After Paris

European perception of migration soon shifted sharply after the Paris attacks. It was clear that a pushback on inflows was imminent, not only because of terrorism but because of increasing politicization of the issue and domestic opposition in Germany and other European states.

Thus a Macedonian National Security Council meeting was called the day after the terrorist attacks in France. It was decided that when Croatia and Slovenia – pressured tacitly by countries north of them – indicated they would restrict the entry of economic migrants, Macedonia would follow suit. They did so on November 18. President Ivanov also reiterated a public call for Frontext to deploy to the Greek-Macedonian border, as would eventually happen.

Then, three days later, Macedonian police began to build a fence to better manage the flow of allowed refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while excluding other economic migrants. While certain foreign media breathlessly reported that Macedonia was ‘closing its border,’ this was never considered.

Rather, Macedonia sought to continue to channel the inflows through the plain of Gevgelija and straight up the highway to Serbia, and prevent irregular crossings elsewhere. In addition to the 9,000 illegal entries and incidents recorded in the previous two months, the discovery that 8,000 migrants had illegally crossed at Lake Dojran was a factor in the country’s decision to better protect its borders- regardless of what advocacy groups or other states might say.

The Key Role of Donald Tusk in Making Brussels Understand Macedonian Migration Policy

The only European Union executive who has made careful considerations of local reality has been Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has also played an engaged role in the last couple months.

When Donald Tusk visited Skopje on November 22 and met Macedonian leaders, he came away with a much more informed understanding of local realities, which is reflected in his official comments (below). He also became aware that an official request for EU technical assistance made by the interior and foreign affairs ministries had been stalled for over two months. Tusk, who had until then been unaware of the request, immediately promised EU technical assistance for the borders, which arrived the following Monday.

At the post-meeting press conference with President Ivanov, Tusk stated that “Like any country, you do not only have a right but an obligation to secure your borders.” This was the first statement made by any EU official to that point confirming the country’s sovereign rights, supporting the consistent state policy on migration. And, in comments perhaps meant for Greece, Tusk added that “I urge all countries on the transit route to communicate with one another as much as possible.”

President Ivanov, Foreign Minister Popovski and Serbian President Nikolic again met Tusk and his team on December 16 in Brussels. Serbia’s awareness of Macedonian policy has allowed it to play ‘good cop’ on the issue: “unlike Macedonia,” Nikolic stated, Serbia would be willing to house up to 6,000 migrants during winter. This clever diplomacy owes partly to the realization that with Macedonia manning the southern border, such hosting might not even be called requested. But it no doubt won Belgrade – which is opening accession talks – some points in Brussels.

At the same time, an informed Serbian source says that the costly and detailed efforts Serbia has made to database arriving migrants seems just for show; the EU “has not asked to check our database,” despite the danger of criminals and terrorists penetrating the country. The act of registering people is “just to slow the flows, so the northern countries have time to deal with it better.”

The Macedonian Advantage

Macedonia and Serbia have a crucial advantage over other European states: being outside of the EU, they are not bound by Brussels-enforced obligations, unless they agree to them. And UNHCR officials admit that international law on refugee and migrant issues is vague and can apply differently on a national level, in accordance with local law.

Macedonia, through its clear policy, seems determined to not become subject of any further experiments. It remembers full well that the last time it hosted larger numbers of migrants (during the 1999 Kosovo bombing), it never received promised reimbursement from NATO- but rather, was repaid by getting a war led from Kosovo two years later.

Because of its exclusion from the EU – something that is most often presented as a disadvantage – Macedonia enjoys the luxury of being able to choose its own migration policy. Unlike Serbia, it wisely also avoided participating fully in certain EU “mechanisms” that would take some control over migration policy in the interest of “the common good,” which would perhaps involve housing migrants and restrict bilateral cooperation initiatives.

Rather, Macedonia has taken the route of bilateral cooperation. It has invited police from several Central European and Balkan countries to help man the border- in addition to better policing, this means greater awareness of the real situation will be funneled back to more influential actors in Europe. There will be oversight of any possible discrepancies between Greek border registration efforts and general cooperation, since police from other EU countries will be reporting home what they see. This is an absolute nightmare for the Greeks, but the Germans as well, who are the main sponsors of the open-door migrant policy.

Zero International Leverage, Disadvantage Greece

Macedonia’s institutionally-grounded and non-partisan response to illegal migration from Greece has confounded EU and UN representatives, who had (wrongly) assumed it would easily succumb to demands, due to perceived weakness in a year of political crisis. However, foreign officials have consistently failed to understand that the leverage they assume they have over sparring local politicians has no effect on key state policies such as migration. Neither is there manipulation, stratagems or half-measures when it comes to migration policy: what you see is what you get.

While flummoxed by Macedonia’s unprecedented national unity, international officials have no influence here; unless they plan to sponsor a proxy war to destabilize the country, which is unlikely, they have zero leverage. This means their pressure will have to focus on Greece regarding migration matters in months ahead. Indeed, since Macedonia consolidated its position in late November, Greece began unhappily bussing some economic migrants back to Athens.

In the weeks that have followed, Greek police have moved to completely remove economic migrants (who had been blocking the border for refugees). They have also restricted access to media and NGOs that had been for months aiding the masses of migrants and refugees logistically.

Greece had expected that its power as an EU member, and the presence of a Greek (Avramopoulos) in the Home Affairs commission would inevitably mean their migrant dumping would continue indefinitely, and that Macedonia and Serbia would bear the brunt of it. When Greek media recently reported that the country’s problem was the existence of two sovereign states, Turkey and Macedonia on either side of it, these anonymous words were actually coming directly from Avramopoulos, who a Commission source says is “deeply frustrated” by the inability to change Macedonian policy.

Another, related thing that turned the tide against Greece happened at the second meeting with Tusk, in Brussels. This was a question that arose from the presentation of UN data about a sudden surge in Moroccan nationals attempting to cross the border in October. The block on economic migrants from November 18 had prevented many others from crossing the border, with the discrepancy reflected in UN internal statistics.

Greek authorities were tasked with investigating this, and soon discovered that a number of Moroccans traveling with false Syrian passports had indeed come through, and that several were presently stuck in Thessaloniki and nearby border villages. According to Greek security sources, they had reportedly been planning an armed attack on border police.

The possibility of Islamist attacks on a border where a pan-European Frontex mission was just deploying changed the tenor of the debate for Tusk and the Council. The border was rapidly cleared, and will finally be monitored much more carefully by the Greek authorities, who until recently had been content to let most people pass through largely unchecked.

The Frontex deployment is not popular among all Greeks, who see it as a violation of sovereignty. Yet here the country is trapped in a catch-22; Europe wants it to remain in the Schengen zone, but a condition for that is the ability to secure one’s borders. And this is impossible in maritime Greece because of the continental shelf/territorial waters debate with Turkey. The latter has cleverly offered to help police the seas with the Greek coast guard, but this is a non-starter as Greece does not trust Turkey’s intentions, considering its perceived predatorial behavior since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

As we reported in 2011, Greece’s migrant issue is ineluctably tied to its Schengen membership and euro participation- the latter being the issue that almost caused an existential crisis earlier this year. In fact, both issues are inextricably interwoven, considering the impact that removing Greece from the Schengen Zone would have economically (and for other European countries as well). In short, if Greece leaves Schengen, it also leaves the euro, and most likely, the EU as well.

What the country is therefore left with is a series of humiliations that will rile up both left and right-wing factions. With Frontex, it gets a foreign policing operation not of its choosing. There is also the requirement to serve as a migrant ‘warehouse’ for the indefinite future, as Tsipras recently alluded in the WSJ. ‘Hot spots’ and housing centers for tens of thousands are going to be a fact of life, stretching resources further, while criticisms of these mount from both the right and left-wing anarchists, as we have recently discussed.

Meanwhile, Greeks are extremely resentful that Turkey has been given over 3bn euros as a sort of award for facilitating the problem in the first place; only the most naïve of Brussels politicians would believe that Mr Erdogan will not continue exploiting his advantage to turn on and off the flow as he wishes. Greece is now left trying to strike deals to deport North Africans to Turkey, which further increases the political leverage of the latter.

Incidents like that at Palaio Faliro in Athens on December 12 will become more frequent in such centers: there, 100 migrants were detained for attempting to shake down other migrants for protection money. This behavior pattern, already established in migrant ghettoes in Western cities, follows ethnic and class differences, and is a microcosm for the future of European society wherever such people are massed in close proximity.

Expectations of such risks explain precisely why Macedonia refuses to host migrant camps. While there has been tremendous pressure from Brussels, and a sort of bribery attempt in which the country would be given money to house migrants, Macedonia will not let itself be exploited to shore up Angela Merkel’s controversial policy.

What to Expect in 2016: Consistency of Policy

This unexpectedly resolute stance may be the key factor in the EU’s eventual fatal policy fracture. Our analysis of an unchanging Macedonian policy, at least, is also supported by recent official statements.

The most significant document regarding Macedonia’s migration policy, and general state security policy, is the transcript of President Ivanov’s annual state of the union address before parliament on December 22. A close reading of this indicates that the present migration policy is going to remain the same going forward.

In his speech, the president noted that despite severe pressure coming from outside (the EU and UNHCR) the country would not house more than 2,000 migrants, and these on a temporary transit basis. “I have been defending this position at every meeting,” stated President Ivanov, “because every increase of these figures would mean a multiplication of security risks for Macedonia. And this we shall never allow.”

In addition to thanking Donald Tusk for his role, the president also confirmed that “even in conditions of political crisis and security threat, we did not allow the undermining of the security of our citizens and integrity of our country. We did not and we will not allow Macedonia to be a collateral damage and our citizens to be the sufferers of the consequences [of] the failure of European institutions.”

Judging from these comments and the president’s general emphasis on self-reliance – and political responsibility among politicians to fulfill the Przino Agreement – it is reasonable to assume that current policy will continue and be intensified.

The president also called for an increase in defense spending to meet future risks, which also indicates recognition of the need to take national security more seriously. This is especially acute considering that, while Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, Macedonia continues to be blocked by the Greek veto. Ivanov reiterated Macedonia’s main policy goal continues, as always, to be EU and NATO membership.

What Does Macedonia’s Consistent Migration Policy Mean for Europe?

Macedonia’s unchanging migration policy has two implications. The first is that it will build trust among partners, as the latter will known what to expect: there will be no surprises. Whether they agree with it or not, the EU and others will have to accept a clear and consistent migration policy. Despite some muttering, this will inevitably mean an increased level of trust in cooperation, strengthening the Macedonian image as an ‘honest partner.’

The second and more important aspect of Macedonian migration policy is that it will lead to an eventual broad migration policy alliance with Western Balkan and Visegrad Group countries; eventually, they will be joined by Romania and Bulgaria. It would not be surprising to see police from at least six Eastern European countries join Macedonian colleagues at the border. We can also expect the border fence to be expanded to other vulnerable, low-lying areas.

Depending on the weather, snow might help police by making it impossible for illegal crossings in the Belasica, Kozuf and Pelister mountain ranges, as well as parts of Galicica near Prespa. All indicators are that Macedonia will continue to restrict migrant inflows, following the decisions of countries to their north, and in any case will increase its border patrols across the southern frontier. One must never forget that this geographic region was the area of protracted sieges during the First World War and has historically been a defensive asset against invaders, for thousands of years.

There is yet another aspect of the migration crisis that will make Eastern European cooperation with a strong Macedonia on the front lines more appealing.

Aside from security concerns related to migration, some of these countries are indignant that their citizens were prevented from totally free movement and work opportunities in the EU, even after joining the bloc. For example, between 2007 and 2014, Romanians and Bulgarians did not have full rights, despite being EU members.

The ban was lifted in January 2014 (ironically, under the Greek EU presidency). At the time, the BBC reported that “some in wealthier western EU nations fear mass migration from the two countries.” With memories of this saga fresh in their mind, Romanians and Bulgarians can hardly be expected to show enthusiasm for mass migration from non-EU states. There is also anger that migrants in countries like Germany will be given financial support greater than the average salary for citizens of some Eastern EU countries.

The hypocrisy and double standards perceived will have a long-term negative effect on trust in EU policies.

Thus, the development of an Eastern bloc consisting of EU and non-EU states will affect the power balance in migration policy between Western and Eastern European countries. Germany, which has been insistent on other countries’ accepting designated migrant quotas, is increasingly going to be seen as obtuse and authoritarian, as it already is perceived in financial matters such as austerity measures.

The East-West policy divide has already been noted by media. In reporting that Hungary is now suing over migrant quotas, Deutsche Welle noted that “in September, when the quota system was agreed, Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania voted against the scheme. Their move highlighted a strong divide between western and eastern bloc members.”

Stress Factors for European Decision-Making

If another major terrorist attack in the style of Paris occurs, this will dramatically intensify national-level debates over real or perceived links between security risks and migration. At the same time, entrenched discord over member states’ policy will continue to build. In addition to the Eastern discord, there is also the potential for Brexit looming. Considerable internal lobbying in the year ahead will be devoted to these issues.

The question for Europe will be, in the end, whether the survival of the Schengen Zone is worth keeping Greece in it. Perhaps a mini-Schengen consisting of the wealthier states will eventually happen, which would be a hassle for many but would eventually suit the others just as well, considering that the majority of dangerous, terrorist-linked migrants already live in, or are headed to, these wealthy countries. Isolating such people within a walled-off mini-Europe would actually benefit the security of all other European countries.

Any deteriorating in Western security could cause a new ‘refugee crisis’: the exodus of young and skilled workers from Western countries to Eastern ones. Economic migration, the so-called ‘brain drain’ has also led hundreds of thousands to seek out their fortunes in the Americas, the Gulf and Australia in recent years. Now, onerous security restrictions, daily fear of attacks and an increasingly polarized and extremist-dominated political landscape could additionally influence young Europeans to seek new homes. Those who can’t afford or don’t want to relocate far away would find a warm welcome in the East.

Ironically, the Balkans – allegedly in a constant state of instability – might prove much safer for daily life than some Western countries in the future. With European leaders now warning for the first time that the whole European project might be nearing its death, the old Macedonian joke that ‘we will join the EU when the EU ceases to exist’ might actually be no laughing matter.

Trends in Contemporary Macedonian Politics and Society editor’s note: The current article, based on a wealth of recent interviews with insiders and many years of field research, provides a situation report on Macedonia’s current political affairs. It also analyzes how important international players have reacted to Macedonia’s so-called ‘democratic crisis,’ and what this may imply for future policy towards the country.

With the situation on the ground changing daily, there is potential for some modifications of expected results, but even in such a case, the deep background analysis provided in the second half of the article is useful for anyone wishing to understand the broader dynamics at work.

By Chris Deliso*

Since December, outside observers of Macedonia have been entranced by a faux crisis orchestrated by a political faction seeking foreign support for its cause. By involving themselves heavily but ambivalently in this drama, foreign diplomats have played into this factional strategy, whereas by either ignoring it or exerting maximum leverage at the beginning they could have resolved it by now. However, with local leaders acting in bad faith, the internationals are growing increasingly frustrated with the situation, one month before local elections are to be held on 24 March.

