Yesterday, President Gjorgje Ivanov finally granted former opposition leader Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a new government, effectively ending a two-year political crisis. But much work remains to be done. We asked people in Macedonia about what’s next for the country, what kinds of challenges the new government is likely to face, and how the new government might confront such challenges.
“Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov’s official granting to Zoran Zaev of the mandate to form a new government is an important step forward for Macedonia. If the effort to remove the authoritarian regime of Nikola Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE is emblematic of anything, it is that the road ahead will be long and bumpy. A divided country, weak economy, and the remnants of a decade long corrupt and clientelistic system are just a few of the challenges. The new SDSM-led government will immediately have to prove itself by taking steps that show it is not simply taking over the system, but actively working to break it down and rebuild it.
Crucial here will be extending the mandate of the Special Prosecutors Office and reforming the judiciary. If those who usurped the country for their personal benefit over the past ten years are not brought to justice, then a signal will be sent to future governments and public officials that they can do the same.
However, in my opinion, it is not the new government, but Macedonia’s citizens who must work to embed a new democratic political culture, which emerged in the Student Plenum, the #Protestiram movement, and the Colorful Revolution, into the system. We as citizens have to serve as a safeguard over the democratic process by sending strong messages to the new government that we will not be passive bystanders, but active participants. Two years ago at the massive May 17 rally, Student Plenum activist Hristijan Popsimonov in his speech said: ‘All of this is so that never again will high school and university students have to teach you the ‘mature’ [adults] what is that thing called democracy…’ I sincerely hope that he was right, but it is still up to us to make sure that happens.”
— Aleksej Demjanski, dual-degree master’s candidate in Global Policy Studies & Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas – Austin.
“President Ivanov finally extending the Prime Minister’s mandate to the PM-designate and Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev means that the democratic reset of Macedonia can start. Same as when you start the engine of your car. The pedal will need to be pressed when the Parliament elects the new Government, but for now it is enough just to hear the purring of the newly started engine of the newly started machine, which will hopefully take us on the path of democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, it is enough to know that pressing the gas pedal will be easier when the machine is running, with the knowledge that Zaev is not wasting any time to celebrate, but has immediately met the leadership of the second largest ethnic Albanian party, BESA, whose votes he’ll need in the Parliament.
Now in opposition, VMRO-DPMNE will represent a big problem for the new Government. Their obstructions will likely continue and they will do everything they can to block the new government’s moves with their 51 MPs out of 120 total. This will especially be an issue until the end of June, the deadline for when the Special Prosecutor can submit new indictments against VMRO leadership to the courts. But even afterwards, VMRO’s role will be destructive, since their main goal will be to show the voters how bad the new Government is and not to be constructive in opposition and work for the good of the country. This was their way of doing things for the last 18 months while the country was under a caretaker Government. They can also be very dangerous, not only for Macedonia, but also for the entire region.
The shadow of new snap elections hangs over the new Government because of the slight parliamentary majority. If in a potential new election VMRO alone gets 61+ mandates, which is not impossible, that means instability or even worse, since no Albanian party will enter into coalition with them after the way they conducted the electoral campaign and the period after the elections, which was filled with nationalist and chauvinist rhetoric. In such circumstances, the Albanian parties would have a hard time accepting a coalition with VMRO, because they would lose all credibility with their voters. This already happened to DUI – VMRO’s long-time coalition partner. So, it is possible that VMRO might have to rule alone and that spells trouble, since the Albanians were never completely outside the Government and no one can tell what could happen. But this is the darkest possible scenario, which now, today, after 11 years of authoritarian populist rule seems far away. So let’s stay on the positive side of things at least for now. It’s not every day a country moves from authoritarian populism to liberal democratic rule. It’s actually Europe’s first case of populists being removed from power. If only we could do it in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Serbia, too, the continent would then be free of its current authoritarian populist scourge.”
— Vladimir Petreski, Editor
“Countdown Gruevski 2.0:
History has shown that the Balkans have been a battleground for the major powers, but as the events unfolding in Macedonia right now show, what plays out in the international arena also has reverberations in the region. This was evident yesterday, when President Gjorge Ivanov finally conceded a mandate to form a government to Zoran Zaev.
Considering the timeline of events, there appear to be some coincidences. For the public, these coincidences concern the so-called Tirana Platform on the one side, which became a carrot for Gruevski, a final card to play to artificially catalyze ethnic conflict. Meanwhile, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama posted photos with Macedonia’s Albanian political leaders as they reached an agreement, a move which happens to coincide with the upcoming Albanian elections, where playing the nationalism card still tends to reap positive electoral results. In addition, Ivanov’s refusal to grant the mandate to Zaev, viewed from a geopolitical perspective, has coincided with the wave of social disintegration that fueled Brexit and Trumpian anti-Soros rhetoric, combined with Russia’s interests that go against those of the EU.
