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North Macedonia: Never-ending transition and new green promises

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Street in Skopje, North Macedonia

The Republic of North Macedonia, which gained independence from the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia in 1991, has had a tumultuous political history. While the country ended its first decade of independence with the resolution of an inter-ethnic conflict in 2001, the last decade has been marked by considerable changes and developments which ushered in a political crisis which reached its climax in 2016, which foreshadowed a name change for the country in 2019. Ultimately, the country has yet to fully pass from the “transitory” phase following its independence into a fully-fledged democracy, and the road ahead remains uncertain.

Recovery

Over the last five years, North Macedonia enjoyed what can be seen as a period of recovery following a political crisis which emanated from the release of wire-tapped conversations by then opposition leader, and later Prime Minister of the country, Zoran Zaev which purported to show then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government had been behind the illegal surveillance of thousands of people, including politicians, business people, journalists, and academics.

Since this time, the country has been steadily recovering from what had been a decade long descent into authoritarianism. The government which had been led by the conservative, right-wing VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity [Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство]) between 2006 and 2017 centralized political power and used it to silence opposition and dissent. Their fall from power was a result of country-wide protests and movements that started in 2014 and intensified in 2016, that were simultaneously against the regime and in favour of the defence of rule of law and democracy.

However, since a new government took office in 2017 led by the left oriented SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia [Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија]), alongside their ethnic Albanian junior coalition partner, DUI (Democratic Union for Integration [Bashkimi Demokratik për Integrim]) which had also been a part of the previous government, there have been several positive steps forward for democracy despite some significant roadblocks.

The new government seemed to usher in a new phase of politics, with SDSM secured the support of ethnic Albanian votes and the support of DUI and other ethnic Albanian parties, raising the hope that stubborn ethnic divisions, which had been characteristic of domestic politics, were becoming a thing of the past. However, despite this hope, ethnic parties and nationalism continue to be a feature of politics in North Macedonia.

Nationalism and nationalist rhetoric were particularly stoked in 2019 by the country’s name change, with many in North Macedonia still contesting the new appellation and refusing to use it. The name change came about following a decades long dispute with neighboring Greece which effectively blocked the Euro-Atlantic integrations of the country. As a result of the name change, North Macedonia became NATO’s 30th ally in 2020. The SDSM-led government invested heavily in restoring international relationships and reversing the ills of the last government.

One significant obstacle on this journey continues to be the restoration of the rule of law in North Macedonia. The institution where many citizens’ hopes are directed is the Special Prosecutors Office (Специјално Јавно Обвинителство / Prokuroria Speciale Publike) which was established to help end the political crisis and which, with the support of citizen-led protests, suffered a heavy blow when the Special Prosecutor, Ms Katica Janeva, herself ended up being among the first people convicted under its aegis and imprisoned for extortion in 2020. It was a bitter end to an institution that had managed to renew hope in the promise of the rule of law.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery has taken an additional meaning. The pandemic, which resulted in a high number of infections (256.281 since the start of the pandemic until the time of writing) and deaths (8.218 deaths since the start of the pandemic until the time of writing) in North Macedonia, has revealed many problems not only in the national health system but generally in the country’s governance structures, including regarding issues such as the quality of public administration as well as the agility of the state apparatus to respond to crises as they unfold. It also revealed the strong influence of fake news in politics and political discourse.

The issue of fake news already presented challenges before the crisis when the country was changing its name, as false information was used by some parties to oppose the change. With COVID-19, the issue has become exponentially worse. This is further exacerbated when considering that North Macedonia is at the end of the list of 35 European countries when it comes to digital literacy, with 42,9 % of young people believing that the virus is artificially created by a handful of powerful people.

Tales of sacrifices and no returns

One can also view the prevalence of fake news and conspiracy theories within a wider context of disenchantment with authority within the population. One key component of this relates to a gamble that still has not paid off, namely regarding the prospect of EU accession.

In the campaign leading up to the name change, NATO and EU membership were the principal motivator. Indeed, the referendum question on the name change read: “Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”.