In this case, the faction seeking international attention and support is Macedonia’s largest opposition party, the left-wing SDSM, which seeks to regain power after seven years of aimless wandering in the political wilderness.

Most specifically, the individual seeking power through fomenting political crisis in Macedonia is SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski, who first served as prime minister in 1992. In so doing, he has put his personal interests ahead of party interests, and the national interest as well. Once known for his political craftiness, Crvenkovski has however become increasingly erratic, changing his demands of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and firing his own personnel on an almost daily basis. As numerous media stories and interviews attest, Crvenkovski is coming dangerously close to destroying his own party.

Turbulent Times

Diplomats are keen to know who or what is driving Crvenkovski’s apparent obsession with remaining in politics. (Many Macedonians believe he has been working directly for the Greeks for years; though it is not easy to prove, his party has always made the same criticisms of the government that Greece makes). In any case, the SDSM leader is relatively unpopular and deeply controversial among the public, and even representatives of his party have disapproved of his obstructionist strategy, as it is negatively impacting on their own political futures. In the past two weeks the murmurs of internal discord have turned into a rumble, as some SDSM mayoral candidates are refusing to follow Crvenkovski’s orders to boycott the local elections. The opposition’s smallest coalition parties, which have very little sustainability on their own, are also concerned, and in Skopje large sections of the youth wing are breaking away.

Thus what we are now seeing is an internal breakdown of support from more capable SDSM mayors like Stevco Jakimovski of Skopje’s Karpos municipality. On 16 February, minutes before the candidacy registration expired, he announced that he would run for a smaller, ethnic Serbian party. Other candidates may do the same and there is talk of heated internal meetings and a large-scale defection from Crvenkovski’s ranks to come, as the captain appears determined to go down with the ship.

At the same time, another theory being voiced is that it is all a charade and ‘independent’ candidates who bust the boycott will return to SDSM after winning their races. But it looks like there is now too much bad blood for that to be true, and even if they do so, the party will further discredit itself as being deceptive, meaning that the trick will backfire.

The SDSM’s next party conference is slated for May, two months after the elections. At that event Crvenkovski could be replaced for good, allowing a new generation of leaders, until now largely prevented from assertive action, to take control. If this does not happen, the party historically known for its propensity to splinter may fall apart completely.

One high-ranking SDSM insider, who is careful to defend Crvenkovski for now, believes that certain individuals are pushing him to remain in politics. “It is just a small circle of advisers and people around Branko- they need him to stay on, because without them, they themselves have no future,” the official stated for It is impossible to confirm whether this is true, though it does sound possible, albeit it is hard to imagine any of the people specified having the leverage to force Crvenkovski to stay in power. There may be larger business or other associates behind the decision or certain other concerns, but these are also impossible to confirm at this time.

So far, competent and influential SDSM members like former party president Radmila Sekerinska and Strumica Mayor Zoran Zaev have kept quiet; it is likely that they are waiting for the dust to settle before taking more direct action. Both would have a motive for upending Crvenkovski as he has reportedly double-crossed them and other promising young leaders in the past in hs own bid to stay on top. Zaev particularly appears to have leverage. “Without Strumica, Branko is finished,” said the party insider for, referring to southeastern Macedonia’s largest town and its traditional support for SDSM.

A Lack of Oxygen

The recent international excitement has centered on events since mid-December. These events have been understood in the context of upcoming local elections. Events thus discussed have included chronic protests from SDSM and a boycott on parliament and the local elections, ordered by Crvenkovski.

However, it is also being argued that these political shenanigans were actually part of Crvenkovski’s unorthodox campaign strategy all along- not some aberration indicating a democratic deficiency that required urgent attention. Whatever is the truth, international officials willingly took the bait. EU officials in particular have become heavily involved in a crisis that was largely rhetorical, blowing things out of all proportion. Now however, as Crvenkovski’s obstructionism has made it increasingly clear as to who is to blame, they have had to reappraise their initial ambivalent reactions, leaving the impression that they were til now asleep on the job or lacked proper information.

Historically, crisis has been the oxygen upon which Macedonia’s main leftist party breathes; when they were stronger and the situations more dire (as in 1994 and again during and after the 2001 war) the concept of crisis helped SDSM take power. Party leaders depicted themselves as sagacious and moderate, as the only ones capable of overcoming perceived threats to national survival. However, Macedonia’s unprecedented internal stability since 2006 (and particularly 2008) has deprived the opposition of its vital oxygen

“One of ‘Yesterday’s Men’”

Thus instead of reorienting itself towards a modern, issues-driven agenda, SDSM has spent the last seven years complaining to anyone who will listen that life is just not fair. This and many other internal party woes derive directly from the party rank-and-file’s chronic inability to diminish the influence of its longtime leader, though change is long overdue.

“Crvenkovski represents, as my grandfather used to call them, one of ‘yesterday’s men,’” said one veteran foreign observer of Macedonian affairs for “He learned his political gamesmanship from the previous [communist] system… now, he can’t seem to adapt to a changed world.”

Although Crvenkovski’s opponents tend to bore by overstating this, they do have a point. It is very important to remember that Crvenkovski became prime minister for the first time at the tender age of 30. Along with Albania’s Sali Berisha and Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović – two other controversial characters – he is the only major Balkan politician from that era still prominent today.

Thus, Crvenkovski’s entire worldview and political formation occurred in the now legendary and lurid time of ‘transition’ in which all role models developed from the then-recent Yugoslav way of doing business. In his capacities both as prime minister or president, between 1992 and 2009 the SDSM kingpin was in power for a staggering 13 of 17 years. Having known no other lifestyle than political dominance, and no other operating method than that espoused by Tito, it is not a surprise that since 2009 Crvenkovski has been both disturbed at the disruption of the ‘natural order,’ and has resorted to all methods to try and claw his way back into power.

Since December 2012, Crvenkovski has worked through provocations and obstructionism to win sympathy and to monopolize media exposure. These tactics have involved protests designed to incur a heavy-handed police response, verbal provocations meant to elicit combative rhetoric from their political rivals. However, this has failed almost completely, as the government has consistently said all the right things, calling for dialogue, international observation and transparency, while the police have been extremely restrained in handling protests. At the same time, these efforts are increasingly alienating important figures inside the SDSM, weakening Crvenkovski’s hold. For the first time, his political end might be on the horizon.

Event Focus, Result and Significance

The opposition has from late December focused all of its attention on immortalizing a single event, because the provocation strategy has resulted in literally nothing else worth highlighting since. This has failed to galvanize public support, though it amusingly captivated several naïve true believers from the international media and diplomatic worlds.

The grand event thus immortalized is now referred to simply as ‘the events of December 24th.’ By the solemnity in which the date is invoked by some, one would think it to have been on par with the collapse of the Berlin Wall or perhaps a famous battle that you could name a street after. It was neither.

This one partially successful provocation incident occurred after SDSM members on the parliamentary budget committee had for several days attempted, sometimes violently, to paralyze state administrative function and pension payments by blocking the 2013 budget. Such a result could conceivably have caused domestic unrest. This failed when the government met the opposition’s stated demands, conceding a record number of amendments, and the budget was thus passed on 24 December. This contextual aspect of the matter has been conveniently forgotten already by SDSM’s supporters.

A frustrated SDSM then provoked an incident in parliament leading to members and journalists being removed by security (this was filmed by a party member and circulated to party-friendly media). The party went into overdrive on the diplomatic circuit, depicting the incident before foreign representatives as yet another sign of totalitarian rule. This provided a pretext for Crvenkovski to denounce the government and announce street protests and his party’s boycott of parliament, and the elections.

Predictably, this grand drama set off a flurry of concerned diplomatic missives, fulsome media pieces and eventually visits from Brussels officials. The international media excitement was such that the British Foreign Office even called its local embassy to ask whether the country was still intact; local diplomats enjoyed a good chuckle and privately reassured them that no, things were pretty much normal as always.

The Europeans Wake Up

Through his obstructionism Crvenkovski was attempting to achieve one key goal in his longer-term plan of destabilizing the government: to ensure that Macedonia’s next EU progress report would be negative. The EU is now certain to reference the current political drama as a sign of backsliding; the big question, however, is to what extent the report will ascribe responsibility to SDSM, or to the country in general. Whatever the case, Greece will then cite the apparent incompetence of the ‘Skopiani’ to deflect pressure on Athens to negotiate on the name issue. And once again the EU will place the burden of resolution squarely on Macedonia, rather than on Greece.

If the ploy will have been successful, SDSM will therefore argue that the government is incapable of guiding Macedonia towards EU membership as it cannot resolve the name issue. Combined with a campaign of public violence that some SDSM leaders have already hinted at, Crvenkovski could hypothetically realize his destabilization dream (at least until very recent developments put that in doubt). However, even if he does, he lacks the internal capacity and unity to fill any void left by upheaval and could not likely create conditions for any sustainable alternative government.

However, after intense US diplomatic efforts to deal with the situation, the Europeans have shown uncharacteristic mettle and in recent days have indicated that they will in fact hold Crvenkovski liable, and not the country in general, at least for now. This represents a diplomatic defeat not only for Crvenkovski, but also for Greece. In a statement made on 19 February, the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok ‘condemned’ Crvenkovski’s boycott. “SDSM’s position is irresponsible towards its own country,” said Brok, according to MIA. “The whole country is made hostage by this party due to its own political reasons. In my opinion, the Macedonian government is not unprepared, but SDSM is.”

In the big picture view, Brok noted that “the domestic political goals of this party should not diminish the EU perspectives of the country. The socialists in Albania and their leader Edi Rama should not serve as an example.”

In addition, the MEP most often focused on the Balkans, Doris Pack, said that “the opposition’s behaviour is unacceptable and irresponsible. It ruins the image of the country serving as a proof that political maturity is lacking.” Other statements strongly critical of SDSM were made also by European MPs Richard Howitt, Monica Macovei, Eduard Kukan, Tunne-Väldo Kelam and Rainer Stinner.

This kind of determined stance is unprecedented for the usually weak-willed Europeans. It may indicate a growing EU desperation about the stalled enlargement process and the bloc’s external credibility. Like many other Europeans, Macedonians have doubts about whether the EU itself will continue to exist in the long-term in its present capacity, which helps explain why they have been so opposed to bartering away their national identity and name as Greece demands.

Thus, as elsewhere in Europe, future political and social trends in Macedonia broadly benefit parties that focus on real ‘daily life’ internal issues over vague internationalized agendas. Except for in localized areas, Macedonian voters have not given SDSM a mandate since 2002 and it is unlikely that they would do so nationally, as the party has not offered anything more appealing than what the governing coalition has already implemented. The apparent inability to understand this reality continues to leave certain foreign diplomats frustrated and confused at what they perceive as mental deficiencies in the Macedonian electorate.

The Domestic Political Scene: Opposition Strategy Broadly Benefits Ruling Party

For the Europeans to take such a stance indicates the existence of incontrovertible and visible evidence, as they are not typically known for bravery or deep interest in local situations. The events they have observed since December 24th follow.

After the SDSM boycott began, Crvenkovski became increasingly petulant and reckless, with his list of demands for returning to parliament growing ever stranger and more extravagant. It initially included the replacement of specific government ministers and even the head of national television with people approved by SDSM. He also demanded early parliamentary elections in conjunction with the scheduled local ones (though the result would be the same as in 2011, when Crvenkovski demanded early elections, was called on his bluff, and predictably enough lost). More recently, he demanded that the desired early parliamentary elections be postponed until April, to be followed by early parliamentary elections in June. Most recently, he demanded that the government must solve the name issue if they want him to drop his demand for early parliamentary elections. This kind of statement goes a long way to explaining why many Macedonians regard Crvenkovski as a paid Greek lobbyist.

The other tactic in this war of attrition, small-scale street protests organized by SDSM have been irritating commuters held up in traffic since late December. The opposition’s credibility was diminished early on with supposedly angry protesters laughing and joking with counter-protesters and police. Macedonians are just too easygoing to make decent protesters, it seems. Then there was footage of the SDSM leader marching in solidarity with former mortal enemy Ljubco Georgievski, prime minister from 1998 to 2002. The SDSM leader’s endless list of demands and protests in front of private businesses has inspired widespread ridicule. These mishaps have been presented on satirical shows and in Youtube mash-ups like this.

Crvenkovski and his perplexing array of demands and allies have benefited the ruling VMRO-DPMNE domestically, and now internationally. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been consistent in stating that early parliamentary elections will not be held, and that the date of local elections agreed by parliament cannot be moved. In a statement for MIA way back on 14 January, Gruevski pledged that his government is “fully prepared for the next local elections to be monitored by OSCE and ODIHR, and for the observing process to be enhanced as much as SDSM wish for and these organizations will agree upon. We are fully ready, if they still believe that something has not been done yet or is being uncompleted in regard to the Voters’ List, to be wrapped up, leaving no doubt about a possibility of unethical, illegal actions.”

Since then, the prime minister has presented himself as going out of his way to accommodate Crvenkovski’s wishes, even offering to prolong the deadline for party candidate registrations in the hope of coaxing SDSM to return to parliament last week. These kind of measured statements and actions do not give SDSM a whole lot to work with when accusing Gruevski of being a tyrannical dictator.

One vignette for future historians is that at the time of Gruevski’s pledge in January, American diplomats had concerns that despite the government’s good intentions in this regard, the OSCE’s election budget could end up being blocked at higher levels by Russia. This concern gave American diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis throughout January more urgency. In such a scenario, it was feared, the opposition might discredit the elections by citing alleged irregularities that could not be independently confirmed or denied due to an insufficient number of observers. However, the possibility of such a turn of events faded when the OSCE observer budget was passed on 7 February. So everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that a large number of temporary staff knowing little about the country will soon be paid exorbitant sums to come and watch the fun.

VMRO-DPMNE also consented to a proposal from national president Gjorge Ivanov, by which a mixed committee would be formed to investigate the “events of December 24th” an idea which the internationals also supported.  Crvenkovski, on the other hand, refused the president’s proposal. And so while Crvenkovski’s media face-time has involved bombastic speeches on the streets, Gruevski has acted so calmly and diplomatically that some observers have wondered whether he has hired a new PR team.

However, as the situation has become more pressing, he has also used more heated rhetoric, recently accusing Crvenkovski of being “more Greek than [Greek leader Antonis] Samaras” in his obstructionism of national interests. This kind of discourse is not unusual for campaign season and probably would have been used anyway, considering the two decade-long nationalist suspicion that Crvenkovski and his minions are surreptitiously working for Greek interests. Many observers note that a personal animosity between Gruevski and his older rival appears to have developed in recent years, and believe that this is making an agreement increasingly difficult to achieve.

The International Political Scene:  US Reactions and Internal Dynamics

The international mission that has acted most promptly and most responsibly during the target period has been the United States Embassy, which has throughout called on SDSM to return unconditionally and immediately to parliament. Although an initial statement on 24 December was a bit vague, an e-mailed joint statement of 11 January from the US Embassy and EU delegation in Macedonia was more forthright. It stated that “parliament is the primary forum for addressing and resolving issues and debate in a parliamentary democracy… we therefore encourage the opposition to return to Parliament to represent the large number of citizens who cast ballots in support of opposition parties in the most recent parliamentary elections.”

