Now is not the time to abandon Macedonia

If political change is to take place in Macedonia, it should be through the ballot box – not on the streets.

Tents, posted by opposition supporters, in front of the government building in Skopje, Macedonia [AP]
Tents, posted by opposition supporters, in front of the government building in Skopje, Macedonia [AP]

Macedonia is one of the few success stories emerging from the chaos that the Balkans experienced during the 1990s. Even so, the political situation today in Macedonia is becoming increasingly unstable. If ignored, instability in Macedonia could have larger geo-political ramifications for the region.

The current government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, is mired in a mass wiretapping scandal. In addition, there was an attack earlier this month carried out by Albanian nationalists on the Macedonian town of Kumanovo. Eight police officers and 14 terrorists were killed after a tense firefight down narrow streets in a residential area. Another 30 terrorists surrendered and are currently being charged.

The origins of the leaked wiretappings remains disputed.

The government claims the wiretappings were part of an attempted coup d’etat by the main opposition political party led by Zoran Zaev.

Inside Story – What’s behind Macedonia unrest?

Back in January, a former head of Macedonia’s Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (known by its Macedonian acronym UBK), Zoran Verusevski, was arrested and charged with organising a rogue spy ring and then handing the tapes over to the opposition.

Confusion and conspiracy

Zaev claims the recordings are an illegal product of the UBK and were leaked to the opposition by a whistleblower from inside the government. He too has been charged with conspiring to overthrow the government. 

Regardless of their origin, it is clear that the scandalous contents of the recordings have been used for political and blackmail purposes by the opposition. It is worth noting that there is no way to verify to what extent the recordings have been edited because the snippets that have been released are from longer conversations.

There are also those who claim that the deadly attack on Kumanovo was a false flag operation by the government designed to distract the public from the wiretapping scandal. Frankly, those who believe this should probably remove their tin hats. Albanian irredentists have a long history of attacks inside Macedonia, and there is no evidence to suggest that the attack on Kumanovo was anything else.

An inconvenient truth for the opposition is that Gruevski's electoral mandate is solid.

In order to facilitate political dialogue between the government and opposition, the interior minister, transport and communications minister, and the head of the UBK have resigned – even though they do not admit to any wrong doing.

Gruevski has also agreed to talks in Strasbourg with opposition parties mediated by the European Parliament. This has not been enough to placate the opposition, who are calling for the prime minister and his government to resign.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in the capital city Skopje. Some protesters have even established makeshift camps vowing to stay until Gruevski resigns. In response, equally large (if not larger) pro-government demonstrations have taken place in the capital.

Free and fair elections

An inconvenient truth for the opposition is that Gruevski’s electoral mandate is solid.

Since first winning election in 2006, Gruevski has reaffirmed his governing mandate with early elections on three different occasions in 2008, 2011, and 2014. In all three elections he won the support of the Macedonian voters alongside his ethnic Albanian coalition partners.

Most recently, Gruevski won parliamentary elections in April 2014 with 43 percent of the vote compared to the opposition’s 25 percent. The Organization and Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) said that the elections: “…were efficiently administered, including on election day. Candidates were able to campaign without obstruction and freedoms of assembly and association were respected”.

There were also more than 2,500 international observers on the ground during the voting process.

Even so, Zaev claimed that the elections were unfair and has since boycotted parliament. This is a tragic mistake on his part. Parliamentary democracies thrive when there is a robust and loyal opposition. Obviously, Zaev and his party cannot fulfil this important function by boycotting parliament.

Nikola Gruevski, Macedonian Prime Minister [AP]Nikola Gruevski, Macedonian Prime Minister [AP]

The stability of Macedonia is not only a national issue, but also an issue of Euro-Atlantic integration and regional stability. Many of Macedonia’s political problems have their origins in Greece’s incessant veto over Skopje’s entry into Euro-Atlantic structures due to a dispute over the use of Macedonia’s constitutional name.

Euro-Atlantic limbo

Yes, you read it correctly: Greece, a country so dependent on the financial goodwill of its European neighbours, is blocking Macedonia’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO because of a name dispute.

Thanks to Greek nationalism and double dealing in negotiations, Macedonia is left in a permanent state of Euro-Atlantic limbo. This has left a scar on the country’s political psyche.

No government is perfect. Without a doubt many in the country have legitimate political grievances against the incumbent government. As Greece continues to push Macedonia away from the Euro-Atlantic community there has been growing concerns about the politicisation of state institutions, the independence of the judiciary, and freedom of speech.

For its part the government should launch a parliamentary inquiry into the wiretapping and ensure that the judicial process works in a transparent way.    

In any democracy, peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy civil society. But if political change is to take place in Skopje it should be through the ballot box and the parliament – not on the streets and in makeshift protest camps.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Nikola Gruevski

Our correspondent describes the mood in Skopje as rival crowds face-off amid allegations of corruption against the PM.

Published On 18 May 2015
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