Op-ed: The Candidate That Got Captured

Reflecting on ten years of Macedonia’s often tumultuous political evolution, Ivana Jordanovska asks whether the country is on the right track as it prepares for this spring’s historic elections.

On December 17th, 2005, Macedonia was granted candidate country status for EU membership. For the small state of two million, it was a commendable success. Although Macedonia managed to stay out of the secessionist Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, it experienced its own internal conflict in 2001, when Albanian forces sought greater autonomy using violent means. Unlike most countries of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia faired relatively well: A peace agreement was signed later that same year, ending hostilities and paving the way for the restructuring of society.

The next couple of years saw the implementation of a progressive set of policies, not always appreciated, but much needed. The highly-contested law on territorial organization of 2004 created the preconditions for decentralization and consolidated the compromise reached through the peace agreement in 2001. A law prohibiting all forms of discrimination was adopted. But most importantly, a set of thresholds were passed, leading up to an application for candidate status with the European Union. The application process itself lasted for several months and was led by a group of outstanding individuals. Just four years after the end of armed hostilities, the EU granted Macedonia candidate status.

A lot has changed since that cold and celebratory December. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) lost the elections in 2006 to the fresh-faced, right-wing economist Nikola Gruevski and his “Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity” – DPMNE. The incumbent Social Democrats of SDSM had focused on governance and improving inter-ethnic relations, but had failed to fully showcase the economic benefits of its policies, such as achieving the first budget surplus since 1991. Gruevski ran and won on a platform emphasizing the benefits of reforming the economy.

The first two years of his mandate seemingly kept in line with his election promises. A number of measures were introduced to attract foreign direct investment and reduce red tape for businesses, such as cutting the number of days necessary to register a business to three. Keeping with his right-wing orientation, a flat income tax of 10 percent was also introduced.

A supposedly proactive approach to solving the name issue with Greece was widely touted, while clear divisions between “us” (Macedonians) and “them” (Albanians) were promoted at the same time. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Croatia and Albania were invited to join the alliance, while Macedonia’s invitation was vetoed by Greece due to the still unresolved name issue. Only days later, the Macedonian parliament voted for the first early parliamentary elections since the country’s independence in 1991.

Call me a hardliner, but I don’t think that people change, even if politics do. For the 2008 elections, Gruevski introduced his most nationalistic and populist rhetoric yet. The general narrative at the time was apologetic for the actions to come, a sentiment best summed up as “We tried to play by their rules in order to get into NATO and the EU, and they don’t want us. Now it’s time to play by our rules.” Though many have been tempted to attribute more weight to Gruevski’s economic policies and claim that he was never a nationalist prior to Bucharest, it is naïve to think that a reasonable economist turns into a populist nationalist overnight. It seems that only gremlins undergo such stark transformations.

The results of the 2008 election were a devastating blow to the Social Democrats of SDSM, and represented a clear victory for Nikola Gruevski’s DPMNE. In the aftermath, instead of creating a coalition with their 2006 partners in the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), Gruevski chose to form a government with Ali Ahmeti’s Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). And this was the moment when Macedonia’s happiest marriage of convenience and corruption was sealed.

As the former political leader of the armed Albanian forces involved in the 2001 uprising, Ahmeti was suddenly sharing ministries with DPMNE, the political party that had been the staunchest opponent of concessions to ethnic Albanians in Macedonia since 1991. To cite just one example, when an initiative to introduce an Albanian language major at the University in Skopje was first introduced in 1997, it was today’s key political figures in DPMNE who took to the streets to protest against the idea. In the spirit of a true, tragicomic Balkan perversion of political values, the coalition between DPMNE and DUI continues to this day.

Skopje, 2015. (Photo credit: Lily Lynch/Balkanist)
Skopje, 2015. (Photo credit: Lily Lynch/Balkanist)

But back then, we were just getting started. The period from 2008 until the next early election in 2011 set the stage for the state capture to follow. A number of judges at all levels were appointed in accordance with their party affiliation. Following the same trend, more and more people were employed in the public administration based on their ties to the parties in the ruling coalition. The government started developing media campaigns on various issues, pouring an unprecedented amount of public funding into the media sector and diluting the free market for advertising. The historicist kitsch project known as “Skopje 2014” was unveiled in 2010, generating an outpour of conflicting opinions and raising significant questions: In the middle of an international economic crisis, why was the government spending money on sculptures and baroque facades?