Referring to the government, the statement simply read “we equally encourage the government to take all possible steps to restore political dialogue, and to create the conditions for effective and transparent activity in Parliament.”

Crvenkovski had hoped for a public international response that would oblige the government to fulfill his conditionality demands for returning to parliament. This did not happen. Rather, the American response became more pointed, albeit in diplomatic fashion. On 12 February, US Ambassador Paul Wohlers implicitly referred to Crvenkovski in an official statement reported by MIA. “All sides involved, parties and individuals need to be looking carefully at what is in the best interest of the country as a whole and take steps in that regard to help the country, not necessarily what would help an individual party or an individual person,” the ambassador noted.

Much of the credit for even-handed US diplomacy at present can probably be attributed to Ambassador Wohlers, who comes from a diplomatic family and has a military background, as well as prior experience in the Balkans (including as DCM in Macedonia). He has displayed a quiet confidence since coming to Macedonia in August 2011 and (unlike several of his predecessors) does not allow emotional reactions to cloud his judgment or affect policy. Insiders say that Ambassador Wohlers (who most recently worked directly under ex-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as Deputy Executive Secretary), had been seeking out ways to convince Clinton to visit Macedonia on her final Balkan tour, which happened shortly before SDSM began its current obstructionism. However, Clinton did not find time to visit Macedonia despite visiting Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania on her trip. Now it can only be speculated as to whether a visit from such a high-ranking American official could have convinced Macedonian politicians to cooperate. Historically, the outgoing secretary’s non-appearance in Skopje will go down as a lamentable omission on her part.

Although diplomats have not commented on why Clinton did not visit, it is likely that there was resistance in the State Department from officials who simply do not like the Gruevski government, and who fear that it would depict any appearances with high-level American leaders as a tacit endorsement for their administration. The infrequency of high-level meetings between the two sides means that much of the VMRO-DPMNE government’s photo album is devoted to shots taken with leaders of (not insignificant) countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar and so on, as these are the states that receive top Macedonian leaders and who send their leaders to visit the country.

The present opposition to the government, Washington insiders say, has created an ambivalent attitude in US diplomatic orientation towards Macedonia. It will be interesting to see how this plays out during John Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state. Kerry is considered more moderate and is definitely more experienced with the Balkans than was the original candidate for the job, Susan Rice, but the Greek lobby has had more access to him in past than the Macedonian one. It remains to be seen what interest he will take (if any, considering the plethora of more pressing global concerns) in Macedonian affairs.

In any case, Kerry’s opinion will inevitably be affected by the interpretation of events presented by involved officials in the State Department. On the ground in Skopje, however, it seems clear that the even-keeled Ambassador Wohlers is fully in control of affairs and, as several Macedonian and American sources attest, that despite the ambassador’s quiet demeanor his influence in the State Department is considerable. When the ambassador says (as he did at a press conference after Obama’s re-election) that “Macedonia has no better friend than the United States,” it is clear that he is believes that he can back up that pledge.

Finally, it is important to clarify what seems to concern US diplomats, regardless of whatever internal intrigues may be going on. One of SDSM’s talking points about the ruling party is that it is tyrannical and a threat to democracy. US diplomats on the ground are not seeing signs of this on any meaningful scale at this time. What they are actually concerned about is that SDSM’s self-destruction would create a vacuum, resulting in the disappearance of any viable opposition party. Such a situation could perhaps resemble the 1994-1998 period in which SDSM was in power and VMRO-DPMNE kept up a boycott. Those were arguably the most disastrous years in the country’s short history.

“The loss of a credible opposition party, that kind of situation would mean that down the road, maybe in three to five years, power could end up centralized more than it is now and this could increase some people’s temptation to become more authoritarian,” one diplomat states for “This is why it is important that a viable opposition party exist, as a check on possible abuses in the system, and for the existence of other policy views. This is a message we want to send, for the good of all, though it is hard to do so directly without appearing partisan.”

The International Political Scene: European Approaches

The totally dissimilar dynamics between the American and European relationship with Macedonia have historically been reflected by their respective activities in the country; today, this can be seen in the quality of their respective reactions to the current political impasse. Despite some internal disagreements, the US can formulate a coherent policy based on a small handful of strategic interests (chiefly, ensuring regional stability). The fractious Europeans, however, have combustible common interests (economy, immigration, etc.) that impact on their perception of Macedonia and its place in the ‘European family.’ Unlike the US, Europe also sponsors partisan political relationships within the country; a plethora of MEP partnerships with local parties are related to the country’s imagined future accession to the European Union. This gives lobbying for and against particular Macedonian parties and issues a totally different dynamic when it comes to the Europeans.

It should also be remembered that with its historic obligation to oversee developing countries, the US puts itself in the line of fire whereas all other countries escape this attention. Whenever something controversial ‘happens,’ the US Embassy is duty-bound to make a statement, which inevitably leaves one of the sides thus scolded feeling put out. They tend to make these statements in tandem with the EU delegation (and, when things are really serious, like the other day, with NATO and the OSCE).

This means that there is a wall of isolation protecting countries like France and Germany – two countries most interested in internal affairs – which allows them to avoid having to take a public stance on anything. This is even more the case for outside powers like Russia, China and Turkey, which never comment on or criticize internal affairs, but more wisely just cash in on their investments, remaining friendly with all the locals. In such a situation, being the world’s sole superpower can seem to be a lonely and thankless task.

The situation with the Europeans is thus much more complex, and this has exacerbated the crisis, as there are different countries and political factions supporting either the government or the opposition.

Also (and unlike with the American relationship), Macedonian parliamentarians and partisan figures can and do go to the European Parliament and attempt to discredit their domestic opponents, getting support from their partisan MEP colleagues from other countries, which helps sustain the fractiousness of the relationship and delays common action. The amount of negotiating that goes into formulating a common response thus becomes more tedious and time-consuming for the Europeans (especially tough in the case of Macedonia, considering the extra factor of constant Greek obstructionism).

It has always been extraordinary that despite their geographical proximity to the Balkans, European diplomats have often seemed less objective and less informed than the Americans about local realities. Part of this is due to the negative stereotyping and sense of superiority that Western European diplomats often exhibit towards Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs, Turks and the rest. There has also been a stronger ideological component than with the American approach, as high-profile European diplomats in Macedonia with a strong affinity for left-wing ideology have displayed in recent years in supporting SDSM, such as the former EU representative in Skopje, Erwan Fouere, who was very supportive of the left-wing party, but despised by the general public. While conservatives have a major effect on in domestic politics in Europe, it seems that most of the diplomats the EU exports are liberals.

Here it is worth mentioning that there was a time, peaking between 2008 and 2011, during which the most active international diplomats in Skopje were heavily in the SDSM camp and wanted the party to take power. The amount of spite they felt for the Gruevski government, well, you could hear it in their words and see it in their eyes. The only problem was that the majority of ordinary Macedonians did not share their preference.

Learning from Turkey

Another interesting evolution in the Macedonian political dynamic is the degree to which its government has been influenced by the example of Turkey under Erdogan, whose own rise directly parallels that of Gruevski. This period has also seen an unprecedented expansion in political, business and cultural ties between the two countries.

European politics has produced an excess of true believers in a common EU future for Balkan countries, and this helps explain their historic frustration with Macedonia. All of the recent pleas for national unity and overcoming the ‘political crisis’ have been predicated on the stark warning that a failure to do so will imperil Macedonia’s EU future. The Europeans are frustrated, thinking this warning has fallen on deaf ears. Rather, Macedonians simply do not believe that their country will ever join the European Union, and they are presently taking their future into their own hands, as has Turkey, whose citizens have already given up on the EU. At the same time, both the Macedonia and Turkish governments continue to take advantage of the political and economic assistance coming out of Brussels, careful to not turn their back completely on the idea of accession.

At the same time, they are preparing to create their own distinct futures as Europe lacks the unity required to accept them. That the Gruevski government has learned from and is emulating the Erdogan government’s behavior in this area is the most important, though most unreported phenomenon in the common political development of both states in recent years. In the big picture, there has never been a time in recorded history when either of these geographical areas was ruled by Brussels and it is not likely to start now.

Euroskepticism Misunderstood

The EU’s perceived partisanship and failure to get Greece to negotiate in good faith has not gone unobserved by the Macedonian public, nor has the sort of language its representatives use in public discourse (‘your country,’ ‘FYROM,’ ‘the neighboring country’- anything to avoid saying the word ‘Macedonia’).

It has become all too clear that EU leaders – and they will tell you this openly –do not have, and have never had a Plan B for the Balkans other than EU absorption. The idea of making (or even discussing) other contingency plans is a kind of taboo in Brussels, though not privately among the national European leaderships that only pretend to have higher, unity-based ideals in mind. This impasse has continuously prevented the EU from implementing any kind of proactive diplomacy that would take local realities into consideration. And it means that the impending enlargement failure is going to result in some messy situations down the road.

In the case of Macedonia, the tunnel-vision approach of Brussels officials has influenced political perception in recent years. As one official in the EU delegation in Skopje tells “after 2006, the EU was shocked that the Gruevski government did not just bow down and worship them… they had become so accustomed to leaders from these small states obediently doing anything they might ask for.”

In most cases of accession countries, this perceived defiance has had less urgency. Macedonia (whether under Gruevski or Crvenkovski before him) has diligently sought to implement all requested EU reforms to the extent that the country exceeds present EU members on implementation of certain reforms (for one example, smoking in public spaces has been almost eliminated in Macedonia whereas it is still widespread in member states like Romania).

The single issue that separates Macedonia from all other aspirants is the name issue with Greece. Some EU technocrats can simply not process why the country’s citizens would want to retain their name and identity at the price of not joining their club. Perhaps they need to look more objectively at the state of their union, and their own personal national sentiments, and reconsider why Macedonians feel as they do.

Context: Post-Independence Political Development

In the end, regardless of one’s opinion on any of these actors or issues, one fundamental question remains: how did Macedonian political life get to where it is now?

Several key political divergences over time have caused the current situation. After Macedonia declared independence on 8 September 1991, the situation was similar to other contemporaneous ex-socialist or ex-communist states: while there were strong public sentiments for change from the previous system, the new nationalist movements were ill-organized and lacked capacity compared to the embedded communist leadership, which had personnel, connections and an overall superiority in leveraging power across the board. In the case of ex-Yugoslav Macedonia, there were also carry-over linkages with Milosevic in Serbia for a number of years.

In some contemporaneous cases, emerging nationalist and anti-communist parties were heavily supported by the West, particularly in places where communism had been most extreme (like Albania and Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party), thus allowing system override. In other, more obscure post-communist states like Georgia, unprepared new nationalist leaderships led to protests and even war. Caught somewhere in the grey area in between was Macedonia, the only ex-Yugoslav republic to break away peacefully- but during a period of wars all around it, and a diplomatic dispute with Greece that created a chronic low-pressure crisis dynamic in the country, one that lingers today.

Appearing near the end of Yugoslav rule in Macedonia was the new conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which fashioned itself nostalgically along the lines of the turn-of-the-century Macedonian liberation movement. However, while it had some public support it did not have the capacity or political experience to manage power. And so, in 1992 the 30-year-old Crvenkovski was appointed prime minister by parliament, following a technical government. In 1994, his SDSM won new parliamentary elections: these were very important elections because they were boycotted by VMRO-DPMNE, which was then led by Ljubco Georgievski.

The VMRO-DPMNE boycott decision may not have been responsible, but it would have a lasting impact on the future public imagination of the transition period. It meant that the nationalists would remain uninvolved with – and thus not be criticized for – all the contentious events that happened during that period. These included the 1995 UN negotiations that led to the humiliating interim accord with Greece, a raft of dubious privatizations that bankrupted state-owned entities, impoverishing thousands, the attempted assassination of President Gligorov, sanctions-busting fuel smuggling to Serbia, the TAT Bank pyramid scheme scandal and issues surrounding rising ethnic Albanian nationalism.

Crvenkovski and key SDSM insiders, like interior (and later, foreign) minister Ljubomir Frckovski have long been presented by their rivals as the key villains in these turbulent episodes, as sort of the scheming Burns-and-Smithers of modern Macedonia history. To this day, the VMRO-DPMNE references controversial events of the 1990s in its criticism of Crvenkovski and the SDSM in general. While many of the more lurid accusations against them will never be proven, at very least it can be said that during the period in question Crvenkovski built a formidable apparatus of business, political, judicial, academic, media and other allies that would prove greatly beneficial to his political ambitions.

Caught Up in Crises: 1998-2003

While the 1994 boycott thus gave the opposition plenty of ammunition, the VMRO-DPMNE electoral victory in 1998 under Georgievski proved a mixed blessing. The party still lacked capacity and strategic awareness, as was seen most disastrously in the short-lived diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, which led China to veto the UN border mission with Kosovo. This enabled ethnic Albanian paramilitaries to more easily smuggle arms and people across the borders, which would expedite their military capacities ahead of the 2001 war in Macedonia itself.

The government’s inability to end the war quickly, as well as divisive comments by both Georgievski and Albanian coalition ally Arben Xhaferi of DPA, led the West into the NLA’s welcoming arms. The result of the war was Macedonia’s total capitulation to Albanian demands and a quick makeover of the NLA into the DUI party that is still in government today. (Indeed, while SDSM accuses VMRO-DPMNE of running a ‘one-party state,’ it is actually DUI that qualifies more for this honor; it has enjoyed coalitions with both parties, and has now been in power for an incredible 11 of the last 13 years, counting the war).

After losing September 2002 parliamentary elections, the VMRO-DPMNE underwent a period of change capped off by the May 2003 election of Nikola Gruevski, the former finance minister, as party president. He took over from former party boss (and prime minister) Georgievski. The West, it should be remembered, was pleased about this development as diplomats considered Gruevski a typical easily-controllable technocrat with less of a nationalist sentiment than Georgievski.

At the time, there were concerns that Gruevski – who initially showed no leadership qualities and reportedly was not sure he even wanted to stay in politics – would be unable to keep the party in line. Challenges from his more experienced former boss, many diplomats feared, would cause the kind of splintering that could lead to more radical developments, or a repeat of SDSM total dominance. However, with time Gruevski asserted himself and pro-Georgievski elements within the party were replaced.

With Western leaders happy to see the peaceful inclusion of the NLA in the government and a functional opposition party under Gruevski, the path seemed cleared for the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement and eventual NATO and EU membership, even though the name dispute with Greece had not been resolved. It should be remembered that those were the years of Rumsfeld’s ‘new Europe’ and the ‘coalition of the willing;’ Macedonia had gladly contributed to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, winning it points with the Bush administration.

Yet just as VMRO-DPMNE had inherited problematic issues in 1998, SDSM experienced the disadvantage of leading a forced coalition together with the ethnic Albanian characters who had caused the war. This arrangement angered many Macedonians who saw the unholy alliance as further proof of capitulation to Western and Albanian demands. It also irked the ethnic Albanian opposition parties, who of course would have preferred to be in power. This prompted an occasionally violent relationship between the major Albanian blocs over the next few years, resulting in tactically flawed security operations by the government against breakaway Albanian militant groups.

