I just published a comment for ELN with Anastas Vangeli on the crisis in Macedonia in which we are arguing that the Gruevski government has lost its legitimacy and that any solution has to involve the resignation of Gruevski. EU mediation in the crisis runs the risk of putting less pressure on Gruevski than on the opposition and ignoring the protest movements for the sake of results. Below is the full version of the comments, I am delighted to have written with Anastas, who is not only a former student of mine at CEU and who wrote about Skopje 2014 when few others had, but who is also an activist with the social movements protesting in Macedonia against the government.
Macedonia has been undergoing a durable legitimacy crisis that was further deepened by revelations about a mass wire-tapping scandal and mass anti-government protests. While the scholarly community had doubts about Premier’s Nikola Gruevski’s deeds and work for several years now, the abundance of audio-evidence (which has been confirmed authentic) puts us in a position to be firmer in our assessment. Arguably, never in the history of contemporary have researchers had so much primary source material at their disposal, that contains confidential talks among the very few individuals at the helm of a country, dealing with some of the most sensitive policy issues.
The content of the tapes reveals a comprehensive, deep, and sophisticated system of corrupt and authoritarian rule, while the conversations are marked with profanity, hate speech, slander and ethnic slurs that are unacceptable in everyday communication.
As negotiations about potential solutions of the crisis are under way behind the closed doors in Skopje, Strasbourg and Brussels, it is very important that the EU mediators and the larger international community realizes that Macedonia’s incumbent government has lost its legitimacy at home, it is increasingly unaccountable and erratic, and poses a threat not only to the national, but rather the broader regional stability.
As the negotiations between the leaders of the four biggest political parties resume, the international community and in particular, the EU mediators should take in account the following four points:
1) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting non-democracy in an EU candidate country, and everywhere else.
Following the revelation of the tapes the Gruevski-led VMRO-DPMNE lacks electoral legitimacy. Gruevski has won three consecutive cycles of early elections through abuse of state resources, control of the media, threat and intimidation of political opponents, and various practices of rigging the popular vote – including ‘importing’ pro-government voters from impoverished areas in neighboring countries. Such allegations and remarks were highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR in the report after the electoral process in 2014, and have now been corroborated with material evidence that trumps even our darkest fantasies. On one of the tapes, we can hear the former Minister of Transport, Mile Janakieski, ordering a director of an orphanage to have any adult orphans go vote for VMRO-DPMNE. In another tape, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Gordana Jankuloska is heard laughing while bragging how she transformed the police headquarters into a party headquarters from which all electoral operations were directed.
By allowing Gruevski to remain in power, the EU would not only legitimate a blatantly non-democratic political model. It also risks setting a precedent elsewhere. Gruevski’s rule already serves as an inspiration for other leaders in the region and beyond that are willing and able to override democratic institutions. If the Gruevski government can get away with it with EU consent, the doors are wide open for copy cats.
2) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a captured state, a dysfunctional political economy and recognizing economic performance based on unreliable data.
According to the official numbers, Macedonia registers small economic growth, but this growth is greatly a result of dubious statistics, generated in special economic zones where investors are subsidized by the government, and the profit remains in the hand of a tiny elite, while Macedonia is among the top poorest and most unequal countries in Europe. The tapes reveal numerous evidence overriding of legal mechanisms when arranging business deals, arbitrary arrangement of public procurements, discussion of personal business plans and ambitions, as well as instances when leading government officials are plotting destruction or takeover of property that belongs to political opponents. This partly explains why Macedonia’s income inequality has been on the steep rise in particularly after 2006 when Gruevski has come into power, accompanied by the emergence of a new super-rich elite with him, his family and aides at its center who are now colonizing Macedonia’s economy through companies based in offshore tax havens.
Gruevski, a self-proclaimed expert in attracting FDIs, in one of the tapes, plots asking for a fee from foreign investors. In practice, a number of Gruevski’s deals have either not materialized as planned, or spectacularly failed. Some of them involved scheming with transnational financial criminals, such as the Indian tycoon Subrata Roy.
In one of the tapes, the Minister of Finance, Zoran Stavrevski complains about Gruevski’s ‘insanity’ – referring to the government’s irrational spending on monuments and historic-like buildings at times of crisis. As Stavrevski famously said on the tape, ‘we are buying chocolate but in reality we cannot even afford to buy bread’. On the tapes, even ministers in the government talk how the economy is heading towards the abyss and how they have to manipulate the numbers in order to save their seats. Speaking to Stavrevski, Jankuloska sighs ‘one day we will go to prison for all this.’
Considering the centrality of the rule of law and economic governance in the EUs approach towards the western Balkans, it must stop treating Gruevski as a reformer, and treat him like many Macedonian people do – as a fraudster and an authoritarian leader. While Macedonia is not another Greece in the making, and its eventual economic collapse will not have a broader effect, it is important to act timely in order to avoid a potential humanitarian crisis. That Macedonia is not far from this scenario show the data about a staggering wave of economic emigration – roughly 5% of the population now also holds Bulgarian citizenship, more than 10% of the population moved out of the country in the past 15 years, while the number of those who file for asylum in the EU is growing every day. Should Gruevski remain in power, these numbers will undoubtedly rise.
- Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a source of instability in the region and beyond.
Over the course of his rule, Gruevski has had a track record of staging or taking advantage of pre-existing tensions within the country and the region, which have affected not only the national, but also the regional stability. Gruevski’s turn to authoritarian rule has served as an excuse by Greece to deflect pressure on the infamous name issue – which he himself re-opened and exacerbated. Although on some of the tapes, Gruevski and his aides seem ready to make a bargain for the name dispute, in the domestic debate he has attempted to portray himself as a ‘savior of the name and the national identity’ and orchestrated a smear campaign against those who argued compromise is necessary.
Gruevski’s stubborn nationalism has also at times raised tensions with other neighboring countries, in particular Bulgaria. Greek and Bulgarian elites in Gruevski have found the perfect excuse to engage in their own nationalist and populist campaigns that have the potential to at least distract the domestic public from their own woes. This process as a whole, however, has brought issues of national symbols, history and identity into the equation of EU enlargement and external relations.
The Gruevski government has been equally irresponsible about domestic politics as well. Having a largely passive Albanian coalition partner since 2008 – the Democratic Union for Integration led by Ali Ahmeti – Gruevski has devised a policy of stirring ethnic tensions at will, using it as an excuse for organizing snap polls in 2011 and 2014 – and on both occasions, the VMRO-DPMNE – DUI coalition has been rekindled afterwards. The leaked tapes show how there is a mafia-like tie between the elites of both parties, and division of the ‘prey’ along ethnic party lines.
In the most recent crisis Gruevski tried and failed to play the Greek nor the Albanian card, so he resorted to a novel nationalist narrative – about the global conspiracy for dismantling Macedonian nationhood. This has been accompanied by an attempted foreign policy shift towards Russia – which by now seems a failed PR stunt. However, the violence in Kumanovo—the circumstances are suspicious, but the exact chain of events remains unclear—highlights the risk of violence associated with the current government
- Legitimizing Gruevski means letting down the civic movement – both the streams that are in the opposition camp and outside it – which are united in the demand for his immediate resignation.
Over the last several years, Macedonia’s political culture has undergone a profound change. While the confidence in the ruling party and in the institutions of the system has declined, the opposition party did not manage to garner significant support. At first, this expressed itself through wide-spread passivity and resignation. However, in recent years, a growing number of citizens have begun to be engaged, participating in protests, civic initiatives and social movements. The peak of the grassroots mobilization occurred in late 2014 and early 2015, when a nascent student movement had also inspired others that managed to expose Gruevski. A broader civic movement erupted on May 5, when thousands of citizens gathered in front of the government asking for resignation of the government. Met with excessive use of force, they embarked on daily self-organized protests and marches that spread across the country and diaspora.
Part of the civil society organizations and initiatives that have been on the streets for months, have joined forces with the opposition SDSM in the coalition “Citizens for Macedonia” and have established a camp in front of the government headquarters. Other movements, primarily comprised of grassroots activists, leftists and self-organized citizens, have remained outside the opposition camp, undertaking guerilla actions, protest marches and remaining a loud non-partisan anti-Gruevski voice, identifying themselves as #Protestiram (“I protest” – first person singular). Whereas there is a visible distinction between the two forces, they act as complementary actors under the consensus that Gruevski needs to go.
These movements are not a side show, but they energize citizens and have been setting the opposition agenda. The civic movements are also the main actors in the debate on the future of the country, and remain the strongest link between the people of different social strata, the political actors, and the international community. Diplomats have so far largely ignored them, but the truth is that the process that happens on the streets of Macedonia symbolizes the new politics – which is above ethnic divisions, relies on direct democratic methods, and is participatory and pluralist in nature.
The movements have spontaneously slowed down their pace once the negotiations have been opened, though they refused to just remain on the sidelines. By doing so, they have consciously given way for a top-down solution of the crisis – in which, however, they remain stake-holders. Should Gruevski remain in power, it is likely that the government would resume its repressive policies towards these movements. Moreover, if Gruevski is being legitimized by the EU, there is a risk that much of the anger of what is an open-minded group of people, might end up further disillusioned with European politics. Hence, the EU mediators need to realize that these social movenments are their allies—supporters of a open, tolerant country that wants to join the EU and become more democratic. Ignoring them will mean losing a key pillar for change in the country.
In conclusion, we underline that Macedonia’s government is no longer legitimate and has to resign as a first step for rehabilitation of the country devastated institutions and economic system. The recordings have removed any doubt regarding the reports for prevalent corruption, yet no steps to hold anybody accountable have been undertaken.
The EU is in a difficult position, its bargaining power is limited in Macedonia and its interlocutor, Nikola Gruevski has a lot to lose: for him, losing control over government is likely to land him in jail. However, it is better for the EU to abandon the current talks than force the opposition into an unsavory deal just to declare success. The immediate success would be overshadowed by the long term dangers of keeping an authoritarian leader in power, both for Macedonia and the regions were many are watching closely and will draw their conclusions accordingly.