When discussing the start of state capture, it is vital to remember the nature of the coalition in power. Although united on all relevant decisions in parliament, the ruling coalition effectively functioned as two separate, ethnically-segregated governments: DUI controlled the employment and appointment of Albanians, while DPMNE dictated that of Macedonians. Nearly all public procurement contracts were awarded to companies owned by individuals who were either party members or strongly supportive of the parties in power, according to a clear agreement between DPMNE and DUI. While this practice was not foreign to Macedonian society, it had never been elevated to such a level of perfection before. The new organization of state power further solidified the discipline inherent to the close coordination between DPMNE and DUI, and laid the groundwork for the biggest state-sponsored money laundering operation to date: Skopje 2014.

In this merry fairytale of greenness and greed, only one dark spirit clouded the government’s shiny dreams: A1, the first privately-owned TV station in Macedonia, which was fiercely dedicated to doing the unprecedented – reporting. As the country’s TV stations received more and more money from the government for various campaigns, they grew increasingly complacent and silent on key and controversial issues. A1, as the financially strongest and thus most independent, weathered the storm all too well until November 25th, 2010, when police officers entered the TV station following indictments on financial fraud. The station’s bank accounts were frozen and after a more than six-month struggle to stay afloat, the TV station was finally shut down.

The ensuing public outrage was articulated by the opposition, which boycotted the parliament. Prime Minister Gruevski initially refused to hold early elections before caving in after a month or so. What is obvious in retrospect was the naiveté of the opposition, and the calculated risk approach of the governing parties. Deciding to hold early elections, Gruevski was in possession of all necessary information and levers of power to ensure his own victory and that of his party. The media was almost completely compliant with his messaging; the public administration had been modeled to function as a virtual voting machine for the ruling parties, and all the necessary polls were conducted to carefully measure public opinion. The opposition relied heavily on the same methods that won them elections in the 1990s, and did not possess the time or will to reform internally. Gruevski won the elections handily and went back into government with DUI.

At the main celebration of this victory, a police officer battered a youngster to death. Martin Neshkoski was a 21-year old supporter of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE, and his death triggered a wave of protests organized and attended by other young people. One could argue that this was the first grassroots, democratic awakening of young people in the country. As such, it was both revolutionary and flawed: in an attempt to avoid partisan accusations issued by pro-government media, organizers asked that prominent members of the opposition neither attend nor publicly support the protests. The Minister of the Interior claimed that the officer accused of beating Martin Neshkoski to death was off duty at the time; years later evidence would emerge that there were serious internal problems concealed within the ministry.

The unprecedented levels of corruption that continued to flourish unchecked meant that DPMNE and DUI could be subject to criminal prosecution should they ever lose power, so the stakes for the ruling elite grew higher and higher. No event portrays this more clearly than the adoption of the state budget for 2013. Though the government possessed the necessary majority to pass its agenda, it was still required to go through all amendments before proceeding to the voting stage. The opposition prolonged the vote by submitting more than a 1,000 amendments. Eventually, on December 24th, 2012, the Minister of Interior deployed police to remove the media, and later opposition MPs from the assembly hall by force, all without accepting a single amendment. Why was this budget so important? 2013 was an election year for mayors and municipality council members. Through social transfers, the governing parties were able to ensure the necessary number of votes for victory in all but six out of the more than 80 municipalities in Macedonia.

Without a midterm strategy, the opposition boycotted the work of the parliament and took to the streets, mimicking the rhetoric of used by Serbia’s Otpor (“Resistance”) movement during the 1990s. However, the outdated internal hierarchy and protests methods earned them only limited support from the international community which had started to distance itself from the populist Gruevski. However, Macedonia continued to receive recommendations for the start of EU negotiations based on progress reports that, in many regards, lauded superficial reforms while turning a blind eye to the still-creeping state capture.

