Macedonia in 2016: Resolving or reinforcing the political crisis?

18 January, 2016

Written by:
  • Dane Taleski
Macedonia in 2016: Resolving or reinforcing the political crisis?

On January 15, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn came to Macedonia to seal the deal on the agreement paving the way out of the crisis via early elections in April 2016. However, the main opposition party, SDSM, objected to the elections, expressing doubt that conditions are sufficient for them to be free and fair. On the other hand, the ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, as well as the two Albanian parties, DUI and DPA, want elections in April. The international community hopes that the implementation of the agreement and elections will bring political stability and predictability in Macedonia: something that was missing in 2015.

At the moment it is unclear whether implementation of the agreement will continue, whether elections will be held, and if so, when. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski hinted that, if elections are postponed, the agreement would not be valid. In consequence, it is unclear whether the opposition will continue to participate in government, or if their ministers and deputy ministers will resign, or if they will be removed by the parliamentary majority. Will parties continue to work to reach a consensus on ongoing issues; for example, improving media freedoms and clearing the voter registry? If the agreement was off the table, would the opposition refrain from releasing new wire-tapped materials? And how will the latest developments affect the work of the special prosecutor, a direct product of the agreement?

The agreement: a way out from the crisis

After the wire-tapping scandal surfaced in early 2015, the European Commission (DG NEAR) recruited an independent Senior Expert Group to investigate and to prepare a report. What came to be known as the “Priebe report” points out the existing weaknesses in the functioning of the institutions, acknowledges abuses of power and provides a set of recommendations to remedy the situation. Some of the recommendations were included in the political agreement that was made between the main political parties and brokered by Commissioner Johannes Hahn on 2 June, and then amended on 15 July.

The agreement envisaged the following: the opposition would return to parliament and stop releasing wire-tapped materials; a special prosecutor – who will investigate the alleged crimes revealed in the wire-tapped conversations – would be elected; a parliamentary committee for investigation chaired by the opposition would be formed; the opposition would join government and appoint ministers for the Interior, Labor and Social policy, and deputy ministers for finance, agriculture and public administration; the voter registry would be cleared; changes would be introduced in the electoral legislation and in the State Electoral Commission; and greater media freedoms would be secured. In addition, the agreement envisaged that Gruevski would resign and a new government would take office at least 100 days before the elections. According to the agreement, these were necessary preconditions for free and fair elections in April 2016.

What happened in practice?

In September 2015, the opposition returned to parliament and stopped releasing wire-tapped materials, and a special prosecutor was elected. But then the implementation of the agreement got stuck. The special prosecutor could not get capacities and resources, and parties could not agree on the implementation of the other points. Commissioner Hahn’s visit to Skopje moved things forward, and complemented the concerted efforts of US and EU ambassadors, as well as the efforts of the EU's appointed facilitator. Eventually, the opposition entered government and a parliamentary committee was formed. However, many deadlines were missed. The composition of the State Electoral Commission changed, but other reforms were minimal. Also, there was no progress on clearing the voter registry or improving media freedoms.

Well before the end of 2015, there were major signs that the implementation of the agreement was failing. The parliamentary committee investigating the wire-tapped materials did not organize public hearings. Instead, the prime minister answered questions in a closed session, and other invited persons, such as the minister of finance, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Cabinet, the former head of civilian intelligence, and former ministers of the interior and transport and communication, did not show up to testify.

The institutions where the opposition had entered became politically dysfunctional. Instead of working together, government and opposition were at loggerheads. For example, VMRO-DPMNE's deputy ministers objected to decisions made by SDSM's ministers, and SDSM's deputy ministers publicized VMRO-DPMNE members’ wrongdoings in their portfolios. The work of the special prosecutor was obstructed; from slow provision of resources and capacities, to challenges to the Constitutionality of the special prosecutor, to the court's lack of cooperation regarding access to evidence.

When a weekly magazine published a story about counterfeited ID cards used for rigging the vote, suggesting it was orchestrated by VMRO-DPMNE, the police and prosecutor acted without the knowledge of SDSM's minister of the interior or special prosecutor.  They arrested people who had allegedly counterfeited personal documents and had ties with the SDSM, and suggested the wrongdoing was SDSM’s. VMRO-DPMNE even formed a parliamentary committee to investigate the case. Pro-government media were quick to denounce the opposition and support the government propaganda.

