Balkanalysis.com 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.
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 Balkanalysis.com. 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 Balkanalysis.com, 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. We expect the boycott threat is just that, and that SDSM will run. 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 Balkanalysis.com. “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 seems to be disturbed at this 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 yes, 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. However, it may just be necessary to give them a little time to get confused again: the latest statement from Enlargement Commissioner Fule (21 February) spoke of an unspecified need for Macedonia’s political leaders to “compromise,” whatever that might mean. By issuing ambivalent and divided statements, Europe will only risk its ability to act in a credible way, though it would certainly not be the first time.
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 Balkanalysis.com. “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.
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 Balkanalysis.com: “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.
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 has in only a few short years proved invaluable in getting Macedonian issues on the agendas of lawmakers and diplomats around the world. Initially, the group received a partial three-year grant from (and currently shares an office with) the Turkish Coalition of America in Washington. 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 have worked together with the Macedonians on educational issues. The UMD lobbying activities are 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 Balkanalysis.com, “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 Balkanalysis.com, “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 Balkanalysis.com 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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