Macedonia’s Election – No End to the Political Crisis

Far from portending a clean break from Macedonia’s years-long political crisis, the election results have clarified, rather than ameliorated, the political division in the country. Furthermore, the results demonstrate that the EU’s attempts to mediate a path out of the crisis for two years have failed – and may now deliver a seal of approval to a further consolidation of authoritarian power under Gruevski with a narrow parliamentary majority. The danger is that the EU will from now on downplay government abuses in order to “move forward.” The timing could not be worse for Western commitment to liberal democratic values – or the attention of senior officials.

Official results from Macedonia’s general election on Sunday, released Monday, gave Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE 51 seats to the opposition SDSM’s 49. The biggest shift was the blooming of two new ethnic Albanian parties, BESA, which won five seats, and the Alliance for Albanians, which won three, routing the Democratic Party of Albanians, which received two seats. The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the longtime coalition partner of VMRO led by Ali Ahmeti, retained 10 seats.

The meaning of the results in terms of governance remains unclear. Both the VMRO and SDSM claimed victory on election night. In their preliminary report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Election Observation Mission stated that “fundamental freedoms were generally respected and contestants were able to campaign freely, there were allegations of voter intimidation and widespread pressure on civil servants, verified by observers in a dozen cases.” The EOM’s report quoted the head of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) delegation, Stefan Schennach: “The different ethnic communities already proved, during last summer’s street protests, that co-operation towards a common political goal is possible. Now the entire country must replace ethnic separation with nation-building co-operation.”

This highlights the most important change in Macedonia’s long-running political crisis: the most salient division in Macedonia today is not between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, but rather is within those communities – between those who identify with and/or directly benefit from the institutionalized patronage system of the ruling VMRO and DUI coalition and those who do not. This system was not invented by Gruevski, but he has enthusiastically expanded it in directions previously unimagined. Macedonia – at least according to the announced result – is evenly split between those who feel outside and degraded by that system and those for whom the expansive patronage network provides security – and for some conflates with a sense of identity.

Interestingly, the inter-ethnic cooperation in the two camps differs. The VMRO-DUI relationship was always purely transactional – as was, to be fair, the coalition governments led by SDSM previously. The 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement has been credited with opening up public administration positions to ethnic Albanians – a real achievement. But what has been created is a parallel DUI-centered patronage system that is distinctly subordinate to the ruling VMRO which continues to embrace national narratives and themes and which are ultimately non-inclusive of ethnic Albanian citizen. Given the intimidation which the OSCE EOM reported coming from the authorities, it can only be presumed that while the process on election day was reportedly smooth, thousands of voters were not truly making a free choice when casting their votes. Patronage and fear often work in tandem.

The opposition’s voter base is more diverse in its motives, united by a desire to overturn the system but not necessarily united in what they prefer to succeed it. However, protests beginning with those of students in 2014 from the “colorful revolution” to today point to a desire for a different, less corrupt, more genuinely popular and representative Macedonian society and state. In my recent visit to Skopje, there was less enthusiasm for the SDSM than there was a sense of the absolute necessity of ousting Gruevski to reconstitute Macedonia’s hope of becoming a functioning democratic state grounded in the rule of law. The intensity of this feeling – and its ability to manifest itself in support across an ethnic divide as wide as any in the Balkans – was impressive, as was the energy devoted to consideration of the governance priorities post-Gruevski. It is for this reason that former Ambassador to the United States Nikola Dimitrov’s calling the election a de facto referendum seemed so apropos. This was manifest in the SDSM’s making significant inroads by obtaining ethnic Albanian votes.

The hope for a decisive election result has been dashed. The results will surely be contested, so the disposition of the West is all the more important. As Toby Vogel and I reported earlier in the year, VMRO-DPMNE’s lobbying effort in Washington was major, involving the paid engagement of the Daschle Group, led by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. (The meetings requested can be found here.) But even greater traction, with less transparency, was found in the EU, with the wholehearted endorsement of Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz at a VMRO rally last month. VMRO’s European Peoples’ Party membership continues to pay dividends in terms of active support and access throughout Europe.

But the Kurz appearance underscored the dominant European priority, which DPC – and many others – has highlighted for some time: a fixation on stability. The refugee/migrant crisis is a primary factor for many EU members. Gruevski’s government was pivotal in Austria’s alignment of the Balkan states (sans Greece) into a coalition to shut down the Balkan route. As my colleague Bodo Weber demonstrated in his policy study, the EU jettisoned (or at least downplayed) its liberal democratic standards with several countries – most notoriously Turkey – in an effort to stem the flow. Gruevski wisely took full advantage – and hopes to continue to do so as competitive efforts to form a government begin.

It is impossible to envision a democratic renewal in Macedonia under Gruevski’s leadership; from the present electoral math it appears he will have first crack at assembling a government, and with DUI’s support he could just manage. More of the status quo will not confer stability, nor allow for progress. Rather, it would deepen Macedonia’s political agony. The reality is that Macedonia cannot be stable until there is a reform effort with broad popular support aimed at developing political accountability of politicians to citizens – and the law. The outcome of the elections, as of now, make this unlikely.

The EU’s approach, led by Commissioner Hahn, has required injections of steel from outside the EC-led process, most notably by the Priebe Commission and the US Government, to keep it from veering into irrelevance or indulgence of Gruevski’s efforts to escape the requirements of the Przino Agreement. There never was any independent inquiry into the Kumanovo raid in May 2015, for instance, despite being called for by the EU in its immediate aftermath. Throughout Macedonia’s political crisis, American pressure has been essential, as has the bilateral engagement of a number of EU member states, particularly Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands. This must remain focused and sustained through electoral appeals, government formation and – with luck – a resulting coalition agreement centered on new actors and focused on systemic reform. Gruevski is likely betting that given the transition to a Trump administration in the US, the continued formlessness of Brexit, and elections in the Netherlands and Germany, none of these countries’ representatives can count on strong backup from their capitals. It is a reasonable gamble. Should the West hope to promote durable reform in Macedonia, thereby providing real progress and therefore stability, it – starting with Washington, while Obama is still president and with continuity into the Trump administration – will need to prove him wrong.