Also taking criticism for the Ohrid Agreement was the late President Boris Trajkovski (the VMRO-DPMNE candidate in 1999) whose peacemaking efforts had put him in a very difficult position. His death in a mysterious plane crash on February 26, 2004, it can be argued, was the single most important formative event for today’s contemporary political development, because of the leadership displacement and structural imbalance it would lead to.

2004: The Decision that Would Change Everything

At the time President Trajkovski died, regular presidential elections were supposed to be held in autumn 2004. But with VMRO-DPMNE openly promoting a doctor, Sasko Kedev, as their likely candidate, media speculated that Trajkovski would not be running for re-election. The president’s unexpected death pushed things forward, resulting in an emergency election for which the incumbent SDSM was better prepared, especially considering that Kedev was a political unknown and would have needed months to be introduced to the public. SDSM leader Crvenkovski jumped at the chance to become president of Macedonia, and that fateful decision is what led to his party’s lasting malaise.

In Macedonia, an incoming president is supposed to relinquish leadership of or activity in any political party. Crvenkovski, however, quit in name only, never relinquishing his iron grip behind the scenes. Throughout the rest of SDSM’s troubled mandate, the government was characterized by infighting, frequent cabinet shake-ups and open disputes, which benefited only the nationalist opposition and Crvenkovski himself. Broadly speaking, the political dynamic between 2002 and 2006 saw a confused growth and retraction process, as SDSM stalwarts and other left-oriented politicians came and went, forming and dissolving splinter parties, being excommunicated and allowed to return to the fold- a phenomenon still being witnessed right now. While the party’s bickering was very much in the public eye, President Crvenkovski could wash his hands of the whole matter, as he was (nominally, at least) no longer involved in party politics.

This period was so decisive for events today, though no one has made this point, because the death of President Trajkovski forced something unnatural in Macedonia’s political progression. Whereas with most previous election the relevant parties underwent the typical transformations, leadership changes and reassessments that one would expect in a democratic state, this did not happen in the case of SDSM. Crvenkovski’s 2004 decision to prolong his personal political career through at least 2009 by becoming Macedonian president, and the ambiguity that this decision would have for party leadership, deferred indefinitely the sort of transformative period that is required for parties to remain relevant, anywhere in the world.

The Conservative Transformation after 2003

On the other hand, the purged VMRO-DPMNE under Gruevski became a totally different party than before. Although it had previously been partly reformed in 1998, with some foreign assistance, the 2003-2006 transformation was much more organized and focused, and its growth coincided with larger world developments.

The year after losing the 2002 elections, the International Republican Institute (along with the National Democratic Institute and several European peers, at the time the biggest democracy-building NGO in Macedonia) was involved with a study entitled Why We Lost. The booklet implied suggestions for the nationalist party’s future course. The new VMRO-DPMNE leadership, cleansed of the stigma of nationalist charges that had plagued the Georgievski government, developed its relations with conservative parties and NGOs in the US and Germany. Helpfully, George W. Bush, a Republican, was in office and had been a strong supporter and personal friend of the late President Trajkovski. With ideological allies in Europe and America, and a fractious incumbent government that did not make similar alliances with counterpart foreign political organizations on any meaningful level, the stars were aligned for a competitive center-right party to emerge in Macedonia.

Key Aspects of a Transformed Party

This internal transformation was marked by three key aspects. Understanding these points is vital for any understanding of how the ruling and opposition parties haven taken such wildly differing paths since 2003.

The first point was internal party discipline. The contemporaneous Bush administration was famous for its compartmentalization, discipline and lack of leaks. VMRO-DPMNE (no doubt, also noting how the incumbent SDSM was leaking like a sieve) saw the benefit of this. This defining characteristic has marked the party during its current period of rule since 2006. This has been aided by a relatively low personnel turnover in key positions. Despite having held three parliamentary elections since then, cabinet shuffles have been fewer in comparison to the upheaval that SDSM underwent in a single four-year mandate.

The second key aspect was that of political platform- arguably, the most important of all. This is where American structural input proved essential, together with indispensable German advice on where a center-right party in a state aspiring to join the EU should stand on issues. Previously, VMRO-DPMNE had lacked solidly fixed positions and made occasional disastrous policy mistakes (like the recognition of Taiwan) that affected their credibility. But as the party transformed into its new incarnation from 2003 onwards, it developed a platform with typical conservative positions on family, abortion, religion, national security, foreign investment, financial policy, taxation and so on. This was a platform that won the party few friends among American and European liberals, but it was at least a platform, which was an improvement. For the first time, the party offered a comprehensible and specific issues-based agenda that could demonstrably be compared with those of similar parties in other democratic countries.

SDSM, on the other hand, remained mired in its leadership and personnel intrigue and was stuck with the thankless task of implementing the toxic Ohrid Agreement. It succeeded in following EU reform instructions but did not successfully create a recognizable political platform, and has not to this day. Knowing what the party stands for specifically or who is in or out of it changes seemingly by the week. This is not a successful formula for political competition.

The third key aspect VMRO-DPMNE learned from its high-level foreign interactions was the benefit of using and interpreting polls and statistics, as well as media saturation with a constant repetition of their platform. These are tactics which are taught in college courses and accepted as common tools in a political party’s arsenal everywhere on earth. In conspiracy-prone Macedonia, on the other hand, it is depicted by opponents as a sign of some dark and ominous campaign to propagandize the citizenry. But while often criticized as boring, the party’s recitation of its achievements compared with its agenda through the media does tell the public that they are getting what they voted for.

The Party Tested: 2006 Elections and Beyond

The cumulative result of this was the foregone conclusion that Branko Crvenkovski no doubt saw clearly in 2004, when he jumped ship on his own party in the only way that was both honorable and profitable (i.e., becoming president of Macedonia). He would thus be spared the ignominy of having to lead his party to a second defeat in parliamentary elections that loomed only two years ahead. It should be remembered that a second defeat since 1998 would have put his leadership of SDSM going forward into question, as newer and arguably more adept challengers were then emerging and were supported by certain Western diplomats.

In the 2006 campaign, VMRO-DPMNE ran on its agenda, and blamed the SDSM for the perceived lack of economic and political progress in the country. The incumbents, for their part, did not have a discernable agenda and were hampered by the widespread view among Macedonians that aspects of the Ohrid Agreement – most contentiously, the territorial decentralization bill that the late President Trajkovski had refused to sign – were detrimental to the state, and would lead to eventual ethnic federalization or worse. The unpopularity of DUI’s retired ‘freedom fighters’ among average Macedonians also made it difficult for SDSM to campaign credibly with their incumbent coalition partners. And, as so often happens, people just wanted a change.

Assuring Security

The new government led by VMRO-DPMNE included a number of smaller parties and the ethnic Albanian DPA (whose members had engaged in violent election clashes with DUI members, blemishing the country’s international reputation). The ruling party put into practice everything that had marked its reformation. Unlike their SDSM predecessors, the Gruevski government ran a tight ship, was highly efficient, and minimized leaks, learning from the example set by the Bush administration in America. Crucially for his own safety, Gruevski gave high positions in the counterintelligence and customs administrations to cousins Saso and Vladimir Mijalkov. Crvenkovski, on the other hand, had always chosen party friends or other allies for such positions. In a small and tribal Balkan society, trust is a rare and valuable commodity, and it is unsurprising that Gruevski would make such a decision. SDSM has frequently characterized such appointments as nepotism, but no one has ever considered the logic of the decision in the specific context of Macedonia.

A popular-culture narrative perception of trend deriving from specific historical events may have influenced Gruevski’s decision, though this has never been confirmed. The Mijalkov brothers’ father, Jordan Mijalkov, had been Macedonia’s first interior minister when he died in a mysterious 1991 car crash in Serbia. Four years later, President Gligorov was almost assassinated by a bomb that left him blind in one eye. In 2004, President Trajkovski died in a plane crash which many Macedonians suspected and still suspect was no accident. And God knows how many other Balkan political leaders have been targeted (Milosevic, by MI6) or killed (Djindjic, by criminals). In this context, it is not hard to understand why anyone stepping into power in such a place would immediately move to ensure their personal safety.

It is not known whether Gruevski also shared the popular perception of a narrative of violence against leaders in Macedonia. But it is fact that in 2006, the incoming prime minister was up against two potentially dangerous forces: Crvenkovski, popularly dubbed “a wolf in fox’s clothing,” who as president oversaw the foreign intelligence agency and had numerous powerful business and political allies elsewhere; and DUI, the former Albanian paramilitary party with strong Kosovo connections, a group who were very angry that Gruevski had chosen ethnic rivals DPA for the new coalition, despite that the latter had won fewer votes than had the DUI.

In this context, it becomes very reasonable to assume that a fledgling Macedonian prime minister who had available guaranteed resources to assure personal and national security would utilize these. Since 2006, Macedonia has generally enjoyed domestic stability, multi-ethnic police operations have occurred, (now) two ethnic Albanians have served as defense ministers, and there is increasing cooperation with Western countries and agencies in military, intelligence and police capacities.

The Agenda in Practice

After 2006 elections, the new prime minister concentrated on executing the bold new agenda. It also quickly became apparent that he would not be nearly as malleable as the West had assumed when observing his ascendancy to VMRO-DPMNE party leadership in 2003.

Again following conservative American and German examples, the VMRO-DPMNE became highly focused, compartmentalized and more adept in using statistics, poll data and media saturation to remind the public of their agenda. Perhaps following the example of Tony Blair in Britain, Gruevski emphasized his supposed frugality and down-to-earth character by dwelling in a small apartment. His hard-working nature was also played up, with the public shown how he would typically work until at least midnight every day. Most of all, the specific issue that the prime minister and his cabinet focused on was attracting foreign investment, and this has remained the same today. Since 2006, Gruevski has wagered his entire government on the investment-first policy, which was a daring venture since results would need time to manifest. This impetus has led to some hasty decisions and mistakes but overall as of 2013 the government still finds the results more positive than negative and promotes the policy heavily.

A large part of this policy was the announcement of the Invest in Macedonia campaign, which resulted in the creation of new offices in strategic world cities. The conduct of this campaign and its expense has been criticized by the opposition, so the government tends to cite new investors when they pop up to show that the policy is working. At very least, the outreach has led to numerous new contacts in previously unexploited investor markets, which can have political implications too in terms of foreign support for the government.

This is manifesting today in heavily-promoted investment schemes from countries as distant as America, Qatar and India. Turkey is also an increasingly important investor, China provided the city’s imitation London double-decker buses, and Russian leaders talk of including Macedonia in the South Stream pipeline project. At the same time, Western aid programs and NGO funders are leaving for the more lucrative markets of the war-torn Middle East and Africa. It is clear that in the current global financial climate, Macedonia’s economic development is going to be influenced by non-Western powers, and this cannot fail to have some political ramifications as well.

Along with developing more economic ties and institutionalizing the investment agency, the nationalist party also acted to its advantage by passing a law creating three parliamentary seats for persons from the diaspora. Since such people are (in the case of any country) often more nationalistic than the nationalists at home, this essentially guaranteed that VMRO-DPMNE candidates will win these seats for the foreseeable future. To this the opposition could only argue over technicalities, since it would have been unpatriotic to prevent diaspora Macedonians and Albanians from voting.

The Development of a Macedonian Lobby

The ruling party has also benefited from these foreign connections with the contemporaneous development of an effective Macedonian diaspora organization. The United Macedonian Diaspora, originally funded by (and currently housed with) the Turkish Coalition of America in Washington has proved invaluable in getting Macedonian issues on the agendas of lawmakers and diplomats around the world. For the Turkey lobby, their Macedonian allies are useful self-starters who can help counterbalance the power of their own rivals (the Greek, Cypriot and Armenian lobbies). The Turks are teaching the Macedonians all they know about lobbying, and it is bearing results in the steady increase in membership of the new Macedonian congressional caucus in the US, and the frequent announcement of new regional branches.

While it has less influence than the long-established Greek lobby, the Macedonian diaspora is putting constant attention on its interests and (as an unabashed nationalist organization) can frequently do so in ways that are more right of the ruling right-wing party in Skopje. An example was the UMD’s call for the abolition of the 1995 Interim Agreement with Greece, after the latter violated it by vetoing Macedonian NATO membership in 2008. As has historically been the case with Macedonian conservative parties, the lobby also tends to have strong Republican contacts, though it is aware of the need to attract bipartisan support. By banding together with Turkey, it can afford to do things previously impossible and that even the government would have difficulty doing, such as when it brought several congressional staffers to Skopje in 2012 as part of a larger trip to Turkey. (In a press release of early 2013, the TCA announced that it had become the fourth-largest funder of Congressional travel in 2012).

The existence of a diaspora lobby development thus broadly favors the ruling party’s interests as they are similar with what patriotic diaspora Macedonians support. At the same time, however, the lobby’s national unity principles mean that it is obliged on the domestic front to call for dialogue and moderation, as in the current political crisis. This is broadly contiguous with the State Department’s modus operundi, meaning that the latter don’t quite know what to do with these nationalist-but-moderate diaspora Macedonians. It is a frustrating conundrum for State Department officials personally opposed to the Gruevski government.

History, Archeology and Urban Construction

As a center-right party, the VMRO-DPMNE also took an interest in something that is associated more with European conservative parties than with American ones- history and archeology (possibly, this discrepancy is because America’s history is so short). Again, in the interest of context, it should be remembered that when SDSM came to power in 2002, the incoming culture minister, a theater director, openly declared that his mandate would focus on culture that was ‘living, not dead.’ Thus until 2006 archeologists were largely sidelined and Macedonia’s rich historical past ignored. Perceiving the need to restore balance thus definitely played a part in the government’s 2006 decision to promote national heritage by devoting unprecedented funds for archeological digs. Since focusing on history would be normal for any European conservative party, this should come as no surprise- especially considering Macedonia’s unique case, by which its historical heritage and identity remains challenged by neighbors Greece and Bulgaria on a daily basis.

This unique situation proved beneficial for the conservative party. It could then proceed to execute contiguous projects like the Skopje 2014 urban transformation, which has generated controversy, withering attacks from the left, and a tendency among bemused foreign sociologists and pundits to infer symbolic meaning and interpret the unique psyche of this strange sample population. The project has led to plenty of lazy journalism, inspired searching PhD theses, spawned nervous seminars on architectural rightness and led foreign diplomats to fits of hyperventilation. But while people focus on, say, symbolic ownership of terrain with statues of Alexander the Great, they ignore marks of real ownership, as with the towering new T-Mobile building nearby. Nor are historical newspaper clippings from the time of other European historical construction urban plans of the past ever referenced, though such an endeavor might reveal similar patterns of discourse from opposition parties (cost of project, aesthetic taste of project, relative value, of project, etc.) in those places at times of urban renewal.