As much as I’d like to talk of the organized civil society in Macedonia as proactive citizens clustered into groups that receive funding to further their causes, in many ways, I’m unable to describe them this way. While there were organizations that consisted of proactive citizens who fought an active, uphill battle for the betterment of democracy, many organizations ignored the situation until donors called for greater criticism of the current situation. So the group of proactive citizens that initially came together for protests against police brutality continued to comment, interact and organize themselves more and more on a growing number of issues. At a certain point, it became normal to grow acquainted through protest gatherings.

Protest in Skopje, 2015. (Photo credit: Lily Lynch/Balkanist)
Protest in Skopje, 2015. (Photo credit: Lily Lynch/Balkanist)

The Social Democrats failed to attract wider active support from citizens, though a significant segment of the population was outraged by the current government’s brutal methods. The agreement of March 1st, 2013 that returned the opposition to parliament set the course for early parliamentary elections — the third since the independence and the third in a row. Scheduled for 2014, they were held on the same date as the presidential elections.

At the time, Macedonia still hadn’t had an official census since 2002. After a failed attempt in 2012, no one seemed too eager to try again. With alarming rates of people moving abroad, and with low birth rates throughout the 1990s, it became increasingly suspicious that there really were 1.7 million voters in the country. The local elections in 2013 already signaled grave electoral irregularities in some municipalities, such as diaspora voters being registered and driven into the country for voting. However, the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 saw similar grave wrongdoings in nearly every municipality in the country, and predictably amounted to a clear victory for DPMNE and DUI.

The opposition didn’t recognize the results of the election and refused to participate in the work of the parliament. Meanwhile the OSCE/ODIHR labeled the elections as “efficiently administered”. In November 2014, students took to the streets to protest against the new law on higher education for the first time. After several successive protests, they were increasingly supported by the general population. In February of 2015, the Social Democrats released the first of many “bombs” – recorded conversations that revealed the government’s apparent illegally wiretapping of more than 20,000 citizens, or one percent of Macedonia’s population, according to the 2002 census.

The bomb of May 5th revealed the government’s attempt to hide the facts surrounding the murder of Martin Neshkoski, triggering a wave of protests in the following days. The new structure of the opposition Social Democrats was actively opening up to ideas coming from civil society. Key civil society leaders and activists were organized into a tight, fast-on-its-feet group, ready to articulate ideas unseen and unspoken in the Macedonian media and to engage with a wide range of citizens. The culmination of these protests came on May 17th, 2015, and communicated the popular consensus that got to the root of our current problems: Gruevski had to leave.

Representatives of the main political parties, DPMNE, SDSM, DUI and DPA, came together in early summer 2015 as part of the internationally-brokered Przino agreement, which sets the course for fair elections in 2016. (Early parliamentary elections should be held in Macedonia on April 24th, 2016). Civil society will follow the process, offering the only oversight we have that can sound the alarm to any potential wrongdoings. And so the citizens wait.

Reflecting on the events of the past 10 years in Macedonia can be truly depressing, but offers hope at the same time: We moved from being a leader in the region in European integration to depending on foreign assistance for the resolution of internal problems, from discussing anti-discrimination laws with a potentially positive influence on inter-ethnic relations to only recognizing ethnic cooperation insofar as it was reflected in quotas for employment statistics, from having a budget surplus to being the most indebted country in the entire region, from being the “sane” country in the former Yugoslavia, well on the road to democratization, to total state capture.

At the same time, over the course of the last year we have witnessed the loudest, best articulated and united demand for real democracy in the country’s history. This provides the best context for the often depressing recollection of the political evolution in the past 10 years: now we understand.

As any parent knows, children, in their inexperience, make mistakes. We, as citizens of Macedonia, have made mistakes and we all carry, to a greater or lesser extent, the burden for the current situation. But we must understand the chosen course that got us here in the first place, so we never repeat it again. Now that we understand, we can learn. And if we learn, we’re already back on the right track.

To the next 10 years of politics! May they be ours for the making.


Cover photo credit: Lily Lynch/Balkanist

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Ivana Jordanovska

Ivana is a graduate of the Institute for Political Science of Paris, with a focus on transatlantic relations. She is also a member of the Executive Board of the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe), and believes justice is more important than ethnic belonging.