The EU has rewarded superficial reforms and tolerated undemocratic, if not outright despotic leadership in the Balkans for far too long. It’s time for that to change, and there’s no better place to begin than in Macedonia.At a recent regional conference on the Western Balkans, I heard an outgoing Minister of Foreign Affairs complaining about the EU’s improper use of “too much stick, and not enough carrots” in the enlargement process of our countries. And my stomach churned.
If anything, governments in the Western Balkans (in most cases) have received too many benefits in exchange for the meagre reforms and steps forward they have managed to achieve. The EU’s mellow approach toward superficial and semi-democratic governance has left the citizens of these countries disappointed and disillusioned with the prospects of eventually making it into the big European family. Even as newbies in the business of democracy, we are not idiots. We know we are a far cry from truly deserving the title “democratic”.
And this has to change. Macedonia’s the perfect starting point.
Having been shaken up by demonstrations for more than six months, and by pages and pages worth of illegally wiretapped conversations, the current government of Macedonia is looking at a bleak future. The pro-government “Guardians of Democracy” who have set up camp in front of the Assembly has done little to soften Gruevski’s position in negotiations with the opposition. The five-hour meeting in Macedonia on June 2nd resulted in the setting up of reform commitments and a framework for the negotiations held in Brussels on June 10th. The only semi-concrete outcome of the meeting in Skopje known to the public is that if both sides agree on a roadmap out of this crisis, early parliamentary elections might take place as soon as April 2016.
The opposition, led by SDUM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, elsewhere known as SDSM) has shown stability and determination in the content and articulation of its position. For the first time in its history as a political party, it seems that the Social Democrats are prepared to listen, cooperate and fully implement the requests of Macedonia’s civil society. If followed through until the end of this crisis, it will be an important precedent and one of the cornerstones for Macedonia’s democratic revival.
More than 80 non-governmental organizations, 15 political parties and numerous activists are united in the platform “Citizens for Macedonia”. In a truly democratic manner, they have drawn up a declaration that summarizes the red lines of the opposition movement in the country, serving as a useful reminder not only to the EU, but also to SDUM leader Zoran Zaev himself:
We unanimously demand the immediate establishment of a caretaker government that would clean the Voter List, free the public broadcaster MRT from government control, appoint an independent Public Prosecutor and organize completely free and democratic elections that would reflect the actual political will of the citizens of Macedonia. The composition of the caretaker government is a matter of agreement between the main political parties. However, that government should exclude all current Government members, as all of them have been largely compromised with their words and deeds registered on the wiretapped conversations published by the оpposition political parties. Participation of any current Government member in the caretaker government would undermine the credibility of the transitional process and trust in the just resolution of the political crisis.
On the other hand, Gruevski has done little to amend his reputation for superficially ticking off Brussels’ boxes. To establish this well-known pattern of behavior, we need look no further than the EU-sponsored March Agreement. After violently throwing out journalists and members of SDUM from the Plenary Hall of the Assembly on December 24th 2012, Gruevski went on to adopt the state budget for 2013. The opposition took to the streets, and threatened to boycott the local elections set for March. The EU promptly sent out its messages about “dialogue” and invited both sides to negotiations. After a lot of arm twisting, the opposition agreed to participate in the elections in return for a bi-partisan expert committee to draw up an agreement for the events of December 24th. The expert committee was headed by a commonly agreed upon professional, Professor Borche Davitkovski, Dean of the Faculty of Law of Cyril and Methodius University. SDUM nominated Ljubomir Danailov Frckoski and Renata Deskovska, both professors of law, and VMRO DPMNE nominated Blagorodna Dulic and Ilija Dimovski, a former judge and student of law, respectively. The committee came up with the so-called March Agreement, which stipulated the return of the opposition to the Assembly, participation in the local elections under a revised time framework and the implementation of OSCE/ODIHR recommendations with regard to the electoral law and voters’ registry. Once an agreement was reached, VMRO DPMNE’s nominees signed, noting under their signatures that they disagreed with the legal qualifications. Later, Ilija Dimovski issued a statement saying that the agreement was nothing more than a “piece of toilet paper” to VMRO DPMNE.
Yet the EU accepted the political agreement, welcomed the results of the local elections and awarded the government of Gruevski with yet another positive recommendation for start of the negotiations. Was the EC really so blinded by the despotic brilliance of Gruevski’s government, or were they willing to look the other way as long as the boxes were being checked?
The negotiations in Brussels on Wednesday were proclaimed unsuccessful in reaching an agreement. The EC’s official statement said: “The European Union urges all parties – in the interest of their country and its citizens – to find a lasting political compromise without any delay and come forward with concrete proposals to this end, building on the agreement already reached in Skopje on 2 June.“ Hahn went on Twitter to express his disappointment:
“No final deal yet in talks on frm. Yugoslav Republic of #Macedonia. Very disappointed about lack of responsibility+leadership by some.” 1/2
— Johannes Hahn (@JHahnEU) June 10, 2015
The EU cannot play the surprise card again. After years of seemingly fulfilled promises, the wiretapped conversations have revealed a staggering level of corruption and abuse of power. If there is a logical conclusion to derive from this crisis, it is that public pressure, without foreign assistance, will not suffice. The people have taken to the streets multiple times in the last six months over a variety of issues, finally blending into a common camp in front of the Government. The protesters have been camping there for 26 days already.
Furthermore, it is time for this Commission to take up the role of leader in the region of the Western Balkans. Instead of being sensitive to the influences of other powerful global actors in the Balkans, it is time for this Commission to take their own foreign policy much more seriously. It is time to safeguard the values expressed in the Copenhagen criteria, and not simply keep on repeating them.
It will be difficult for the EU to swallow six recommendations for the start of negotiations, all of which demand a certain level of normalcy and democratic capacity in Macedonia. But the reality is that we can’t sweep democratic deficiency under the carpet anymore. The carpet is gone.
The EU must take a firm stance in line with the opposition’s requests. Gruevski’s reign has commandeered Macedonian society to such an extent that it’s unrealistic to hope for meaningful change without significant and decisive pressure from outside. Civil society and the opposition are prepared to welcome the EU’s efforts and restore faith in European integration to the citizens of Macedonia. But this can only be done if the EU stays principled, true to its own values and gives Macedonia a second chance to build a democratic society. And only then, bring back the carrots.
Cover photo credit: EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s Twitter Official Twitter account.