Instead, foreign journalists have become so accustomed to displaying their own sense of social superiority in prose that they have ignored the real issues associated with Skopje 2014, such as the more expensive accompanying ‘Albanian’ square which is presently being built across the river (in Macedonia, ethnic coalitions always share). It will cross over a major artery and reach the university and national library. Assessing what this means for future traffic patterns, potential symbolic and other constructions there, and the potential for protests reaching past the church, the Vero mall, the National Bank, the bus/train stations and into the Aerodrom neighborhood are not yet of interest to intelligence agencies, let alone journalists.

Again for some context, it should be remembered that the whole concept of a symbolic statue program was in fact started by the Albanians, and Macedonian nationalists thus see a corrective element in their current actions. Not long after the war, a whole NLA memorial site was built near the village of Slupcane, north of Kumanovo, which offended Macedonians ethnically cleansed from the area by the NLA. Little children going to school in Tearce, near Tetovo, are greeted every morning by a statue of a heavily-armed NLA ‘freedom fighter.’ The soon to be ex-mayor of Struga, Ramiz Merko of DUI, began his mandate by promising to erect a statue of a dubious ‘Commander Djoni’ whose actual military experience was uncertain at best (the UNDP head at the time reportedly told Merko that all funding for his city would be cut if the project went ahead). Most famously, in 2005, DUI erected the statue of national hero Skenderbeg on horseback, near the Mavrovka shopping mall and the area that will become the new ‘Albanian’ square.

The Battle for Strategic Influence

At bottom, what this all amounts to is a phenomenon that predated the current government and that will outlive it, and in time be known as the largely silent but determined struggle to achieve strategic objectives in the city of Skopje. Involved are not only Macedonians and Albanians, but also foreign companies and governments. Taken together, the cumulative developments in this light are of a much broader nature, far more significant than the current government’s project on its own. Thus assessing the latter alone without this larger context risks missing the bigger picture of what is at stake.

Part of this seems driven by other historical precedents. The new United States Embassy, for example, is a massive structure overlooking the city from an isolated ridge- just down from where the Turks once reigned at the Kale Fortress. Over the years locals and foreigners alike have constantly remarked at its size and locations, with staff cracking jokes about the supposed ‘15 underground floors’ rumored by conspiratorial local media. The official explanation is that its bulk owes to a post-9/11 directive from the Bush administration to create more secure embassies. Certainly, in the case of future ethnic turbulence, the US will have achieved that objective.

The expansion of large shopping malls is another phenomenon noted in recent years, with the first of those (Turkish-owned Ramstor) actually predating the current government. Although it is not clear where all the new shoppers will come from, this is apparently seen as a good enough business that larger European entities (most recently, Carrefour) have decided to move in to the newest construction, Skopje City Mall in Karpos. Alas, rumors of Starbuck’s entering the country – which cynics would see as guaranteeing Macedonia’s future stability – did not materialize there. The Greek supermarket chain Vero, the first to have come on the scene years ago, now has four locations in Skopje. The municipality of Aerodrom awaits a promised Turkish investment of unprecedented scale- a 30-story shopping and commercial mall.

Part of the government’s building program of the past few years has also looked to national strategic interests in building prestige. Previous to the construction of the president’s expansive Villa Vodno, the national president had occupied the proverbial broom closet in the parliament. And the ministry of foreign affairs had been in an uninspiring rented building. Developing the new presidential palace and the under-construction MFA building is a means of leveraging influence and increasing national visibility. Currently, President Ivanov hosts numerous foreign delegations at the Villa on a regular basis and this setting leaves a much better impression on the country (and results in better press photos, too). But since so much of the focus of criticizing construction in Skopje has centered on ‘antiquization’ and historical issues, people tend to ignore the subtle but functional underlying aspects.

A social trend with significance for the future is the pattern of expansion of Albanian and Macedonian presences across the city. The tired depiction of Skopje as a city ‘ethnically-divided by a river’ is less relevant today than ever. Albanian voices can be heard everywhere, and increasingly affluent Albanians looking to escape the chaotic clutter of their own run-down neighborhoods move or work in traditionally Macedonian areas. At the same time, Skopje’s Ottoman old town, the Carsija, has become more contested in recent years. In the 1990s, this picturesque area was popular for dining and nightlife but after the war became less frequented by Macedonians, and while not unsafe at night, it was also not very lively.

This changed when a Macedonian-Canadian businessman opened several drinking and music establishments around 2008 that helped make the area a fun option for Macedonians and foreign tourists alike. And more and more Turkish culture and music can be heard in the area now too. As of 2012 there was even an American-owned bakery in the Albanian-majority neighborhood. Local Albanians are starting to come around to the idea of tourism development too, with some investment from the local (DUI-controlled) government.

These developments challenge the notion that the two ethnicities cannot coexist peacefully, with the ‘danger of ethnic tensions’ long having been one of the SDSM’s favorite talking points for justifying why it should be returned to power. The only really important question is whether the pace of modernization will be sufficiently quick to bring the city’s Albanian population to a point where aggressive nationalist protests no longer can attract significant followings. This depends largely on trends in technology, education, urbanization and consumerism, and whether the Albanian political parties and Islamic factions choose to display more maturity in how they manage their internecine power struggles. It has basically nothing to do with the Macedonians.

Outsmarting the Opposition: Absorption of Leftist Issues

Returning to political developments after 2006, it is important to remember that the VMRO-DPMNE not only advanced its own issues, it also appropriated those more commonly associated with the left such as the environment, youth issues, social benefits for women and the elderly, and even economic policy. In short, almost everything typically associated with a left-wing party like SDSM was instead appropriated by its conservative rivals, in ways that made it incredibly difficult for the opposition to attack without making it appear as if it was acting against national interests.

This reality has caused incredible frustration among SDSM members who feel that whatever they say they will be depicted as unpatriotic; the political mistake they typically make then is to attack the concept of patriotism itself rather than critically assess why they failed to capitalize on specific issues that should have been theirs from the beginning.

This trend has thus continually backfired on SDSM in recent years and added to the party’s pre-existing reputation for cynicism and blue-blooded elitism. The SDSM criticized the government’s plan to give mothers with three children or more an annual stipend, but did not give any better ideas for alleviating rural poverty. The government also took on youth issues through modernizing orphanages, refurbishing the city zoo, and particularly through a focus on sport, with the building of the modern Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall, the refurbishment of Skopje’s swimming pools, and an increased highlighting of the national teams in different sports.

The last has become one of the biggest derivative successes of the ruling party’s policy because the opposition, in publicly disavowing the Skopje 2014 project as excessive nationalism, has also disassociated itself from displays of national pride associated with sports. Thus opportunities were handed to the government to take advantage of positive outbursts of public sentiment, for example when organizing the parade and celebration for the men’s basketball team when it finished fourth in the European Championships (and would have done better, save for some dubious calls by the referees). While the opposition party offered congratulations it could not take credit, and was yet again frozen out of Macedonian life’s great feast.

Additionally, while there have been plenty of specific cases about which the left wing could have attacked the weakness of any particular investment project for environmental reasons, they have failed to do so. On the other hand, the ruling party was receptive to ideas such as that of renowned opera singer Boris Trajanov, who envisioned an annual tree-planning event for the sake of ecology several years back. The whole thing was particularly amusing because even leftist ambassadors who despised the government had to grit their teeth and get on board, because this was the kind of cause they were supposed to support ideologically.

Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, the government has merged economic policies associated with both conservatives (such as low taxation and foreign investment incentives) as well as liberals (like state subsidies for industry and public spending to fuel growth) in implementing its agenda and steering clear of the economic malaise all around it. In a campaign comment, Prime Minister Gruevski recently said that the Skopje 2014 project would be ‘extended to 2017’ in the sense that urban renewal of smaller cities and towns will be executed. In short, there are no typically conservative ‘austerity measures’ here (the kind that are ruining EU countries at the moment). Already, the overhaul in Skopje has proved infectious, with mayors in Prilep, Bitola and Strumica vying to outdo one another by beautifying public spaces.

The government defends this economic policy by arguing that public spending on construction and other initiatives is pumping more cash into the economy as workers spend it, and that subsidies for farmers have helped boost exports. Whether this is sustainable in the long-term is unknown, though up to now Macedonia has escaped the crisis largely unscathed, while just to the south previously affluent Greeks are foraging for scrap metal to sell to crime rackets in order to survive. The Macedonia government’s investment outreach to non-European countries may help it diversify exports and investments and make sure that it remains stable going forward.

SDSM Policy and Leadership Failure

To put it simply, since 2006 elections SDSM has engaged in only two things on a regular basis: opposing governmental policies and proposals out of hand, and complaining to international diplomats and media. Having plenty of free time on their hands has allowed opposition figures to make some progress on this front, especially with leftist true believers. However, the continued volatility of the party has seen members come and go to the extent that it is not only unclear what SDSM stands for, it very often is not clear who is even in the party at any given moment. As such, ideas for possible corrective initiatives (such as the very British tradition of opposition parties forming a ‘shadow cabinet’ to highlight their platforms) remain impossible to implement, though they have been discussed.

Again, to a large extent this result is the outcome of the events of 2004. Whereas VMRO-DPMNE shed its skin and emerged as a new party, SDSM was kept in a sort of purgatory; while nominal leaders came and went, it remained under Crvenkovski’s tacit control while he occupied the national presidential office until 2009. During the local and parliamentary elections of 2005, 2006 and 2008, Crvenkovski was not (at least not officially) in charge of the party. This was precisely the period in which the young leadership of the SDSM should have displaced the old guard.

Instead, Crvenkovski’s ‘absent presence’ ensured that there would be no clear successor, and thus that he could return to the party in 2009; knowing that he would not likely win a national presidential re-election campaign by that point, he would not even try. In the interim elections, some people were put in charge of races or campaigns in which there was little chance of SDSM winning, to damage their credibility but keep them without other options.

That is what happened to people like Radmila Sekerinska, who for a time seemed to represent a new generational leader. Another young hopeful, the popular Strumica mayor Zoran Zaev, who unquestionably has done good things for his city, was given the ‘kiss of death’ by Crvenkovski when he received a presidential pardon from corruption charges levied by the government, thus preventing him from having to publicly clear his name and probably become more popular in the process. These are the tactics of internal political control used in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and today Crvenkovski is among the last practitioners of the craft.

And so not only did Crvenkovski’s ascendancy to state president in 2004 hinder his party’s transformation then, it has also traumatized and damaged the first generation of young leaders after him, reifying the total cynicism that has always marked it, meaning that the party now has to look even further down in its depth chart. However, after years of isolation from power and the Balkan patronage system that typically replenishes party viability, SDSM has no depth. It has fewer members, less money, and as such is forced to make various compromises, to rely on local personalities with dubious underworld ties, and to be defended by hacks who have always been public apologists for the party and thus have zero credibility among average Macedonians.

Tactical Successes and Failures in Media Issues

During the 2006-2013 period, the SDSM’s tendency to criticize government decisions out of hand and to side with anyone who is opposed to the government has succeeded with foreign media and diplomats, largely because the people they approach share their ideology and prejudices. In the big picture, the SDSM has been much more successful at winning support internationally because it has had a head start since the 1990s (several prominent foreign Balkan pundits over a certain age tend to sympathize with it), and because historically it has spent more energy on the foreign media than has its nationalist rivals. The leftists have developed good contacts abroad and generally continue to show greater interest in foreign-language media than the ruling party, though the gap might shrink due to the efforts of the aforementioned diaspora lobby, which advocates for Macedonia as a country and therefore supports whatever the country’s government of the day has on its platform. And, as stated above, the lobby has not tried to adjudicate in the domestic party squabbles but rather taken the high road by urging all parties to work together for national unity.

Nevertheless, the foreign media efforts of the ruling party itself continue to be characterized by caution and to focus particularly on business- and investment-related topics. The prime minister and other top leaders do not seem keen on wide-ranging interviews in foreign media, and comments from officials are carefully monitored. Perhaps this has something to do with the original formula for government unity based on Bush Administration strategy, but the drawback is that it does make the party seem rather dour. There may be a confidence issue here, as government officials seem much more relaxed when speaking before domestic media and in their own language than they had abroad and in English.

Domestically, SDSM’s tendency has backfired several times in the local media, where its support has gradually dwindled to a few party hacks. One of them recently admitted what everyone already knew – that the neo-liberal Soros Foundation directly subsidizes NGOs and related interests (the longtime head of the Soros Foundation in Macedonia, Vladimir Milcin, was previously on the SDSM executive board). An interesting contemporary issue with Soros-funded NGOs and media throughout the Balkans is the current frustration from a generation of persons who have over the years developed a sense of entitlement, having received constant funding infusions from the NGO internationale.

However, now that there are more lucrative conflict zones elsewhere in the world, these bodies are leaving their Balkan protégés high and dry. This is being perceived in direct political terms, and ironically not always by the nationalists; as one SDSM Central Committee official tells, “if Soros wanted, he could help us overthrow the regime… but he only gives one million euros a year now!”

The most significant single miscalculation of public support that SDSM has made involved the case of A1 TV media mogul Velija Ramkoski. Turning the controversial businessman’s alleged tax evasion troubles into a sort of crusade for free speech, the party held protests and vigils in front of his station headquarters and the government, while petitioning all the foreign diplomats. Sympathetic reporters were sent to press conferences outside the government building where they would bark wildly at Prime Minister Gruevski, inches from his face, about the supposed lack of free media. Then they reported all this through… the media.

The party overestimated the support that Ramkoski had both with the public and crucially, international diplomats. What SDSM failed to understand was that the majority of people recognized Ramkoski as a businessman, not an ideals-driven martyr for free speech. They also failed to appreciate that he had made enough enemies among local and foreign businessmen that few outside of his own family were prepared to defend him. Regular people could not take the whole thing seriously, recalling Ramkoski’s failed run for parliament and that he had seemed to have been on the side of the government, running emotive black-and-white photos of the 19th-century Macedonian revolutionaries when national fervor was at its peak, after the Greek veto at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit. Whatever falling out the two sides may have subsequently had was assuredly not related to lofty issues of free speech.

In retrospect, it appears that SDSM was partially banking on the popularity of A1 as an entertainment medium, and thus that loss of access to it would anger the public. What actually happened was that the wildly popular Turkish soap operas that had become the station’s flagship programs over the previous two years simply migrated to other stations. The big advertisers like the telecom companies and international brands moved to other stations too. And allegedly persecuted A1 journalists simply found jobs in other media or, in two cases, became ‘independent’ parliamentarians. The only things that stopped were the advertisements for Ramkoski-related business interests.

The typical coverage of the whole A1 episode has missed some subtle but important points. The station was indeed the most-watched in Macedonia at the time. But this was arguably due to its often sensationalistic news coverage, better-than-average Hollywood film selection, prominent European football matches and the all-important Turkish shows. Today, the generally pro-government (but less sensationalistic) Sitel TV airs the most popular Turkish serials. As was the case with A1, it typically bookends evening news programs with these programs, drawing more people of a certain demographic to watch their news programs, because they want to be on the right channel when the show starts.

