Macedonia in Europe or Belarus in the Balkans?

At the dawn of the publication of the European Commission's Progress Reports for 2015 the Macedonian political crisis is at its climax, while the way out of the deadlock seems distant and intangible. Since the I think establishment of the so called Przhino Agreement its implementation took more effort than anyone expected. This especially goes for the EU special mediator Peter Van Haute who drives the European vehicle towards the successful implementation of what was agreed upon in June and July 2015 by the main four political leaders in Macedonia. For the purpose of finalizing the crisis with free and fair parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2016.

The Przhino Agreement came after the Opposition Leader Zoran Zaev published nearly 40 sets of wiretapped conversations between the highest Government officials that indicated huge corruption scandals, organized repression against political opponents and journalists, murder cover-up, manipulations of the election process manipulations and so forth. Zaev claimed that the audio tapes were produced by the Macedonian Secret Service which allegedly intercepted the conversations of nearly 20,000 people, most of them political opponents of the regime inasmuch as high-ranking officials of the regime. PM Gruevski responded with an initiative for pressing charges against the Opposition Leader for an attempt of violent overthrow of the constitutional order of the country; claiming that Zaev obtained the wiretapped conversation from a "Foreign Secret Service" for the purpose of forcing Gruevski to resign and for early elections to be held. These developments led to a series of civic riots and a 60 day long campout of the opposition supporters in front of the Government building.

What's at Stake?

So what does the deal entail? In the Przhino agreement the Government succumbed to the key demands of the opposition and the anti-governmental movement.However the implementation of the agreement didn’t go as smoothly as optimists expected because the Government used all of the instruments at its disposal in order to prevent any meaningful reforms from being implemented. Zaev ceased “bombing” the Government and his parliamentary group returned to Parliament. The timely appointment of a Special Prosecutor in charge of investigating all allegations related to the wiretapped conversations was a cause for some optimism. Despite this, as time went on it became increasingly clear that the Government will use the veto power of its party loyalists in Council of Prosecutors, the body responsible for appointments of Prosecutors, to prevent half of the deputies of the Special Prosecutor from being elected. The deadlines for the implementation of other key point of the Przhino agreement are already overdue. The Minister of Interior who was supposed to be appointed upon nomination of the opposition by October 15 became another apple of discord. Under these conditions, it is unrealistic to expect that PM Gruevski himself will resign by 15 January 2016, which is another key point of the Agreement.

The international community and their representatives in Macedonia seem to no longer be constrained by diplomatic convention in regards to pointing at PM Gruevski and the Government as the culprits for the failure to meet the deadlines. In a characteristic style, PM Gruevski responded on twitter that 'Macedonian people will decided over its future.' Rumours had it, that when asked by foreign envoys if his plan was to turn Macedonia into Belorussia, PM Gruevski rhetorically replied: 'What’s wrong with Bellorussia?' These developments put Zaev under mounting pressure as well. Some civil society groups from the broad, but heterogeneous, anti-government movement started publicly questioning the effectiveness of the intuitionalist tactic and blamed both Zaev and other groups for monopolizing the anti-governmental political energy. If the limbo situation continues, the pressures on Zaev to embrace the original strategy and continue with “the bombs” will increase.

Caught between the pragmatic aspects of his strategy that require institutional manoeuvring and compromises, and the idealistic ones which he must rely on in order to broaden the support base of the anti-governmental movement it will take not only a matter of knowledge and skills but more of political Fortuna for him to be able to keep the heterogeneous movement together. With no significant popular support behind him, Zaev is likely to lose the war, no matter how strong his arguments are, or how independent the institutions established under the Przhino Agreement such as the Special Prosecutor are.  PM Gruevski’s mantra about the people, and not the Special Prosecutor or the foreign ambassadors, as the final arbiter in the crisis seem to epitomize his plan for the way out of the crisis.

What's the Way Out?

The outcome of the Przhino Agreement implementation is critical for the EC recommendation for membership negotiations with Macedonia. The degree and the character of the political crisis in Macedonia do not allow space for actual opening of the accession talks, let alone the name issue with Greece which was deemed to be the only barrier to the country's EU integration. However, the EC believes that the recommendation gives it certain leverage needed to overcome the political impasse.

If the EC retains the recommendation it will be a sign that despite the grave political troubles, the country is in the EU courtyard and the Union will engage to resolve the crisis and put the country back on the European track. The recommendation would not be issued unconditionally; on the contrary, it should be highly conditional upon full and consistent implementation of Przhino Agreement with close EU monitoring. This alternative will put Gruevski in the tough position to keep his word and implement the agreement signed last summer in order to overcome the crisis. Such a signal from the EU would be an indicator that the European Commission and the Member States stand behind the Przhino Agreement and perceive it as the main tool for organizing free and fair elections as a first step towards country's normalization.

However, if the EC decides to suspend or freeze the recommendation that will inevitably entail the EU withdrawal from the position of a mediator and guarantor of the Przhino Agreement and its full and consistent implementation. Such a move might be a signal for Gruevski to resume with the repression and 'state-capture' style of governance. Simultaneously, Zaev and all the other opposition groups will see the dismantling of the Przhino Agreement as a sign to return to the street protests, release new wiretapped conversations and radically resist the Government's repression. This scenario undermines all the efforts invested in the past six months and brings the country back to an unstable terrain of deep societal confrontation with unpredictable consequences.

The position of the EU is quite delicate. However, it might be the best chance for the EU to demonstrate, for a change, its leadership and capability of helping the troubled Western Balkan countries in resolving their crucial challenges on the democratization track.

Ljupcho Petkovski

Ljupcho Petkovski is a Research Coordinator at the Macedonian Centre for European Training. He holds MA in Political Sciences and he has published on populism, the interplay between political culture and Europeanization, and democratization through external incentives.

Bojan Marichikj

Bojan Marichikj holds a Bachelor Degree in Law from the University of "Ss. Cyril & Methodius" in Skopje, an L.L.M. in International and European Law from the University of Amsterdam, and an M.A. in Modern European Studies from the University College London. His research interests include Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, EU Constitutional and Political system, EU Law in the national legal order, EU in multilateral foreign relations, Europeanization of the politics, policy and polity in the candidate countries, EU political conditionality and Theories of European Integration. He is a long-standing civic activist and since 2013 he is an Executive Director of the Macedonian Centre for... Read more about the author

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