Lastly, Gruevski submitted his resignation on the last possible day. However, his resignation was conditional on the date of elections, meaning that it will become effective if and only if the date is confirmed, with the resignation taking effect 100 days before election day. VMRO-DPMNE endorsed Emil Dimitriev, the party's general secretary, to be prime minister in the technical government. The largely unknown Dimitriev is a loyal party soldier, the peak of whose political career was the function of Deputy Minister of Defense. Gruevski wanted to be certain that his replacement would be loyal to him and would not have the political weight to challenge him.

Consequences of failing to implement the agreement

VMRO-DPMNE did their best to obstruct the implementation of the agreement, the aim of which is to deconstruct their authoritarian regime. They paid lip service to it while obstructing reforms and strengthening their grip over public administration, the judiciary and the media. They are not interested in improving democracy and rule of law. VMRO-DPMNE is in a favorable position amid the ambiguous implementation of the agreement.

At the same time, VMRO-DPMNE is already campaigning for the next elections. The party is organizing meetings and discussions in different municipalities to promote the government's projects and policies. In their interpretation, the problems testified in the wire-tapped materials - such as gross abuse of power, politicization of institutions, electoral manipulations and widespread corruption - are just an opposition hoax trying to create a political crisis. To paraphrase, VMRO-DPMNE insist that they work to provide tangible benefits to the people, while SDSM insist on non-concrete issues like human rights and democracy.

Driven by inertia, with some credible support, a larger clientelistic voter base and a perception that the regime has not changed, VMRO-DPMNE looks set to win again. Polls published at the end of 2015 gave VMRO-DPMNE a clear advantage compared to SDSM. Winning the elections, most probably, is the strategy of their political leadership to obtain amnesty for all their wrongdoings.

It is somewhat surprising that SDSM rejected participation in the elections, even though they had previously stated doubts. But SDSM should have voiced their concern much sooner and more strongly. If a solution had been sought earlier for the facade implementation, then perhaps the potential political instability in future could be avoided. Now SDSM are exposing themselves to criticism, not least from Gruevski, that they want to prolong the political crisis.

SDSM will face criticism from various sides. Their motives for objecting to elections will be questioned because the polls favor VMRO-DPMNE. It is likely that SDSM will find themselves under international pressure to accept the early elections. At the same time, SDSM did not consolidate the opposition (such as by creating a wider opposition coalition), and they broke off cooperation with civil society organizations. Anti-government social movements, active in 2015, have lost steam. The revolt and dissatisfaction are there, but people have become passive and there is no imminent reason to protest. SDSM stands to loose all from the ambiguous implementation of the agreement.

The EU, with US support, will continue to play a key role in resolving the crisis. After the initial surprise when the political crisis unfolded, the EU was able to turn around and broker the agreement in 2015. In 2016, it will have to finish the job. The EU has some leverage, despite the fact that the lingering bilateral “name-dispute” with Greece blocks Macedonia's EU accession. The European Commission has made clear that Macedonia's recommendation to open accession talks will be reviewed in 2016. The recommendation will be retained if the political crisis is overcome and if early elections are free and fair. There is room for maneuver for the EU to stabilize and re-democratize Macedonia. Macedonia is an important example that shows that the EU should closely monitor democracy in the region, as suggested by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

What might happen in future?

The worst case scenario: All bets are off. This means that the agreement is no longer valid. As a consequence, the opposition will leave government and may even step out of parliament. The opposition may also release new wire-tapped materials. The government will push Zoran Zaev's trial for espionage and a coup, and will continue to crack down the opposition and the media. Under such a chain of events, it is not clear how the special prosecutor will continue to function. It is plausible, but not very probable, that elections will be held without the opposition. However, this worst case scenario is not very likely.

The best case scenario: A new agreement. In an ideal situation, a new agreement would be made with priorities to reform administration, rule of law, media freedoms, a census of the population and to clear the voter registry. A technical non-party government would be appointed to implement the priorities and to organize elections in a reasonable time frame (e.g. one year). However, the best case scenario is even less likely than the worst case scenario.