In the bigger picture, it is thus the entertainment tastes of the larger Macedonian public that dictates the impact of news media and pricing of advertising. This is not some profound mystery and it has nothing to do with media freedom. In fact, since the demise of A1 (which was reborn as a website), innumerable new TV stations have been opened and the popular TV and internet packages offered by companies like Germany’s T-Home provide access to dozens of channels from numerous countries, far more than at any time before. Adding the internet into the picture as a source of news, it becomes clear that media influence in Macedonia will depend less and less on any single media body in the future. As it becomes more and more dissipated, media influence will also become less easy for political parties to control.

Finally, it should be said in this context that there has been significant foreign interference in domestic media over the years from outside parties, including the EU, US and individual countries. All of these attempts have failed to professionalize journalism, though they have allowed foreign powers a certain degree of local influence. This has created a situation in which the free market does not dictate the viability of a publication, as many (such as the former German WAZ holdings) have operated at a substantial loss. As one now retired European diplomat professed for, “our embassy funded a total of 43 programs for local media over the years. All of them failed.” This is less an indictment of local media capability than of those who believe that it should be manipulated for their own outside interests.


Macedonia’s contemporary political and social developments did not happen overnight and one must be careful to separate the real formative trends from emotive and uninformed characterizations of short-term phenomena or events.

Foreigners especially have long had a tendency to believe that Balkan history begins at the time of their personal interaction with it. It is something we have all experienced over time, yet serious analysts consider and try to learn from this observation.

Since the previous two months have seen some of the all-around dumbest foreign media pieces on Macedonia in recent memory, it is hoped that the present study will provide educational for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Macedonia, and possibly therefore to understand where it is headed and why.


*The author is director of and has monitored Macedonian political developments as the Economist Intelligence Unit field expert in Macedonia, on a monthly basis, for the past nine years.


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In Eastern Macedonia, a Lost Fortress of Justinian

By Christopher Deliso*

High on a windswept ridge in Macedonia’ss barren northeastern expanse, some 17 kilometers down a rough dirt track heading towards Kratovo, it stands as a cryptic reminder of the country’ss still largely undocumented past: the rocky remains of what was once an important outpost in the Early Byzantine imperial hinterland.

Nevertheless, the lack of specific references in Late Antique and Byzantine sources means that we may never know what the name of the settlement or its fortress actually was- a tantalizing omission that could only be resolved “by epigraphy finds, which we so far haven’st encountered,” says Dr. Carolyn Snively, an archaeologist and professor from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. For the last decade, Dr. Snively has been working jointly with international and Macedonian experts, supported by local workers at Konjuh- in the process, shedding light on this little-documented period of Macedonia’ss remote history.


The lost fortress of Justinian at Konjuh had a strategic vantage point on a central ridgeline overlooking farmland and probably an iron mine (Photo: Christopher Deliso)

Recently having arrived back in Macedonia, Dr. Snively will soon lead excavations into an eleventh season of work. The dig will last from May 28 through August. Earlier today, she shared some insights and projections for this season’ss upcoming work with

Background and Significance

The Konjuh site was originally discovered in 1938, but only worked on extensively during the 1970s by Yugoslav archaeologist Ivan Mikulcic. This  expert drew the original plan of the site, which has been redrawn several times. Although the plan “seriously needs to be updated,” says Dr. Snively, “we have not had an architect on site with enough free time and surveying skill to do it in recent seasons.”

Although the name of the settlement and fortress has vanished, pottery finds date the ruins, clearly a fortress standing watch over now buried remnants of an urban settlement and church, to the 6th century- and the reign of Emperor Justinian I (r. 517-565), one of the greatest Byzantine rulers. Under Justinian, imperial authority was reasserted as far as northern Africa and parts of Italy. Justinian’ss expansion efforts were executed by a powerful military led by his renowned general, Belisarius, considered a master tactician who could win battles even when cut off from communications with the capital or other parts of the army.


Yugoslav archaeologist Ivan Mikulcic'ss original plan of the Konjuh site, with fortifications of the lower city outlined in orange (courtesy Carolyn Snively)

The Kratovo region, part of the mineral-rich Osogovski Mountain range, has always had strategic importance for its mines. Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans all excavated it extensively for gold, silver and iron. In the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire was beset by barbarian tribes in the Balkans but still held on to large areas through an extensive system of fortresses that allowed military garrisons to provide some measure of protection for settlements and ongoing economic activities. Indeed, an important part of the Justinianic legacy was the refortification of the region as part of his general military strategy.

At the fortress site, finds have revealed that one significant local activity then was the excavation of iron ore, a substance which archaeologists have discovered in large quantities among the various artifacts discovered to date.

The mining was carried out near today’ss village of Konjuh. A tiny enclave of a few hundred people, without even a village shop, the village is about 1km south of the ridgeline upon which the bygone fortress stands. Here there are no great stone towers or constructions, at least no remaining ones here, but the steepness of the ridge and its width at the top would have provided protection for defenders and adequate space to store weapons, provisions and, when necessary, people.


View of the northern terrace taken from the acropolis, end of 2005 season (Photo: Carolyn Snively)

The fortress ridgeline is surrounded by valleys and, further on, flanked by other small ridges that could also have served as military outposts. At the top, the acropolis, there is a remarkable 3m (15ft)-deep cistern, and the remains of several small stairways and paths chiseled into the sides of the rock. Naturally formed turrets overlook the plain, behind which Byzantine bowmen could have taken aim at any invaders below.

Below the fortress, on the lower town located on a northern terrace, excavators have made their most substantial discoveries. A street system, and the base of a Late Antique church indicate organized settlement occurred there over a period of several centuries. The settlement likely dates from the 5th century, says Dr. Snively, adding that “there was probably a 3rd or 4th-century settlement in the vicinity, though I don’st think the inhabitants started living on the northern terrace until the need for building a fortification arose later.”

2009: Upcoming Plans

In keeping with the professional approach to managing the site, the remains of the foundations are all painstakingly reburied each year at the end of the digging season- partly, for their own protection, since the project hasn’st the funds to hire a full-time guard. According to Dr. Snively, the team won’st re-dig everything that has been buried in previous seasons. “This year, we will concentrate on excavating the apse of the basilica we discovered last year,” she says.

This exciting discovery confirms the significance of the site as a former center of civilization with some amount of population. According to Dr. Snively, one of the main goals of the 2009 dig in terms of this structure will be “to define the basilica’ss shape and dimensions- we can say with 95 percent certainty that it is a 6th-century basilica, which would have been built within a few decades of Justinian’ss fortification works.”

Indeed, the whole region is remarkably rich in sites once populated during the Late Antique period. According to Katie Haas, an archaeology student from Gettysburg College who has come to Macedonia for the summer thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, “there is a marked efflorescence of Late Antique sites in this region.” As a member of the dig team, Katie will concentrate on the important job of small finds analysis- particularly, spatial pattern analysis of the site. She is part of a nine-person team (comprised of American, British and Macedonian archaeologists, who will be aided by local workmen.


Sketch of the site'ss acropolis, showing the tripartite fortress (Carolyn Snively)

Methodology and Cultural Heritage Protection

While locals have since learned to respect the site’ss integrity and have developed good relations with the excavation teams, some nefarious diggers have in the past attempted to search here, as almost everywhere in Macedonia, for gold €“ in the process, breaking their drill heads when inadvertently striking the solid bedrock.

While occasionally outsiders continue to show up illegally, Dr. Snively does not anticipate any trouble this summer from the “wild diggers,” as such people are known in the press. Indeed, other local inhabitants are more in danger, as when the villagers’s sheepdogs were sadly poisoned en masse by a probable sheep-rustler- indicating that this still is the wild east to some extent.


Taking the plunge: American Fulbright scholar Seth Elder descends into the fortress'ss murky cistern depths (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Part of the archaeologists’s sustained good relations with the locals owes to education and trust-building efforts carried out since 1998. But it also owes to something that helps explain why the fortress has attracted relatively little attention thus far- a lack of shiny objects. The lack of major awareness of the site, despite its historical significance, probably stems from the fact that neither gold nor silver, nor colorful mosaics have yet been discovered. Traditionally, these sort of €˜big-ticket’s items are what draw attention from the central government (this is of course not only the case in Macedonia).

Although archaeologists do not anticipate making stunning discoveries of buried treasure at Konjuh, the possibility cannot be completely excluded. Working with extraordinary diligence since 1998, Dr. Snively has deliberately not chosen to dig for burial areas on the site €“ even though such spots would have the best chance of containing jewelry and coins €“ partly because there has not been sufficient support available to protect the site during the off-season. Were the site to gain a reputation for riches, the thinking goes, it would become more difficult to protect it from looters.

Another reason why the team is deliberately not looking for burial sites is because of lack of sufficient support for an activity which would greatly enlarge the scope and character of the operation.

“If we found a cemetery, we would then have to bring in a physical anthropologist too,” says Dr. Snively, noting also the further permits and bureaucratic requirements that would be needed in such cases. While the Macedonian government has pledged an all-out campaign for excavating “mega-sites” like Stobi, Heraclea and Ohrid-area locales, more modest sites like Konjuh have gone largely unnoticed.

Konjuh: “A Great Example of Cooperation”

Konjuh locals have also been happy to see the site remain undisturbed, archaeologist Snively believes, because it has provided an occasional source of employment for the economically depressed village, when additional workers or watchmen have been needed over the past decade. “Injecting even a few thousand dollars into the local economy makes a big difference in a small village like this,” she notes.

The cultural heritage protection aspect of the Konjuh fortress site is particularly intriguing to Seth Elder, an American Fulbright scholar from DePauw University in Indiana. Seth chose to come to Macedonia for his research on the practical connections between archaeology, local communities and economic development. Since arriving in Macedonia last year, and touring numerous sites, he has gained insight into the Konjuh site from a comparative sense.

According to him, “the Konjuh site is a great example of cooperation between local and international archaeologists, and also with the local community. Since Macedonia has been somewhat isolated from international archaeologists’s attention, there’ss a real need for more work like this to be carried out in the future.” He also emphasizes the need for Macedonian archaeologists to publish their findings more widely in foreign journals, as this activity is a key part of attracting the attention of outside experts who often have the ability to acquire funding and personnel for increasing archeological efforts.


From the well-worn fortress wall remnants, unfinished bridge sections in the distance show how close the site would be to organized transport, and so tourism, if the authorities someday finish the long-promised connection to Bulgaria (Photo: Christopher Deliso)

Future Tourism Potential?

Indeed, one of the very interesting aspects of the site for the future is its specific placement. The fortress is set in what is today literally the middle of nowhere, on a ridge above the Kriva River near Konjuh. However, some raised concrete pillars that might seem equally mysterious to outsiders may hold the key for the area’ss development as a tourism destination. Long-neglected skeletons of bridge supports, these and other similar structures dot the wilderness in eastern Macedonia- unfinished pieces of proposed railway and highway links to Bulgaria. For various reasons, the long-hoped-for infrastructure project has never been completed. If it were, the site would be ideally located for travelers to access.

Even today, the Konjuh fortress site is accessible enough for visitors, if coming with a professional guide, and part of a cluster of local sites around Kratovo, such as the standing stone dolls of Kuklica, the enigmatic Neolithic rock site of Cacev Kamen, and the magnificent Lesnovski Monastery. When combined with the natural beauty of this mountainous region and the potential for outdoor activities, plus the architectural attractiveness of Kratovo itself, this clearly indicates the potential for a multi-faceted tourism product that could conceivably put this forgotten corner of northeastern Macedonia back on the map- even if the name of the fortress settlement has vanished from the map long ago.


*The author is the director of and co-author of the newly-released Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans, for his part specifically covering the Republic of Macedonia. Although he did not have space to discuss the Konjuh site in that book, the guide does contain information on a wealth of other archeological and historical sites in Macedonia, not to mention similar coverage by co-authors, on locales in Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia.

European Proportionality in Macedonia’s Political and Judicial Systems

By Ljubica Dzabirova*

The principle of proportionality implies balancing of power, actions and measures. Being a relatively young country, Macedonia does not yet have the experience and legal basis to really be able to apply proportionality in its judicial system. However, in the case of applying proportionality in the political system, the question is whether it is suitable to have such balancing between competing values and interests, which can significantly intervene in the autonomy of policy choices.


The principle of proportionality is a fundamental principle of European Union Law. According to this principle, the EU may only act to exactly the extent that is needed to achieve its objectives, and no further.

This principle has underpinned the European Union since its beginning in 1957. It is also explicitly specified in the proposed new Lisbon Treaty for Europe.[1] In the presently applicable primary law, this principle is clearly formulated in the third paragraph of Article 5 of the Treaty[2] establishing the European Community as follows: “European Union law is the unique legal system which operates alongside the laws of Member States of the European Union (EU)€š Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.”

However, the principle of proportionality is given different meanings by different researchers. There is no agreement on what this principle refers to or covers. For the purpose of this article, I use the definition of the principle of proportionality given by Jan Jans.[3] The principle of proportionality, in its most elaborate form, consists of three different elements: suitability, necessity, and proportionality, elements that need to be assessed cumulatively.

The full proportionality test of a specific measure thus involves a three-step assessment. The first step is the assessment of suitability, i.e., whether the measure at issue is suitable or appropriate to achieve the objective it pursues. Suitability requires a casual relationship between the measure and its object.[4]

The second step of the full proportionality analysis is the assessment of necessity, i.e., whether there exists an alternative measure which is less restrictive than the measure in question, and which is (at least) equally effective in achieving the pursued objective. If such alternative measure exists, the measure at issue is not necessary.

The third and final step is the assessment of proportionality stricto sensu, i.e., proportionality in its narrow sense. This step involves an assessment of whether the effects of the measure are disproportionate or excessive in relation to the interests affected. At this stage the true weighing and balancing takes place. The more intense the particular interest, the more important for the countervailing objective it needs to be.[5]

The principle of proportionality is usually applied in the legal/judicial systems of countries. Nevertheless, considering in detail the main elements of the principle of proportionality, there is no reason not to apply it in politics as well. It was initially developed in the German system as a political maxim: that any layer of government[6] should not take any action that exceeds that which is necessary to achieve the objective of government.[7]

Applying Proportionality in Macedonia

Applying the above definition in Macedonia opens a question of whether, and, if so, to what extent, the principle of proportionality is part of Macedonian politics and the Macedonian judicial system.

The hesitation, when talking about the application of the principle of proportionality in Macedonian politics may arise, because proportionality usually exists, and plays an important role, as a principle to assist with the choice between competing social values and interests on the basis of the weights attributed to these values and interests.

Nevertheless, the question is whether it is suitable to balance, and thus make choices between political and non-political values and interests. Whether it is appropriate to debate and assess whether or not the societal value or interest pursued by a certain political party outweighs the burden that a certain measure or action can impose. It is obvious that such balancing between competing values and interests can significantly restrict policy choices and their autonomy.

A sort of trend, maybe latent and invisible, which seems to be interpreted by political actors in Macedonia, is that applying proportionality implies dissolution of boundaries between political and non-political values and interests, and is thus weakening the power of their autonomy. “Proportionality concerns the ‘evolution of a concept of governance which transcends the more traditionally conceived private/public divide and which challenges previous assumptions about the locus of political and economic authority.”[8]

The trend toward fading barriers between the political and non-political values and interests should be therefore a guideline to follow when we want to find solutions to the lack of democratic participation in Macedonia. And, of course, the main difficulty then becomes ways to reconcile these solutions.

