Macedonia: Power corrupts

18 April 2016

The President’s decision to extend amnesty for politicians brought about further escalations of mass riots and further doubts on the government’s legitimacy.

A commentary by Vladimir Gligorov

The problem in Macedonia, where there have been mass demonstrations in the past few days, is that the governing Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO) is trying to cling to power even if it risks losing all of its and the legitimacy of the government. Ironically, Russia’s Foreign Ministry perceived this clearly by warning of the Ukrainian scenario, which it interprets as the West instigating a coloured revolution, i.e. a takeover of power through mass demonstrations, this time in Macedonia. That is to say that there is an understanding of an escalation of the legitimacy crisis in this country. In the last week or so, there have been mass demonstrations in the capital Skopje and in Bitola, and smaller ones in a number of other cities (Strumica, Veles).

Presidential amnesty for politicians under criminal investigation

The newest escalation is not due to any intervention by the West, i.e. America and the European Union, but by the decision of the Macedonian President to extend amnesty from criminal prosecution to all the politicians that are under investigation, irrespective of whether they are from the governing or the opposition parties. The Russian Foreign Ministry implicitly supported the intervention in the legal process by the Macedonian President in a statement arguing that the decision should be made at the upcoming early elections (currently scheduled for 5 June). Though, it is not clear how amnesty from criminal prosecution of the key contenders for power is going to make that decision a legitimate one. This is not to even bring up the issue whether ex ante amnesty, before the courts have had any say in the matter, can possibly make any kind of legal sense.

Pre-electoral tactics

Both the largest Macedonian parties (the opposition party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the ruling VMRO) disagreed with the decision of the President, though it is his party, the governing VMRO, which is to be helped the most by this decision if it is allowed to stand. But the very idea is a terrible one – to leave it to the electorate to choose between two sets of allegedly criminal politicians. In addition, this draws the line of equality between the government’s abuses, the abuses of power, and the alleged crimes of opposition politicians mostly as private citizens. That is a huge difference. The massive and comprehensive abuse of power is what is at stake in this political crisis, not alleged corruption by the leaders of the opposition or indeed the governing parties. The same goes for the Albanian parties, though they are mostly outside of this whole challenge to the legitimacy of the government.

What did motivate President Ivanov, who was a professor of law before being elected to his current function as the candidate of the VMRO, to intervene in such a manner? His stated aim is stability while the real aim is to influence the outcome of the upcoming early parliamentary elections. The chances of VMRO remaining in power if no criminal proceedings against their leaders, and in particular of the Prime Minister, who had to step down as part of the pre-election agreement, but is basically in charge, increase significantly if they are not under criminal investigations, for the following reason.

The opposition requests that a technical or expert government is appointed by the parliament, which will prepare the elections, which can hardly be held as currently planned at the beginning of June. With that and with the ongoing criminal investigations, the chances for the opposition to win increase significantly. For them, it is not important that their leader, Mr. Zaev, who is under investigation for corruption, is elected, but for VMRO it is crucial that their leader, Mr. Gruevski, who is being investigated for gross abuses of power, and his key collaborators, are not seen as unelectable.

Public sees freedom and fairness of upcoming elections endangered

There is a sense in the Macedonian public that change is needed, while there is a fear that the outcome of the early elections, whichever it is, might prove destabilising, if it is not achieved in a thoroughly democratic manner, i.e. in free and fair elections. The decision by the President, and the immediate Russian support, work on that fear, rather than help strengthening the democratic character of the upcoming early elections. In that atmosphere, the chances for VMRO to be re-elected increase, or so seems to have been President Ivanov’s assessment.

The bottomline

The bottom line, however, is that there will hardly be stability and legitimacy if there is no democratic and orderly change in government and there is no criminal liability for the abuses of power. The public, unlike the President, should not, one hopes, accept the idea that power corrupts and that its legitimacy is beyond legal and democratic accountability.

The EU representatives have expressed disappointment and disagreement with the President’s decision and it is to be expected that they will get even more involved as the EU has been a party to the agreements which led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and to the call for early elections. The legitimacy of the President’s decision will have to be more forcefully questioned and further steps to insuring that the elections will be free and fair will be required.

In any case, this decision by the President has effectively ruled out early elections on 5 June, though the preparations proceed. He has also inadvertently additionally delegitimised the government, has threatened internal stability, and is risking the country’s standing with the EU, which will hopefully prove counterproductive by both raising the chances for the victory of the opposition, once elections are held, and for the eventual restart of criminal investigations.

However, the reaction of the EU is somewhat unclear and uncertain. It needs the cooperation of the Macedonian authorities to shut down the Balkan route for refugees, so it may choose not to pressure the President and the government as much as is needed. In earlier times, the fact that the reputation of the EU is at stake may have been an incentive to act more firmly, though in the case of Macedonia the record is not encouraging. But in current circumstances, with increasing Russian diplomatic involvement, and declining interest of the USA, reputation and credibility are not strong motivating factors. So, it will be up to the Macedonian citizens and eventually voters to reclaim control of their government and restore stability.