The realistic scenario: Pick up the pieces and continue. This is the first reaction from the EU. The idea is to continue the discussions of parties' working groups on finding a solution to clear the voter registry and to improve media freedoms. This scenario implies that opposition will remain in government and parliament. Eventually all parties will agree on a date for elections and Gruevski's resignation will become effective 100 days before that date. This seems to be the most likely scenario for the future.

It is likely that the EU will push for further implementation of the agreement. The issues to resolve are clearing the voter registry, improving media freedoms and strengthening the State Electoral Commission. The parties should reach a consensus on the issues and agree on an action plan to put the changes in place. The date of elections should be conditioned with the action plan. But, even if VMRO-DPMNE remain in the negotiations, reach a consensus and agree on an action plan, they will likely seek ways to obstruct the reforms.

Therefore, SDSM should acknowledge that there will be suboptimal conditions for the next elections. However, now there is higher international awareness. OSCE/ODIHR announced a large observation mission, EU presence has been announced, and it is very likely that US and major EU embassies will have people on the ground. In addition, SDSM will control the Ministries of the Interior and of Labor and Social Policy, which are the two institutions which have been used most in previous elections to coerce voters or extend selective public benefits. And when the voter registry is cleared and there are some improvements in media freedoms, then there are no excuses to avoid elections.

On the other hand, no institutional change is a guarantee that SDSM will win. The party has to work intensely to increase voter support. SDSM needs to create a wide pro-democratic momentum and it should hope that opportunities are not lost. VMRO-DPMNE’s strong campaign machinery is rolling, they have many smaller coalition partners, and good cooperation with DUI and DPA. Even if the entire political agreement is fully implemented and there is a perfectly level playing field, VMRO-DPMNE is a formidable political opponent.

Is there a way out from the crisis?

However, it is not likely that elections will resolve the political crisis, even though many see them as the way out. Polarization and political hostilities will likely increase during the campaign. Elections might even reinforce the existing ethnic divisions. For example, there is heightened competition within the Albanian camp. Several new parties will challenge DUI and DPA. There are hints that ethnic outbidding strategies will be used. And VMRO-DPMNE, as a nationalist conservative party, is likely to use strong ethno-national rhetoric in their electoral mobilization.

After the elections it will be difficult to reconcile the losers, regardless of results. If SDSM loses, then they might complain about the lack of a level playing field. SDSM might boycott institutions, again, which will prolong the crisis. If VMRO-DPMNE loses, then they will fear political retribution and persecution. It is likely that investigation of the wire-tapping scandal will be more efficient, which could lead to arrests or the detention of VMRO-DPMNE's key leaders and trigger protests. But, VMRO-DPMNE's leaders should not expect to get an amnesty for wrongdoings even if they win elections. There are also rumors of a wide coalition government between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM, to reconcile differences and lower animosity. But this will depend on electoral results and is possible only if the margin of victory is narrow.

The resolution of this crisis will come about through the actions of the special prosecutor and adequate court responses. The origins of the political crisis in Macedonia are irresponsible governance, abuse of power, gross human rights violation, widespread corruption and embedded authoritarian and clientelistic practices. Elections are not the most adequate answer to solve these problems. Better suited answers are supporting the rule of law, empowering the judiciary, reinforcing the integrity of judges and prosecutors, and conducting an impartial and objective investigation of all wrongdoings and adequate processing.

Elections will confirm the political leadership or bring changes in leadership. Macedonia needs responsible and accountable political leadership to come out of the political crisis. Elections will not necessary produce such leadership. On the other hand, it is sufficient to strengthen judicial control to make the political elites more responsible and accountable. Winning or losing elections cannot be tied in with being held accountable for personal actions in a court of law. That is a fundamental democratic and European value. And it is a lesson that politicians in Macedonia, and in other Western Balkan countries, need to learn.

Written by:
  • Dane Taleski Dane Taleski received his PhD in Political Science from the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests are post-conflict democratization, transformation of rebel groups, political parties, ethnic politics, regional cooperation, EU integration and Southeast Europe. His work has been published in Democratization, Ethnopolitics, Suedosteuropa and New Balkan Politics, and various edited volumes. In 2014, he received a Civil Society Scholar Award from Open Society Institute in New York. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz (October 2015 – June 2016), and a Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies of South East Europe at the University of Rijeka (March – July, 2016). He was Visiting Lecturer at the University of Fribourg in fall 2016.
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