North Macedonia’s election: a victory for Western diplomacy?

Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters
Supporters of the ruling party SDSM shout slogans in support of presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski in Skopje, North Macedonia, April 14. Sunday’s election is a testament to how far this nation has come since narrowly avoiding civil war.
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Back in 2001, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it was then known, seemed just around the corner from full-blown civil war. Today it has recently ended a 27-year-long dispute with Greece over its name that was blocking its way to NATO and European Union membership and will democratically elect a new president this Sunday.

North Macedonia is unique in a part of the world where nationalist strongmen, religious extremists, and organized criminals are amassing ever greater influence. It is not only swearing allegiance to the West; it is doing (almost) everything it needs to do to join the club.

Why We Wrote This

An election in North Macedonia may not seem momentous. But Sunday’s vote is a testimony of the country’s journey from near civil war to EU candidate – and of how successful Western support for democratic change can be.

Crucially, the United States and the EU got involved 18 years ago. And for much of the past two decades, they have played an active role in the country’s affairs. At key moments “the EU and U.S. had common goals … and spoke with one voice,” says a senior Western diplomat here. “That had an effect.”

“We are the most successful story in the region,” says Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani. “We’re a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious country with no open disputes among ourselves or with our neighbors. We have become a role model.”

When I last visited this tiny Balkan nation in 2001, it was teetering on the cliff edge of ethnic civil war, threatening to drag its neighbors back into renewed bloodshed.

I recall sitting in a provincial town hall, my conversation with the mayor drowned out by the clatter of a helicopter gunship outside the window as it fired rockets at nearby rebel positions.

But the country stepped back from the brink. And on Sunday, after a long and tortuous journey, the country will hold presidential elections that the government hopes will finally unlock the Holy Grail: membership in NATO and the start of talks to join the European Union.

Why We Wrote This

An election in North Macedonia may not seem momentous. But Sunday’s vote is a testimony of the country’s journey from near civil war to EU candidate – and of how successful Western support for democratic change can be.

The newborn Republic of North Macedonia is unique in a part of the world where nationalist strongmen, religious extremists, and organized criminals are amassing ever greater influence. It is not only swearing allegiance to the West; it is doing (almost) everything it needs to do to join the club.

“We are the most successful story in the region,” says Bujar Osmani, deputy prime minister for European affairs. “We’re a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious country with no open disputes among ourselves or with our neighbors. We have become a role model.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Less partisan observers point to flaws in North Macedonia’s democratic credentials, but there is no doubt that “everyone perceives Macedonia as a positive story,” agrees Uranija Pirovska, head of the local Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog.

How did that happen?

An important corner of Europe

Back in 2001, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it was then known, had been independent for a decade. Its southern neighbor, Greece, did not recognize its “Macedonia” name; Bulgaria, to the east, did not recognize its language as “Macedonian.” But at least the country had avoided the civil strife that had racked its Balkan neighbors in the 1990s.

But then the National Liberation Army, a rebel group, sprang up, demanding more rights for the ethnic Albanian Muslim community, which makes up a quarter of Macedonia’s population and which had historically felt relegated to second-class citizenship.

Over six months of sporadic fighting, several hundred soldiers, policemen, and guerrillas died, and the rebels advanced to within mortar range of the capital, its airport, and its oil refinery. Full-blown war, Bosnia-style, that could tear the country in two seemed just around the corner.

But, crucially, the United States and the European Union cared enough about stopping that to get involved in negotiating and enforcing peace between the two sides. And for much of the past two decades, they have played an active – sometimes intrusive – role in the country’s affairs.

That is because while Northern Macedonia may be tiny (it is the size of Vermont, with a population smaller than that of Houston, Texas), it is strategically located on Europe’s vulnerable southeastern edge. It is a transit passage for migrants, drugs, and guns. French police, for instance, discovered that one of the AK-47s used in the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris came from Macedonia.

The EU and the U.S. were intimately engaged in the peace talks. And they have stood ever since as guarantors of the deal that ended the fighting. The EU even created and dispatched its first-ever autonomous military mission to the country to help keep the peace.

‘Outside pressure brought results’

That was not the last time Western powers waded into Macedonian politics to keep the country on the track they favored.