A first answer to this question can be found through the European proportionality principle, by analyzing it from both a normative and a case law perspective, i.e., whether the action, non-action, measure or certain behaviour imposed by the political actors is suitable, necessary and proportional stricto sensu.

On the other hand, talking about proportionality in the judicial system, Macedonia does not yet have sufficient experience and a legal basis to apply proportionality. The national judicial scrutiny of restrictive measures can take place before either the Administrative Court, the basic courts of the country, or before the Constitutional Court. The Administrative Court will review acts enacted by public administration and the review will typically be applicable in vertical legal relationships, i.e. in relationships involving individuals and legal persons on the one hand, and state authorities on the other.[9]

In the administrative review procedure, proportionality analysis is not common. As a general rule, the Administrative Court cannot review discretion, but only legality. In other words, it does not have recours de plaine pouvoir, and cannot decide cases on their own merits. The result of this is that, generally speaking, proportionality analysis is not possible within the review of administrative discretion.

Exceptionally, the Administrative Court can decide cases on the merits in a limited number of situations when it has enough data to do so. For example, when the Court decides to annul an administrative act due to its illegality, it can decide the case by reaching a judgement which replaces the annulled act.[10]

Second, in case the administrative body does not adopt the act within the time prescribed by law the Administrative Court can decide the case on its own, thus replacing the administrative act which was not adopted on time by its own judgement.[11]

Similarly, in case the act has not been adopted on time and the Court resolves not to decide the case on its own, but gives an order to the administrative body to act accordingly, and the administrative body does not act, the Administrative Court can decide the case on its own.

Although the situations presented above show that, in certain cases, the Administrative Court can decide a case on its own merits, in reality the Court rarely, if ever, decides to avail itself of this right, even in situations when it has enough data to decide the case on its own.

Ordinary jurisdiction has not confronted the issue of proportionality yet. However, recourse to ordinary jurisdiction will anyway be possible only in horizontal cases, involving non-governmental actors, such as trade unions, in situations comparable to those that emerged in Walrave und Koch,[12] and more recently in cases Laval[13] and Viking.[14]

In other words, litigants will include an individual or legal person on the one side and another entity of private law, such as professional association or an NGO on the other. If, in such situations an EU provider is caught up in the provision of services by such a private actor, it will be protected by Community free movement rules. On the other hand, member states will have an obligation to bring into force the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with the EC Treaty.

Within the scope of private law, the Macedonian Law on Obligations[15] restricts the freedom of contract, where it is contrary to the Constitution, strict legal norms or public morality.[16] While this definition is circular and adds nothing to the Constitutional restrictions, it is worth noting that, typically, civil law judges will question these issues only exceptionally, and only against decisions of the Constitutional Court. It is not likely that they will engage in any balancing or proportionality analysis in cases where e.g. “State interest” is clearly defined by law.

Definition of possible restrictions is, in Macedonian legal culture, reserved for the legislator. This means that basic courts will, as a rule, defer to the legislature and follow its legislative choice. This is, of course, contrary to the Community doctrine of supremacy, as defined in the Simmenthal.[17]

Ideally, to ensure compliance with Community law, Basic Courts, confronted with application of national law which is claimed to have restricted the freedom to provide services, should be in a position to apply the full proportionality analysis (Gebhard test)[18] on its own, and ‘it is not necessary for the court to request or await the prior setting aside of such provision by legislative or other constitutional means.’[19]

However, within the present Macedonian legal framework, this would be possible only in respect to secondary legislation which is typically adopted by the government or its bodies.

Here, Basic Courts can directly apply the law to the case before them, while at the same time referring the issue of legality of the secondary legislation to the Constitutional Court without staying the proceedings. In case of laws, Basic Courts have to stay the proceedings and refer the issue to the Constitutional Court.

Another most likely focus of review is the Constitutional Court. It has jurisdiction for concrete constitutional review instituted by the courts and for abstract constitutional review of legislation. It also decides constitutional complaints. However, due to the reasons described above, it is to expect that the Constitutional Court will typically deal with proportionality analysis in abstract review, and possibly in constitutional complaint proceedings. While protection before the Constitutional Court can be effective to set aside restrictive legislation, due to the Simmenthal principle[20] it is inappropriate for purposes of concrete protection of Community based rights.


On the one hand, proportionality provokes discussions about the readiness and willingness of its application in the Macedonian judicial or political system. On the other hand it also touches upon issues, such as sensitive local moral standards, tradition, culture and political and judicial experiences. This suggests that applying proportionality in Macedonia is not a simple process of adjudication. Rather, it requires a prudent and sensitive appreciation by the Macedonian actors of diverse values, and the different possible ways of acting consistently with the elements of the principle of proportionality: suitability, necessity, and proportionality stricto sensu.

*Ljubica Dzabirova is a PhD researcher in law at the University of Amsterdam, currently doing field research at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva; she has also been employed by the Macedonian Government’s Secretariat for European Affairs since 2003.

[1] Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community, signed at Lisbon, 13 December 2007, OJ C  306, Volume 50, 17 December 2007; In the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 3b has been inserted, replacing Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC).

[2]Consolidated versions of the Treaty on European Union and of the Treaty establishing the European Community, 29.12.2006,  C 321 E/1

[3] J. Jans, Proportionality Revisited’s, 27 Legal Issues of Economic Integration 239, 240-241, 2000

[4] See Ibid, Jans, 240

[5] M. Adenas and S. Zleptning, €šÃ„òProportionality and WTO Law in comparative Perspectives’s, 42 Texas International Law Journal 371, 388

[6] Meaning: control, administration and rules

[7] Proportionality (political maxim), Available: (Accessed: 19 February, 2009)

[8] G. de Burca, Reappraising Subsidiarity’s Significance after Amsterdam, Harvard Jean Monnet working paper, 7/99, (2000).

[9] It is worth noting that in Macedonian law and practice a formalist understanding of the “State” is accepted. According to Macedonian practice, “State bodies” are only those bodies which are designated as such by law. This is in contrast with substantive understanding of the ECJ expressed e.g. in Case C-188/89 Foster v. British Gas.

[10] Art. 36 of the Macedonian Law on Administrative Disputes (Official Gazette of the Republic of Macedonia No. 62 of 22 May 2006)

[11] Art. 53 of the Macedonian Law on Administrative Disputes, (Official Gazette of the Republic of Macedonia No. 62 of 22 May 2006)

[12] Case 35/74, B.N.O. Walrave and L.J.N. Koch v Association Union cycliste internationale

[13] C-341/05, Laval un Partneri

[14] Case C-438/05, The International Transport Workers’ Federation 2) The Finnish Seamen’s Union v 1) Viking Line ABP

[15]Law on Obligations (Official Gazette of the Republic of Macedonia No. 18/01, 4/02 and 5/03)

[16] See Art. 41 of the Law on Obligations declare inadmissible contracts the object of which is contrary to the Constitution, strict legal rules or morality. See also Art. 43 for the legality of basis of the Contract; or Art. 67 for the legality of the contract conditions; All these provisions specify the same grounds.

[17]Case 106/77 Amministrazione delle Finanze dello Stato v Simmenthal SpA. ECR 1978 P. 00629

[18] Case C-55/94, Reinhard Gebhard v. Consiglio dell’Ordine degli Avvocati e Procuratori di Milano, (1995) ECR. P. I-04165

[19] Ibid. at p. 24 of the judgment.

[20] See Ibid. Case 106/77 Amministrazione delle Finanze dello Stato v Simmenthal SpA. ECR 1978 P. 00629; Simmenthal introduced the system of decentralized judicial review, previously non-existent in the majority of European states. In which way has this disturbed institutional balance in Member States – relations between legislative, executive and judiciary

Macedonia’s Elections and Police Readiness: Interview with Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska

By Chris Deliso

In the following exclusive interview conducted on Wednesday, Director Chris Deliso gets the views of Macedonia’s interior minister, Gordana Jankulovska, about subjects ranging from the police’s efforts to guarantee peaceful elections and control outbreaks of tensions, to the fight against organized crime, special operations, foreign assistance and the expected outcomes of reform and re-budgeting towards professionalizing Macedonian security forces to tackle both new and existing challenges.

Elections: Lessons Learned and Upcoming Plans

Chris Deliso: As you know, in the last few months there has been a lot of international pressure on Macedonia to guarantee safe and fair elections, because of the violence that occurred during the previous [June 2008] elections. And now the major representatives of the international community have largely praised your efforts before and during the first round of the elections on March 22. So, what was different about the ministry’s plan this time around? To what do you attribute this more peaceful result?

Gordana Jankulovska: What was different this time was our approach. Unfortunately, we did have serious incidents during the last elections, and because of this we started preparing several months in advance. In a way, though, you could say that our preparations for these elections started on the day after the previous ones. An important element in our plan involved looking at the critical polling stations, and generally those areas where there had been incidents before.

Another important part of drafting the current plan was our unified approach: we asked for a wide variety of comments from outside experts, including security experts from the United States Embassy, the ODIHR and others. They all gave us certain suggestions for the future. At the very beginning of this year, we shared our election safety draft plan with security experts, to allow us more time for getting extra advice and incorporating information that was not available earlier.

It wasn’t just the plan, however- it was the entire preparation of the police as well. We conducted a number of trainings in which the entire uniformed police to be engaged in the elections were obliged to participate.

CD: What kind of trainings?

GJ: For example, there were a few changes in the electoral code that they had to know about. Also, in these trainings we put an emphasis on unification of behavior- to ensure that police will know to take identical reactions to situations, no matter where they happened. And the criminal police also underwent training to ensure better investigation of incidents, if they appear.

However, I should stress that it wasn’t just us. The most important reason why the elections were better, in my opinion, was contribution of all the citizens coupled with better behavior of the political parties. Speaking frankly, even for the previous elections, we in the Ministry of Interior did do everything in our power to safeguard the elections, and then to investigate incidents unfortunately provoked by others.

This time around, we have worked a lot on prevention- stopping problems before they could happen. And we tried to raise community awareness. The calls for free and fair elections from all the political leaders resulted in better behavior from all. As I often say, the stakeholders who have the most responsibility are the political parties, as they have the greatest influence over the voters.

Tensions in Struga

CD: However, as everyone knows, there are also certain tensions currently being felt, as for example in Struga, and many suspect they are related to political party activities. With this in mind, will the police be doing anything differently or additionally to ensure the safety of the second round?

GJ: Unfortunately a few days ago we did have another fight between students in Struga, resulting in a serious injury. This is completely unacceptable behavior. Because of this incident and general tensions in the city, we have already deployed additional police forces to Struga in a preventive manner. Our idea was that by demonstrating a stronger presence of police there a few days early – and not just all at once on election day – the people might feel more accustomed to it and not have reason to feel fearful or intimidated.

CD: Alright. Now, can you tell me, also about political party influence- are you aware of any elements, I don’t want to say paramilitary groups, but any possible violent groups that might not be under the ministry’s control, and that could cause security problems during the voting?

GJ: Well, there is always the potential for people to create groups- but the responsibility is on us, on the police, to deal with any situation. At this time moment I can say that we have full control over our territory, and are ready to react to any security threat. Most importantly, we have heard clear, stated positions from the political parties, that violence won’t be accepted. The message we are trying to send is that the only way to win elections in Macedonia is to do so peacefully. So, we don’t expect any violence on Sunday, though we will be ready to react to any situation.

The Incident on the Square

CD: Another recent provocative issue that has been suspected of having political involvement was this clash in the Skopje square between protesters and counter-protesters arguing about the idea of building a church there. Perhaps you saw on A1 TV last night, the EU Ambassador Fouere got especially worked up about this, while US Ambassador Reeker noted that such incidents don’t help improve Macedonia’s image abroad. What can you say about this incident, and the police’s handling of it?

GJ: I agree that this incident was terrible for the perception of Macedonia abroad, and it was unacceptable. In a democracy, everyone has the right to participate in peaceful protests.

When this incident occurred, the most important thing for us was to stop the situation from escalating, and in investigating to clear up the incident as soon as possible. To now, 23 people have been charged already for participation in violence-

CD: Yes, but are these only from the side of the protesters, these students?

GJ: I can’t say specifically to which group all of these individuals belong, but I believe they must come from both. We are looking at all the available evidence, such as videos made by the media, and we can see that way if someone was directly involved. The Ministry of Interior doesn’t charge people involved in peaceful protests, only those who engage in violence.

CD: Yes, but what about the charge that political parties were involved in this incident? And that this was basically a side event of the election campaign?

GJ: The job of the police is not to get involved with any political aspects of violence- our job is to stop the violence, and then investigate those responsible for causing the violence. However, looking at certain names of people involved in the protests, it is clear that this event was not completely separate from the elections.

Still, I don’t think that any of the people who were in the square originally intended to go there to cause violence. I believe their goal was to attract attention to their positions. But, things quickly progressed, first verbal exchanges and then physical altercations, and from that point it was difficult to stop.

CD: It has also been said that the police were slow in reacting- your thoughts?

GJ: Actually, a further and more serious escalation of violence was prevented by actions of the police. And another fact, though it doesn’t really matter any more, was that the organizers of the protest only announced their intention to the police 24 hours before the event-

CD: How much before should it have been?

GJ: Well, the law says such public events should be announced at least 48 hours in advance, to give the police sufficient time to create an appropriate security plan. And, another part of this bad planning, though also not really relevant now, was that the organizers gave us an incorrect assessment about the number of expected participants- we received a note from them saying there would be 200, though actually there were many more.

CD: Yes, but I understand this was because of the large number of counter-demonstrators? And did they give any advance notice for their presence?

GJ: That is correct, they had many more. And they didn’t give any notice in advance of their intentions.

CD: So, this is part of why people have suggested it was an organized political affair?

GJ: Perhaps, but I don’t want to speculate, as the police is not interested in politics, whether political parties were ultimately the organizers or not. What is important from our side, was that the situation was not allowed to escalate. But I would like to restate that it looked very bad and gives a very bad image of our country. This is why we are committed to bringing to justice those who participated in the violence.

I should add that while so far in our investigation we haven’t seen any indications of abuses of power by the police on duty during that event, if we do receive such information, any such officer will be held liable as well.

Special Operations: An Encouraging Trend

CD: Now, to leave the subject of the elections for a while, one thing that has seemed impressive to me is the success that the Macedonian security forces have had in comparison to previous governments in special operations, such as the neutralization of armed extremists near Tetovo in Operation Mountain Storm, or the arrest of the alleged organized crime boss from Kumanovo, Bajrush Sejdiu. Both operations required secrecy, tactical and strategic preparation and coordination. I have been here a long time, and I don’t recall previous police operations against extremists or criminals ever going as smoothly as those did. Do you agree? If so, to what do you attribute this change?

GJ: Yes. It’s a matter of good organization and disciple, and having the right people in the right positions- it’s all about management.

