How to make EU mediation work in Macedonia

Since Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski accused the opposition of plotting the overthrow of the government and espionage and opposition leader Zoran Zaev began regularly releasing “bombs” of wiretapped calls that suggest corruption, abuse of office, electoral fraud and a range of other crimes by the prime minister and his associates, tensions in Macedonia have been increasing steadily.  

Now, the EU has become engaged with a low-level mediation by MEPs between government and opposition, meeting in Brussels on Monday. In mediating the crisis and the focus on overcoming the crisis that many describe as the worst since Macedonian independence, it is easy to overlook that the main challenge for  Macedonia is not the crisis. So what is the crisis? In the discourse of EU officials, the crisis appears to be first and foremost the political polarization between government and opposition. However, is more broadly the break-down of legitimate institutions in Macedonia. The president, elected last year by a majority is not recognized by the Albanian government partner as the ruling party failed to seek a joint candidate. The main opposition party boycotts parliament, as it considered (for good reason) the last elections fraudulent and thus did not recognize the outcome. Finally, the government has appeared to have abused its power extensively and beyond even the suspicions many had. It is also a crisis of. However, to take a step back, the crisis would be less intense and acute with the “coup d’état” accession and the wire-tapping scandal. Yet, the wire-tapping scandal is not the crisis, but the expression of a deeper problem, namely the systematic abuse and manipulation of institutions by the ruling party and its leadership. Calling the challenge facing Macedonia today just the ‘crisis’ is like reducing the Watergate affair to the polarized relations between a republic president and the democrats. Without the recordings coming to light, the political crisis would be arguably less, but the long-term damage greater, as the government and also international officials would not be forced to the deal with the issue at hand.

When I wrote the ten rules of a Balkan Prince by todays Machiavelli  a few months ago, the opposition had not yet released its “bombs”, so I would add an eleventh rule, “don’t get caught.” Much of what is heard on the tapes was rumored, the corruption, election fraud, the abuse of public resources, but hearing top officials talk about in sang froid makes it harder to ignore, downplay or forget.

The population appears to be divided about how the crisis should be resolved. Supporters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE believe nothing in particular needs to be done, whereas supporters of the opposition SDSM and also the Albanian governing party DUI are divided between international mediation, early elections, a technical government. Among all voters, only 24% find the continuation of the status quo acceptable.

The EU has been noticeably reluctant to get involved and different views between EU governments are visible with some focusing on ‘mediation’, while others want to be more blunt. As I outlined a few weeks ago, EU mediation without a clear position of its own cannot yield results. For the EU to be a credible actor in the Macedonian crisis, it needs to take a more forceful line and define its own parameters for mediation. Not least the failure of low-level mediation in the past suggest an approach that cannot be ignored.

First, the EU needs to name a mediator for Macedonia who is appointed jointly by Commissioner Hahn and EU High Representative Mogherini and who reports to both on progress and is active in Macedonia. Long distance mediation by MEPs is just too irregular to deliver. Such mediation needs to have the full authority of the EU and takes a political heavy weight.

Second, any engagement has to include four tracks:

A) A political track, now in place between opposition and government over their different views. This dimension needs to also include other political parties, including Albanian parties. Any political settlement needs to be sign on ideally by all parliamentary parties.  Beyond resolving the immediate dispute, this would have to include a credible roadmap on how to

B) Civil society needs to be part of the process. The strategic flaw of the opposition has been to release the recordings as a party and not to establish a broader process that would also bring those on board that do not support the party, but share their critique of the government. Yet, the crisis in Macedonia includes society at large and recent protests suggest that citizens have begun to organize more effectively. The crisis has led to broader civil society become more marginalized and external mediation should not compound this.

C) In addition, the EU needs to ask for an investigation of the accusations in a transparent manner that is internationally monitored and offers an independence that appears difficult through regular judicial process at the moment.

D) Finally, a roadmap that includes early election under robust international supervision with strong oversight mechanisms, including on media reporting.

Third, the EU or rather some EU member states need to think about unlocking the name dispute. The name dispute will continue hijacking the debate about other issues, such as reforms and reduced the leverage of the EU in Macedonia. The crisis is a chance for the EU to realize that the frozen dispute weakens the EU in Macedonia and in the Western Balkans. EU institutions are hand-tied on the issue, but this should not stop a number of EU member state to become active, such as the German-British initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (We argued this in the 2014 BiEPAG report). Just as it needs to have a carrot, it also needs a stick. The withdrawal of funds and the recommendation for the beginning of accession talks has to be on the table (considering the nature of the allegations contained in the recordings, there is little doubt that Macedonia is not ready for accession talks). Even if this would be largely symbolic gesture (at the moment), the signal would be clear in a country where still a strong majority of citizens support EU membership.

Finally, there is a need to consider the ‘A’ word. Clearly amnesty for crimes committed is odious and problematic. The dilemma is similar to other cases of incumbents engaged in illicit activities. If they hope they can get with it, they might resign and opt for retirement (see Sanader). If they are aware that it is power or jail, political leaders are less likely to surrender power. In such cases, there are two ways out: Either the power bases erodes with pillars of power crumbling, such as party loyalists, MPs, media and other tycoons jumping ship because they worry of loosing more by going down with the sinking ship. This requires popular mobilization and/or strong pressure from outside. Then the regime will implode. The other scenarios is that a deal is made, a negotiated transition, as CPRM suggests in a recent study that provides for safeguards for the current Prime Minister and allows for a gradual political transition in exchange. This might be hard to fathom considering the scale of abuse, but this was also the strategy in 1989 in Central Eastern Europe or during the negotiated transition after the first Berisha government collapsed in Albania. Such an exit has the advantage that it reduces the risk of escalation and a complete break-down that might further degrade institutions. The risk is that the same political actors that have been abusing the state institutions might remain relevant players. In addition, there is the moral hazard to consider that sends the message to other “Balkan Princes”: “go ahead, if you get caught, there is a dignified way out.”

Ignore at own risk. The Macedonian crisis might not have reached the intensity for the EU to engage decisively, but the risks are considerable. If the government is able to sit out the crisis without compromise, as it did in 2012, it will send the signal that governments can blatantly disregard democratic rules and get away with it. If the government feels cornered domestically without a watchful international eye, it might be tempted to use interethnic relations to distract from pressure on it.  The credibility of the EU is also at stake, if the commission has recommended accession talks for some five years and argued that the country was ready, most notably writing in the 2014 progress report “democracy has been consolidated” (admittedly there was plenty of criticism later on), the EU should take an active interest not just in stability (i.e. overcoming the political crisis), but the erosion of democracy underpinning it.

This text draws on discussions held at the workshop organized by the European Policy Institute in Skopje, 30.3.2015.

Florian Bieber

Florian Bieber is a Professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He studied at Trinity College (USA), the University of Vienna and Central European University, and received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Between 2001 and 2006 he worked in Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina) for the European Centre for Minority Issues. He is a Visiting Professor at the Nationalism Studies Program at Central European University and has taught at the University of Kent, Cornell University, the University of Bologna and the University of Sarajevo.

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