On 31st January 2015 the Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, publicly announced that the state institutions are persecuting Mr. Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) opposition party, for espionage and violence against representatives of top state authorities with a purpose of violently undermining the constitutional order. Gruevski claims that he held four meetings with Zaev in the period between September and November 2014, during which Zaev pushed for forming a technical government under the threat that in cooperation with a certain foreign intelligence service he gathered recorded telephone conversations from almost the entire state leadership, starting from the President of the country, the Parliament, the Government, media and other political public figures from the government and the opposition.
Besides upholding the image of the country and the state officials, Gruevski did not make any serious reference to the content of the controversial materials, apart from admitting that some of them were true, while the rest were partially or completely fabricated. Instead, he turned the defense of the constitutional order into a nationalistic speech which is the style that he frequently resorts to when defending the country’s position in the name dispute with Greece. To boost his slim interpretations over the accusations he pointed out that for everything he said, there was strong and irrefutable evidence.
Zaev responded with a crowded press conference surrounded by party officials and supporters. In a euphoric speech he rejected the accusations and reiterated that he possesses evidence that the secret services intercepted and taped the communications of thousands of citizens. He claimed his arguments were strong enough to prove the link between the police, the judiciary and the incumbent political party. Moreover, he stated that it was not foreign secret services that helped him gather the information, but rather it was honest and patriotic individuals from the state apparatus who delivered the evidence. Responding to the “blackmail” allegations, he reminded the audience that his quest for forming a technical government has been public since the day his party decided to delegitimize the electoral process in April 2014. Finally, he urged the international community to closely follow the process as Macedonia is an EU candidate country.
The history of the conflict between these two politicians begins in April 2014, when the Government organized one of the most controversial electoral processes in history. On the election night, Zaev announced that his party rejected the double-vote results, claiming that the poll was unfair. As a result, his coalition decided to boycott the Parliament and delivered five key demands to the Government for normalization of the political dialogue with the most important of them being the formation of a technical (caretaker) government with purpose of implementing fair elections. The OSCE/ODIHR final report of the elections monitoring came to similar conclusions in regards to the shortcomings and the general atmosphere of the electoral process.
Right after the political crisis emerged, the EU offered mediation, which was declaratively endorsed by the both sides. However, it never took any practical forms with visible result. Since September 2014, there was only one official meeting between Zaev and Gruevski followed by several months of secret negotiation rumors.
In October 2014, Zaev announced that his party is in the possession of numerous documents and materials, which contain not only regular criminal activities accusations against the government officials but also encompass sensitive evidence which have to do with cross ethnic relations. Both tensions and expectations from ‘Zaev’s bomb’ have risen over time and reached a climax on January 25th, when police arrested the former Director of the Intelligence Service, Zoran Verushevski. The Ministry of Interior announced that Verushevski along with two other persons were convicted of being a part of a group inspired by Zaev.
Growing Repression and the Toilet Paper Political Dialogue
Zaev’s conviction should not be treated as a separate incident, but rather as a logical consequence of a series of contentious events that have unfolded in the country over the past several years.
Velija Ramkovski, a media tycoon and owner of the country’s most powerful A1 TV and three daily newspapers all of which have shifted sides and become openly critical of the Government in the last couple of years, was arrested under tax evasion charges in 2010. His media outlets were eventually closed down in mid 2011. After winning the general elections in June 2011 in an obvious attempt to intimidate any potential opposition the Government engaged in a retaliation campaign against its critics, which included arrests, inflicting damage on business interests, and lustration of opponents.
On 24 December 2012 following a plenary session all opposition MPs and journalists were forcibly removed from the premises of the Parliament by special police forces. The “Black Monday” incident took place after the opposition submitted more than thousand amendments to the Budget Law in a clear, yet procedurally legal, attempt to stall the adoption. The opposition decided to boycott Parliament, and threatened it would not participate in the upcoming Municipal elections unless general elections are called at the same time. It was only when Štefan Füle, the then EU Commissioner for Enlargement, exerted pressure on party leaders that a compromise was agreed upon. SDSM agreed to nominate its candidates, while the incumbent VMRO-DNE promised to support the establishment of a multi-party Inquiry Commission with a mandate of clarifying the events of December 24.
After months of soap-opera like negotiations, the Inquiry Commission determined that the removal of the MPs from the Parliament was unconstitutional. However, Ilija Dimovski, the VMRO-DNE representative in this Commission, downplayed the significance of the document stressing that “the significance of the legal qualifications is like toilet paper”. So much for the political dialogue.
European Trade-off between Stability and Democracy
In its initial statement on the charges against Zaev, the European External Action Service recalled the inalienable right for an independent and transparent investigation reiterating its concern about the deterioration in political dialogue in the country. Observers were surprised at this statement, describing it as inadequate, weak and out of touch.
However, a closer look to relations between Macedonia and the EU would reveal that the rhetoric of EU officials has been gradually softening since October 2011, when Füle hinted at the prospect of Macedonia losing the recommendation to start accession negotiations unless reforms are tackled adequately.
The High Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD) between Macedonia and the EU was introduced on March 15 2012 to inject new dynamism in stalled EU integration process. HLAD failed to deliver results, with critics qualifying it as a ticking-the-box exercise with a lot of form, but no substance at all. Ever since, the dose of criticism in the EU rhetoric has been disproportionate. EU official were happy to see Gruevski at the table, no matter the substance of discussions. Gruevski was happy to demonstrate success and label domestic criticism of the growing authoritarianism as unjustified. This arranged marriage silenced the most vocal proponents of EU integration in Macedonia.
Repairing the Credibility
The credibility of EU is severely damaged for two different reasons. Nationalists and conservatives blame EU for double standards as it is not willing to force Greece into more cooperative position when it comes to resolving the name issue. Liberals blame it for making tradeoffs between the values it stands for with stability.
If the ultimate goal of the European policy towards Macedonia is to secure stability, no matter the cost, then it has a competitor in Russia, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the charges against Zaev and called on Macedonian authorities to secure stability and security. Meticulous observers cannot recall the last time that Russian officials commented on political developments in Macedonia.
The political crisis in Macedonia will not be resolved in a fair and institutional manner, because the institutions failed to deliver impartial and just results many times in the past. Stating that the independence of the state institutions will be now tested, as the EU Ambassador in Macedonia did, is naive especially after the latest EC Progress Report, in which the high politicization of the institutions was stressed. If EU is ready to turn a blind eye on authoritarian practices, they should state this clearly, and this will make the political choices of Macedonian citizens much easier. EU should therefore avoid “double speak” and make clear what it stands for. This is for the sake of its own credibility, putting into practice its innovative fundamentals first approach, and democracy in the Balkans.