Macedonia: It’s about legitimacy

Macedonia experiences a typical crisis of legitimacy. It has been long in developing, but has now come to a crunch. If it is not resolved democratically, the stability of the country may be at risk.

A commentary by Vladimir Gligorov.

Why was the crisis long in developing? why is there the issue of legitimacy of the government? The current government coalition of VMRO (Macedonian party) and DUI (Albanian party), with some marginal modifications, has been in power since 2006. DUI, which emerged as the party for which the majority of Albanians vote after the near civil war in 2001, has been in government since 2002. Initially, they were in coalition with the Social-Democrats, who are the main opposition party now and in coalition with a smaller Albanian party, DPA, since it lost elections in 2006. Since then, three early elections were held: in 2008, 2011, and 2014, some under pressure, some not. VMRO proved victorious among the Macedonian voters and DUI among the Albanian ones in all the three. So, the legitimacy of the governing coalition had been repeatedly tested and was apparently sustained.

The main reasons for the crisis

However, the reasons for persistent dissatisfaction have remained. The main are: control of media and growing feeling of exclusion by a  large part of the public, growing nationalism with ideological intimidation (targeting the Social-Democrats, i.e. former Communists), corruption and party control of resources and of employment, and no progress in integration in the EU and NATO. These complaints were not fuelled by worsening economic developments, as in some other cases, as Macedonia has performed better than most other countries in the region during the last six years of crisis and the same can be said for the medium term prospects. It has also performed better than other countries in the region in institutional development according to the EU yearly progress reports and is given improved marks by various ranking agencies of the business climate and investment indicators. Of course, Macedonia is still a very poor country (about 4000 euro per capita GDP, 9900 in purchasing power standard in 2014) with very high level of unemployment (about 28 percent according to the labour force survey).

So, this is a pure crisis of legitimacy. It was kept from erupting by repeated early elections, which the opposition claimed were rigged, but hard evidence was hard to come by. Which is when a scandal usually helps, as it did this time around too. After the last year’s early elections, which the governing coalition won decisively (somewhat less than 60 percent against somewhat more than 30 percent for the opposition), the opposition charged election fraud and declined to take their seats in the Parliament. And then came into possession of recordings of conversations of party and government officials which tended to prove the widespread (not only electoral) fraud, corruption, and other criminal activities by the governing parties and the prime minister and the other government officials. This triggered the crisis of legitimacy that is now acting out in the streets.

Violent incidences lack political reasoning

Apparently unconnected with these developments, a couple of violent incidences involving it appears the so-called Albanian Liberation Army (ONA) and the police and security forces took place, the most dramatic one in the border town of Kumanovo (situated on the border of Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo) in early May. Eight policemen and ten armed men were killed in the shootout. Though ONA has claimed responsibility for the action, it is not quite clear what really happened. The reason is the lack of clear political justification of the action of this armed group that reportedly came from Kosovo. There are also some unresolved issues about the actions of the police, which led to the resignation of the Minister of the Interior and the chief security officer, though they were probably on their way out due to other discoveries of their actions in the hacked telephone conversations.

The lack of political aim of the alleged action by this armed group is important because comparisons with the events in 2001 are being made. The then near civil war was publicly motivated with the demands for constitutional reform that would give more autonomy to the Albanian minority (about 25 percent of the population). The conflict ended with the constitutional settlement called the Ohrid Agreement. This time around there is no similar or any political demand as far as one can detect. Though there have been expressions of dissatisfaction with the use of violence by the police and the expression of regret for the victims on both sides, no Albanian party and neither of the governments in Albania and Kosovo have expressed support for the action. Indeed, they have all affirmed their commitment to the stability of Macedonia and to the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. So, it is clearly in everybody’s interest to get to the bottom of the Kumanovo incident. Whether this is a challenge to the legitimacy of the policies of the main Albanian parties and in particular of DUI, it is hard to say. Some declarations by ONA suggest as much, but the significance of that is yet to be assessed.

In any case, the opposition Albanian party, DPA, has been participating in the protests against the government and also in the most recent mass protest on May 17th. So, at least so far, the main story is the crisis of legitimacy, which cuts across ethnic lines, rather than that of an inter-ethnic conflict which may have been the aim of ONA to trigger by their actions in Kumanovo. These statements need to be taken with qualification, however, pending a thorough enquire demanded by the domestic public and the international actors, e.g. by the EU.

Early elections probable

How the crisis could be resolved? It depends in part on the support for the government which is not insignificant. Crisis of legitimacy are resolved with the fall of the government when the division between “us and them”, “them” being the government, “us” being the public, is established. This is not where things are at the moment in Macedonia. The opposition requests that a technical government takes over and prepares early elections, which would be free and fair. The government is not ready to accept that and so much will depend on the mass support which it will be able to mobilise in the manifestations it also plans to hold (May 18th). It is quite possible that this competition for support of the street will continue until some kind of resolution is found. It will almost certainly include early elections, possibly agreed on by the parties with some international mediation (by the USA and the EU; the former influence being traditionally greater than the latter).

Through the governments’ lens

The government is redefining the crisis in the post-Kumanovo situation as one over the stability and strength of Macedonia as a country, with the opposition working against both. It hopes to attract additional public support from those that fear that an inter-ethnic conflict sponsored from abroad may be in the making.

Russia’s desired role

Recently, Russian foreign minister Lavrov lent credence to that fear speaking on the crisis in Macedonia during his recent visit to Serbia. He suggested that the aim is destabilisation of this country so that it will not forge closer ties with Russia, e.g. by not following the EU regime of sanctions and by showing an interest in the gas pipeline, the so-called Turkish Stream, that should pass through Macedonia now that South Stream pipeline is dead. This probably only means that Russia would want to play a larger role in the region, which will be hard in the case of Macedonia however.

EU accession negotiations blocked by Greece

The crisis should prove rejuvenating for Macedonian democracy. It is important to emphasise that this is mostly a democratic challenge, not one of an inter-ethnic conflict as in 2001. Of course, if democracy proves inefficient, ethnic conflicts may re-emerge, which is perhaps what the Kumanovo incident presages. Still, the stability of Macedonia is not exclusively a democratic issue, but also an issue of regional and Euro-Atlantic integration, given the regional context it finds itself in. Putting membership in NATO aside, the blockade of the process of EU integration is a distinct failure of EU integration policy. The EU Commission has recommended that negotiations with Macedonia are opened each year since 2009. The EU Parliament has also supported the start of negotiations, but those are stuck in the EU Council due to the objection by Greece. So, the EU cannot move.

This is not the place to discuss the nature of the Greek objection as this issue is not the main element in the current crisis of legitimacy in Macedonia. Once, however, the democratic test is passed with proper early elections, the issue of EU policy towards the accession of Macedonia will have to be revisited. It certainly will top the policy agenda of the new government.