For a while at the beginning of this decade, Nikola Gruevski, the then-head of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE government, began to indulge increasingly despotic tendencies – a result, critics charge, of the EU soft-pedaling its push for economic and political reform. Mr. Gruevski and a corrupt clique of fellow party members took control of the judiciary, police, intelligence services, state-run firms, and other businesses in what an independent report to the European Commission in 2015 called “state capture.”

The evidence of the Gruevski era is plain to see today in the capital. What I remember as a nondescript city center is now packed with grandiloquent public buildings in the classic Greek style and outsized, overwrought statuary celebrating ancient Macedonian heroes.

As Europe’s migrant crisis mounted, however, the continent came to count on Mr. Gruevski to control the flow of people into the EU. “The EU made ‘stabilitocracy,’ not democracy, its policy,” says Jasmin Mujanović, an expert on Southeast Europe at Elon University in North Carolina.

But when a Macedonian wiretapping scandal led to street protests and then blew up into a full-scale political crisis in 2016, it was again the EU and the U.S. that sponsored interparty talks. Those in turn led to fresh and relatively clean elections that resulted in an opposition majority. And it was those two partners who used heavy diplomatic pressure to enforce the election results in the face of government resistance, according to people involved at the time.

At key moments “the EU and U.S. had common goals … and spoke with one voice,” says a senior Western diplomat here. “That had an effect.”

The ouster of Mr. Gruevski, who fled to Hungary last November after being convicted on corruption charges, “was our victory,” says Borjan Jovanovski, a prominent Macedonian TV journalist, recalling the popular demonstrations. “But it was outside pressure that brought results.”

A Westward-looking country

That dynamic still holds for Zoran Zaev, the current center-left prime minister, who responded to strong calls from the international community to make concessions in his country’s negotiations over its name with neighboring Greece.

Those talks bore fruit last year with an agreement that unblocked North Macedonia’s path to NATO and to accession talks with the EU. Greece had vetoed any progress for 10 years on the grounds that the name the country claimed for itself – Republic of Macedonia – implied territorial claims to Greece’s own northern province of Macedonia.

Mr. Zaev and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have been jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the 27-year-old dispute.

Boris Grdanoski/AP
North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (l.) holds the hand of his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, in Skopje, North Macedonia, on April 2. The Greek prime minister arrived in North Macedonia for the first-ever official visit of a Greek leader after decades of strained relations between two nations.

Before Greece imposed its veto, Macedonia had been a Balkan front-runner to start EU membership negotiations and had been set to join NATO.

From the start the country has been clearly oriented toward the West and a keen supporter of the “Euro-Atlantic” geopolitical bloc. Despite delays and setbacks, politicians of all parties and the overwhelming majority of citizens see EU membership as “the North Star” of national policy, says Dr. Mujanović.

Indeed, that promise played a major role in holding the country together. It gave common purpose to the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority, says Erwan Fouéré, a former EU ambassador to Skopje. “Had there not been the prospect of EU membership, which united the country, there would have been much greater fragility,” says Mr. Fouéré. “It was vital, pivotal.”

That prospect was also the motivating force behind the reforms that Skopje has been implementing, with varying degrees of success, on the political and economic front. The aim was to turn North Macedonia into a sufficiently democratic, free, and law-abiding country for the EU to be ready to imagine it as a member of the Union.

“The only fuel that makes the transformation engine run in this region is EU aspirations and monitoring,” says Mr. Osmani.

At the same time, few people in North Macedonia feel any particular ties with or sympathy for Russia, unlike in neighboring Serbia, where Moscow’s influence is strong. Nor is the ethnic Macedonian majority especially open to influence from Turkey, unlike in Muslim-majority Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“That has made it easier for the West to win over our sentiments,” says Andreja Stojkovski, a local political analyst, especially when Europe and the United States provide the lion’s share of foreign aid to Skopje and when hundreds of thousands of citizens have moved to Western Europe in search of work.

Brussels and Washington have built on such natural inclinations to shore up civil society and a free press, says the journalist Mr. Jovanovski, who at the nadir of Mr. Gruevski’s rule was sent a threatening funeral wreath. And the Helsinki Committee’s Ms. Pirovska still recalls how all the Western ambassadors gathered at an LGBT center in Skopje to show their support after it had been attacked in 2013.

‘The only functioning multiethnic state in the region’

Western diplomats have paid special attention to relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians in order to forestall any chance of another 2001-style flare up of deadly violence.