CD: Well€šÃ„¶ you’re the manager!

GJ: (laughter) But seriously, in these operations you can imagine how many people are involved: if they are the wrong people, you end up with a disaster. Operation Mountain Storm was a very complicated operation, requiring a great deal of planning, discipline, and exchange of information both within the Ministry and with our partners outside.

This is what I consider to be very different from the operations that occurred under my predecessors. I want to hear from my peers, and learn from their experiences. Within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are people who have experience, who have been here for ages, but who had never been given the chance to use this experience. Now they have the chance to use their skills. I don’t have any problem with asking questions if I don’t know the answer- most of all, I’m interested in achieving results, guaranteeing the security of the people, and ensuring the positive working perception of the police among the people. So far, everything has gone well.

CD: Aside from this, though, can you point to any specifics- for example, enhanced training or exchange of know-how with partner states?

GJ: Certainly- the openness of the Macedonian Interior Ministry for ideas and support from friendly countries such as the United States, the experience we can get from working with them, is all very beneficial for us. The exchange of knowledge is essential – no country is an island, after all – and we have excellent cooperation.

CD: Now regarding the second major case, the arrest of Bajrush Sejdiu on serious crime charges. I understand that at his trial, which started today, he expressed a confident attitude, as if assuming he would be freed. In this region we find things like that happen frequently- which also can have serious ramifications for anyone who had helped the police build a case against the suspect. So, do you think there should be concern about this here?

GJ: I cannot speak for the judiciary, which is an independent one anyway, but being a lawyer and having knowledge of this case, I think it would be extremely difficult for any judge to release Bajrush and his associates, because the crimes they are accused of were so many and so interrelated. This was a very high-profile case, and we were working on the investigation for a full 2 years in advance. We were following everything he was doing, and noting every illegal operation he was involved with. It was one of those things, an open secret, everyone in Kumanovo had been saying for years that he was a major criminal, but there was no concrete proof. It was very difficult, he was very smart and he had connections everywhere-

CD: Well, I think he had practically half of Kumanovo-

GJ: Anyway, it’s for the judge to decide. However, it’s hard to imagine him being let off.

CD: You mention two years of planning went into the case. Can you tell me what motivated this action? Was it was, for example, an idea that he was becoming too much of a danger to general security to be ignored any longer?

GJ: Well, again, this case was a sort of public secret for many years. But the people of Kumanovo feared that Bajrush was so strong that he could do anything he wanted- we realized it was becoming a serious problem. The organized crime department started with preparations for this case, finding out about the activities he was involved in.

CD: Did these criminal activities spill over into neighboring countries, for example Kosovo?

GJ: Yes, he did have partners there- in this contraband tobacco business, you know, it involves the entire region. It’s not just the production, but especially the illegal export that matters. And it took a while to track all of these activities and to have the entire evidence in front of us to make a case.

CD: With all of this intensive investigation, certainly he must have become aware of it at some point?

GJ: He probably knew something, but I believe only in the late stages- in the end, he he tried to leave the country, but€šÃ„¶ he didn’t make it.

CD: After the action, which went off flawlessly, did the Ministry of Interior receive any private congratulations from partner countries?

GJ: Yes. We received very positive comments from our security services colleagues in regional countries, and from other friendly countries such as the United States. It was a case we were very proud of; we had been working on it for a long time in full secrecy.

CD: This is a very interesting concept. Macedonia is, after all, a very small country where secrecy is very hard to maintain. Why in this case were you able to maintain it?

GJ: Again, it was a matter of good planning and delegations of responsibilities, along with having the right people in the right places at the right time.

Discontents and Reforms

CD: Turning to a more controversial subject, some people, civil society groups and even foreign officials, complained last summer after the government’s revised budget was passed. Since the Interior Ministry received a huge increase in funds with this rebalance, some critics were charging that you are planning to make some sort of police state or surveillance state. How do you react to such charges?

GJ: These kinds of assertions are a result of ignorance, of people who don’t know how the ministry really works. They don’t understand that our ability to have success and achieve results depends on investment in equipment, resources, and people. The Ministry of Interior had not received sufficient investments for ages before I became minister. It was thus necessary to change this situation. After all, the people who are working under threat need to have the right equipment.

CD: €šÃ„òPeople working under threat’- meaning the police?

GJ: Yes, the police.

CD: Was that the case?

GJ: Nothing was really being done to improve things; the police were working in the same old ways, with the same old equipment, and getting the same results. In the 21st century, it’s impossible to fight today’s sophisticated forms of crime with 20-year-old equipment. And it’s part of my job as minister to lobby inside the government for more money for the budget.

I should add that we have figures, indicators that show it has been a successful investment, even in a short time. We seized a half-ton of cocaine, for one. We solved the [Bajrush Sejdiu] case in Kumanovo, there was Operation Mountain Storm, and a number of lesser-known organized crime cases. So, looking at everything in this light, the money allocated to us is very small, in comparison to the results.

CD: Alright. But more specifically, when you were preparing the budget and procurement for some of this advanced technical equipment, did you experience lobbying efforts from foreign companies, Israeli, American or other, to buy their particular products?

GJ: No, not at all. Our principle is to try to get the best value for money, and we undergo the legal procedures.

CD:Still, returning to the original issue, some Macedonians and even foreign officials say the government’s ultimate goal is control of the people.

GJ: Macedonia is a democratic country and there no room for such concerns. Believe me, the police has more than enough work to do fighting the existing criminal and security threats- we have neither the time nor intention to deal with anything else.

Nowadays, when global society is threatened by terrorism, we need to reach certain technical levels. It would be impossible, for example, if your government asked for us to contribute in a special operation if we were stuck using old equipment and old methods. We wouldn’t be able to help them.

Missions Abroad?

CD: On that note, it’s well-known that the Macedonian military has long contributed to the US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is there any possibility that the Macedonian Interior Ministry will send officers to such places?

GJ: There is a European Union civilian mission in Afghanistan, and we have expressed our full readiness to send police there to train Afghan police.

CD: Will this happen?

GJ: It’s a matter of their decision, and then administrative procedures. However, last year our foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, participated in an international conference for Afghanistan, and he also expressed our willingness to contribute Macedonian police to stabilization missions there.

CD: Perhaps it would be unlikely, but since this is an EU mission, would it be possible that Greece could block Macedonian participation because of all the current tensions between the two countries?

GJ: I don’t see why the Greeks would want to block something that would be a benefit to global security. So I don’t think so. But you never know.

Recent Arrivals

CD: Speaking of Afghans and Greeks- in recent weeks there have been several incidents of Afghan illegal immigrants, who actually did have valid temporary visas in Greece, being discovered by Macedonian border police. And not a small amount-

GJ: About 38.

CD: Do you think that this amounts to immigrant-dumping? That Greek authorities were sending these people across the border to get rid of them?

GJ: I don’t want to speculate, and I can’t judge that in advance. This is a very sensitive case and the investigation is ongoing.

CD: Fine. But I also understand that these Afghans were discovered not only on the border with Greece, which seems logical, but also up in the north, in the ethnic Albanian-populated village of Lipkovo near Kosovo. Since this area has been a hotspot in the past, with some connections to radical Islam, is it possible that there was some connection along these lines?

GJ: Again, I don’t want to rush to judgments here- the case is still being investigated. It would be bad to make qualifications before the case comes to an end.

CD: Fair enough. Tell me, where are these people currently being held?

GJ: These people here illegally are being housed in temporary detention centers, until we have a decision about what to do with them. The usual procedure is to send them back to their country of most recent origin-

CD: Yes, but Greece doesn’t want them back, right? Is there any chance of them actually staying and living in Macedonia?

GJ: They have not applied as asylum-seekers.

Promoting Discipline

CD: Finally, when one thinks about police reform in a country like this, a small country where everyone knows each other and people are used to doing favors for one another or turning a blind eye to things, it becomes hard to see how laws can be enforced on local levels. A less dramatic issue than the others, perhaps, but something that is still worth noting.

For example, I had someone from Bitola complaining to me yesterday that people are breaking the law by driving in the carsija [old town] there, and the police don’t do anything about it because they don’t want to penalize their friends and so on. What can you say about this issue?

GJ: We still find local situations like this, but we are trying to promote discipline more widely. We want local police officers to understand that they are required to execute the laws wherever in the country they happen to be based. If you have the opportunity to follow the work of the Ministry of Interior, you will see that we have become quite involved in promoting discipline.

CD: But it’s also a societal thing, it would take time-

GJ: Yes, it is also a matter if time to change the culture and behavior. But we are trying to create order. A big part of this, however, also involves making the local populations aware of the need to accept order, and to work with us. So we need the cooperation of Macedonia’s local populations first and foremost. That’s important.

CD: Minister Jankulovska, thank you very much for your time.

GJ: Thank you.

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In Macedonia, Foreign Perceptions Indicate Government’s Blind Spots

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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By David Binder*

The Convair 340 was packed with Macedonians anxious about their families and homes. In the cockpit the JAT pilot dipped the nose down over the city and rolled the plane slightly to the starboard to give me an opportunity to snap pictures from the cockpit with my clumsy but reliable Rolleiflex: A first glimpse of devastated Skopje following the earthquake of July 26, 1963.

It was noontime, some seven hours after the great tremor struck.

“From the air Skopje looked as if it had been struck by a heavy bombing raid,” I wrote in my first dispatch. “Gaping holes where roofs had been. A haze of brick and mortar dust hung over the city.”

The pilot was one of dozens of Yugoslavs who helped me that day and later to report the event – from the JAT personnel at Surcin who got me aboard the first civilian Skopje flight to Bora Causev, the Macedonian secretary of home affairs who started the city’s rescue and evacuation operations a mere 20 minutes after the initial shock.

He had had emergency experience with a huge flood of the River Vardar in Skopje eight months earlier.

Causev told me I was the first foreign journalist to arrive at the quake scene. But I was also a greenhorn with less than two months in the Balkans and one hundred words of Serbo-Croatian.

Yugoslavs seemed almost by instinct to realize that Skopje needed a lot of help and including help from abroad. Most striking was the extraordinary silence and seeming purposefulness of people walking amid the shattered buildings and crazily slanted lamp poles, some of them pushing wooden barrows loaded with bedding and other household belongings. Bora Causev said there was an initial moment of panic with crowds running headlong through the streets, but soon calm prevailed.

Thanks in considerable part to his efforts, thousands of People’s Army soldiers, firemen, policemen and health workers were summoned to Skopje to assist.

The temperature under the cloudless skies was in the high 30s (C). Initially there were strong fears of an outbreak of typhus. Numerous water trucks provided relief. They were mobbed by thirsty citizens as soon as they stopped.

Excavating machines and brigades of men with shovels and picks deployed at the hotels Makedonija and Skopje, where scores of guests lay pinned alive under rubble and others were already dead.

It was easy to gather material for a report on the quake. The difficulty lay in finding a way to transmit a dispatch. Telephone and telegraph lines were down and the Skopje radio station was a shambles. The nearest functioning phone line appeared to be in Kumanovo, 26 miles to the east.

I hitched a ride and walked to the post office, where I tapped a report on my light blue 8.6 lb. Hermes typewriter and queued up at the counter for telephone calls. It was after dark when I got through to Mirjana Komarecki, the Belgrade office manager, and dictated the dispatch to her for transmission by telex to New York. I also told her to be on the watch for a roll of film from the Rolleiflex, which a Belgrade colleague would bring to her. The first day story got through for the first edition.

To my astonishment amid the chaos everything functioned smoothly and, in The New York Times of July 29, five of the Skopje photos from the film roll were printed.

It dawned on me that the Skopje earthquake, though relatively small in terms of death toll (1,070) had become a major international event. A sign perhaps of Yugoslavia’s peculiar nature, perched precariously between East and West, but siding with neither.

That morning, on George F., Kennan’s last day of ambassadorship to Yugoslavia, he donated a pint of blood to aid victims. Lawrence (Larry) Eagleburger, then a junior officer, having drawn the weekend duty at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, succeeded by telephone(s) to get the U.S. Army to fly its Eighth Evacuation Field Hospital with 200 physicians and nurses from Ramstein, Germany, to a site near Kumanovo. They started work three days after the quake. (Himself later an ambassador to Yugoslavia, Eagleburger was dubbed “Lawrence of Macedonia” by colleagues – parallel to the soubriquet of T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia”).

Major international contributions came as well from Britain, Sweden, France, the Soviet Union and many other countries.

How to explain this powerful resonance? Without delving into psychology, sociology or even history I guess one reason is that earthquakes strike relatively seldom in the center of cities – although the population of Skopje then was a modest 170,000.

There was also a certain romantic notion attached to “Macedonia,” whether related to a fruit salad recipe or to revolutionary terrorism.

Before the quake Yugoslavia’s claim on Macedonia was strongly and loudly disputed in neighboring Greece and Bulgaria. Afterward those voices were more muted. In any case the quake put Macedonia on the map of international consciousness in a sympathetic fashion that no political act could have accomplished.

Next day President Tito arrived in mid-morning with a huge entourage – in fact most of the members of the central committee of the Yugoslav League of Communists.

Driving with Emile (“Guiko”) Guikovaty of Agence France Presse, who had motored down from Belgrade, we were wedged into the Tito convoy at the airport. Immediately we were forced by motorcycle escorts to stay among the official cars through the city, the convoy stalling even rescue vehicles for over an hour as crowds gazed silently at the spectacle.

Finally, we drove up the Kale fortress hill. On the grassy plateau a huge tent had been erected above linen-covered tables sumptuously laden with food and beverages. Tito, in a skyblue air force uniform, sat at the head table.

When everyone was seated Guiko, facing Tito, about 40 feet away, piped up in English: “What are you doing to save my countrymen trapped in the Hotel Macedonia?”

“And what about those in the Hotel Skopje?” I added.

Red-faced, Tito turned and barked, “What are these foreigners doing here? This is a Central Committee meeting!”

A uniformed military officer came up and politely suggested we join him on the sidelines away from the huge tent. He introduced himself in good English as Gojko Nikolis, commander of the army medical corps and offered to answer our questions.

How many dead so far?

“So far, 500 bodies,” he softly replied.

How many might there still be?

“About 500 more are known to be in the rubble.” (The Nikolis estimates were astonishingly close to the final quake death toll! Only much later did I learn that Nikolis, then 52, was not only a distinguished author, but also a Partizan hero and an International Brigade veteran of the Spanish Civil War.)

Less than a month later I and many other foreign correspondents returned to the stricken city, following Nikita Khrushchev’s epic tour of Yugoslavia, from Macedonia to Slovenia. He and his wife Nina, accompanied by Tito and Jovanka Broz, solemnly walked several blocks among ruined buildings.

Having moved ahead, I found members of a Soviet Army engineers brigade lounging on their vehicles, smoking and drinking from bottles. At a signal they grabbed shovels and began digging.

Jovanka Broz came up to the commander and, as television cameras whirred, asked him if the work was difficult. “It is hard,” the colonel replied. “But the life of the people is harder!” Scripted in Skopje, not Hollywood, but the dialogue could not have been better.


*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on July 26, 2008.

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