Behind these very public scenes, there are facts that are destined to remain in the shadows. Another fact is that Albanians do constitute at least 25 percent of the total population (unofficial sources claim more, though a census has not taken place to confirm this) in Macedonia, and that during the last elections in December, Albanians massively voted Zaev, refusing to block the political situation in the name of ethnic division. Along with aggressive rhetoric, Gruevski’s side used violence in parliament to exacerbate a potential ethnic conflict. However, this move did not find popular support; it had the reverse effect for Gruevski and his attempts to save himself and the criminals that support him from the judicial system.
The final coincidence however, comes with yesterday’s move from Ivanov, where after several visits from EU officials and the American envoy he gave a mandate to Zaev. We might speculate that this move was based on institutional deadlines, where had Ivanov not acted, the Parliament would then have had the right to grant the mandate to Zaev itself. It also coincides with the defeat of the Front National in France, a reaffirmation of support for the EU. Perhaps we may say that the bizarre character Trump has even played a part in regional interests as animosity towards Russia seems to have softened.
Two years ago, I wrote an op-ed for this publication titled “Countdown Gruevski”. Clearly the crisis in Macedonia took far too long to resolve. Nevertheless, the real winners are the Macedonian citizens who have become more aware of Gruevkski’s politics. Though international players did intervene for a variety of reasons, the real changes came from within. Now it is time for us to see how Zaev will implement the politics of cohesion he promised. As for the Albanians in Macedonia, hopefully considering the breakdown of the traditional parties, a lesson has been learned. No coalition for power, instead coalition for inclusive policies.”
— Alida Karakushi, public policy analyst, civil society activist, correspondent for Meta Agency in Skopje
“It’s a sunny day in Macedonia for sure, where after two years of protests, countless negotiations and early elections we have a new government. I’m happy to see that in my country change has come and I do expect a lot from the new government, especially in the areas of law enforcement and reforms to the educational system. The new government will also have a hard task ahead over the next four years, to bring peace and stability to the divided society that is Macedonia. I certainly hope that Macedonia will finally become a state that sets an example for the entire Balkans, where after 10 years of a heavy-handed rule, an era of prosperity and peace will follow. We don’t just need a change in government, we also need a change in the society and general public opinion. What we need most is for criminal activity from the previous period to be charged and sentenced in accordance with the Macedonian legal system. I do not have the highest hopes but I do believe Macedonia has a brighter future ahead.”
— Pece Acev, journalist and television reporter
“Today is truly a historic day for Macedonia. Just 10 days after the ‘bloody Thursday’ when the parliamentary majority was attacked in the Parliament and several MPs were seriously injured, it appears that the country is ready to exit its perpetual political and legal crisis. Although this is a major step forward in forming a pro-EU and pro-reform Government, several key challenges remain.
First of all, this crisis started as a result of the wiretapping scandal, whereby more than 20,000 Macedonian citizens were illegally intercepted by the party now in opposition, VRMO-DPMNE. The work of the Special Public Prosecution Office should be unhampered in their investigation and processing of all illegal activities, violation of fundamental rights and mass-scale blackmail for political gains. Moreover, focus on key reforms regarding the judiciary and public administration, in my opinion, are the first steps needed to unblock institutions in their everyday work. Also, a new impetus towards the EU and accompanying narrative is needed. At a time when the society is deeply divided, a new integrative narrative is necessary to ensure the revival and sustainability of the social cohesion of Macedonia. For this purpose, all available resources must be utilized – especially civil society. The dismantling of the Gruevski regime will not be easy, still, today is the first step towards a better Macedonia.”
— Aleksandar Jovanoski, MA, Programme Coordinator for Democracy and Rule of Law, European Policy Institute (EPI) – Skopje
“The left in Macedonia has rightly avoided labeling the conflict as inter-ethnic to point to the larger economic issues that have contributed to the current situation. However, now that SDSM is back in power, it is important to remember the recent history of that party vis-a-vis ethnic, racial and religious minorities, including various past proclamations that Albanians pose a demographic threat to Macedonia. Economic disparity is deeply intertwined with ethnic, racial and religious discrimination in Macedonia and VMRO is not the sole party to be blamed for that. SDSM politics from the 1990s until the mid 2000s contributed to the current economic inequality between minorities and Macedonians. People across the board have embraced the new politics of SDSM as part of larger desire to move beyond the politics of hate and the promise of economic and social justice. Appointing figureheads in visible positions as tokens of multiethnic coexistence is not going to result in the kind of change that Macedonia needs. So I think SDSM should acknowledge the historic and structural inequality of minorities in Macedonia and provide opportunities that would bring Roma, Albanian and Muslims to the same living standards that Macedonians enjoy as the only certain way to evade another return to nationalist politics.”
— Piro Rexhepi, Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute
Cover photo credit: Lily Lynch