Politicians in both communities seem confident there is no such risk, largely because Albanian grievances at being treated as second-class citizens have been addressed.

“I feel very satisfied,” says Feriz Dervishi, an Albanian businessman and member of the city council in Kumanovo, a provincial town set in rolling farmland a 45-minute drive from the capital. In 2001, he worked closely with the Macedonian mayor to keep the lid on his ethnically mixed town, and the rebellion did not catch fire there.

Mr. Dervishi points to the language rights his community has won. Albanian is Macedonia’s second official language, commonly used in parliament; there are a record number of schools teaching class in Albanian; and proportional hiring practices have been introduced in the public sector.

“When you look at the opportunities I had when I was a young man and the chances in life that my grandchildren have now, there is no comparison,” Mr. Dervishi says.

Sealing ethnic political unity, at least in this electoral cycle, is the fact that Stevo Pendarovski, the social democratic candidate for the presidency, has the backing of the Democratic Union for Integration, which is the largest ethnic Albanian party, and other ethnic parties. That has never happened before.

North Macedonia “is the only functioning multiethnic state in the region,” says Simonida Kacarska, director of the European Policy Institute, a Skopje-based think tank.

On the political reform front, the picture is more mixed. Since taking office in 2017, the government has pushed through a raft of legislation to buttress democratic government against the sort of assault it suffered from Mr. Gruevski. But political expediency has sometimes taken precedence over principle, critics complain.

“We are rebuilding the foundations of the country, and Western perspectives are at the top of the agenda,” says Ms. Pirovska. “But not everything is going in the right direction.”

She cites the persistence of political patronage, rife under VMRO-DPMNE rule and still widespread. She also wonders about the government’s commitment to justice and the rule of law in light of the political deals Mr. Zaev appears to have made with the opposition to ensure parliamentary approval of his flagship accord with Greece.

Critics also question whether reforms to the intelligence agencies will really make them accountable. They worry that without a purge of judges and prosecutors, the judiciary will remain under the government’s thumb.

“There is a big gap between principles and reality,” argues one skeptical European diplomat. “A lot remains to be done.”

The Prespa agreement

Such reservations might cast doubt on Mr. Osmani’s claim that his country is a regional role model. But in one respect, North Macedonia is a standard-bearer. In resolving the name dispute with Greece that had festered for more than a quarter of a century, Skopje and Athens showed their neighbors that compromise could overcome the most recalcitrant problems.

“From a psychological, political, and strategic point of view, putting that problem to rest is very significant for other bilateral disputes in the region,” says Mr. Fouéré, the ex-EU envoy. “It will add pressure” on Serbia and Kosovo, for example, to end their border dispute, he suggests.

But the so-called “Prespa agreement” will not necessarily serve as a blueprint. “Finding an agreement is itself extraordinary and a rare example of good news in the region,” says Clemens Koja, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Skopje. “But each case is different.”

That hasn’t stopped Mr. Pendarovski, the social democratic presidential candidate, from campaigning on the Prespa agreement as his government’s signal achievement and “open sesame” moment. He is seeking to replace Gjorge Ivanov of the VMRO-DPMNE, who has been obstructing the government by refusing to sign laws passed by parliament.

Mr. Pendarovski’s VMRO-DPMNE opponent, Gordana Siljanovska, opposes the Prespa agreement and says she would reopen it, though she has not explained how Skopje could join NATO or start membership talks with the EU if she were to do so.

“What is at stake here is the whole North Macedonia project, trying to transform a virtually dictatorial, captured state that was trending away from the West into a legitimate and democratic government that is part of Europe,” says the senior Western diplomat.

How much North Macedonia will be part of Europe is still an open question. After repeated delays, the government had expected to be given a firm start date for accession negotiations when EU heads of government meet in June. But that expectation is looking shaky, especially since French President Emmanuel Macron is insisting the EU should emerge from its current disarray before enlarging its membership.

Another delay in June would be a bitter disappointment to both the government and its citizenry. Those who mutter darkly about malign forces stepping in to fill the political vacuum are probably exaggerating. But rejection would be a dangerous blow to the whole Balkan region, officials warn.

“In our ethnic relations and in our relations with our neighbors, we have built a culture of compromise,” argues Mr. Osmani. “If that is not recognized and we as a government are punished, you won’t find another leader anywhere in the region who will think it is worth making difficult decisions for the sake of stability and peace.”

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