While the referendum failed to reach the required 50% of votes, of the 36% who voted, 90% were in favour of the name change. However, since changing the name, as well as by fulfilling the required conditions for negotiations to begin, EU membership remains elusive, first due to a French veto which then Commission president Junker called a “historic mistake”, and most recently, due to the opposition of Bulgaria.

These last two blows to EU accession have had a very negative effect in the country for several reasons. Firstly, due to this uncertainty of the EU accession process, the domestic focus has been consumed by the dispute with Bulgaria, which at times overshadowed local and national issues. One example was the recent local elections which played out as a show of discontent with the state of foreign affairs as much as, or even more so, than local concerns. Secondly, the delay has damaged the perception of the EU in the country and the wider region. The logic goes: ‘if North Macedonia did everything right and they still do not get a date for starting accession negotiations, what do the rest of us have to do?’

Therefore, the very legitimacy of the EU in the region and the accession process has been called into question. Lastly, the mercurial EU promise has the most serious repercussions for the countries’ youth, with recent polls showing that 58% of young people want leave the country as they are dissatisfied with politics and do not see a future in the country.

Politically, the EU game has also proven to be costly for reform-minded governments such as the current SDSM-led government. Does it pay off for governments to pursue difficult and unpopular reforms, which often need to be justified by the prospect of EU accession? As a result, the current government has faced instability due to changing coalitions which reflect a wider disillusionment with the state of affairs and a seemingly never-ending period of transition. The SDSM government was recently placed in an insecure position, as BESA (Lëvizja BESA), one of the coalition partners withdrew, while the party itself was shaken by the Prime Minister declaring that he would resign due to the losses endured by the governing parties in the 2021 local elections which took place on 17 October 2021 (a second round of elections was held on 31 October 2021) with SDSM winning in 16 municipalities, while VMRO DPMNE winning in 42 municipalities. The new Prime Minister of the country, Mr Dimitar Kovacevski, who took his office on 17 January 2022, secured his position and that of his party, SDSM, by forming a coalition with the Albanian parties, DUI and Alternative (Alternativa), amid calls for early elections by the VMRO DPMNE. Early elections, which were one of the main mechanisms of the VMRO DPMNE regime during its governance have become a trauma trigger of domestic politics and does not bode well for the processes that the country needs to follow towards democratization.

Building from below

However, all is not doom and gloom, particularly when we consider civil society initiatives that have emerged in North Macedonia and the arrival of new political actors onto the scene.

A key difference between the SDSM-led government and the VMRO-DPMNE-led government is the opening up of the public space and the increased freedom for civil society and other actors to operate that has accompanied their time in office. After all, it was social movements which ultimately brought down the last government and as such demands emanated from below and were not only being necessitated by the seeming remote prospect of EU accession.

One positive development has been the diversification of political actors at the local level particularly. In the capital, the initiative For a Green Humane City won two council seats, as did Better For Tetovo in the southwestern town of Tetovo which consisted of activists who led the EcoGuerrilla movement for clean air starting in 2014 and still carrying awareness raising activities.  Both these initiatives, have already started campaigns against air pollution in the country and have cooperated with each other across cities. Independent lists of municipal actors received more than 56,000 across the country, making them the fourth most popular political actor in a country that has been dominated mostly by VMRO DPMNE, SDSM and DUI. Green initiatives that oppose mining have also been very effective in the eastern part of the country, safeguarding natural resources and seeking accountability for foreign investors who do wrong or who cause environmental damage. The protest movements in the country that started in 2014 have created a strong sense among citizens of their power and their capacity to demand accountability and transparency from the government. The protests also created new political narratives which increasingly reflect the needs and preferences of younger generations. The challenge remains to translate the need for reforms into concrete policies and practices which will be able to provide citizens with a dignified and secure life in the country.

If you enjoyed this piece you might enjoy the rest of our ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series. The previous piece, on the changing makeup of the Croatian political scene can be found here.