Macedonia on the Brink

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Demonstrations brought Macedonia to the brink when wiretaps of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski surfaced in 2015. The wiretaps revealed plots against political opponents and sordid details about corruption.

The European Union (EU) responded to the crisis, mediating the Przino agreement. The agreement required participation of the opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) led by Zoran Zaev, in ministries of the government. The agreement also required Gruevski to step down and for a caretaker government to organize general elections.

The election scheduled for April 24 was postponed to June 5, and then postponed again to December 11.

Accountability was also a lightning rod. The Przino agreement called for a special prosecutor to investigate the wiretapping scandal. However, President Gjeorge Ivanov issued pardons to figures in both parties effectively undermining the special prosecutor. Popular demonstrations and counter-demonstrations ensued.

Elections were finally held in December 2016; Gruevski’s party won 51 of 120 seats in parliament. Since he did not gain an absolute majority, the balance of power rests with parties representing ethnic Albanians, who constitute at least 25 percent of Macedonia’s population.

Albanian parties came together and adopted a common platform. Zaev agreed to expand constitutional rights of Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians in exchange for their support.

SDSM assembled a parliamentary majority, which should have been enough to form a government. However, Ivanov refused to award a mandate to SDSM claiming that the consensus among Albanian parties was a foreign construct, negotiated under the auspices of Albania’s Prime Minister. Albanians refuted this claim, criticizing Ivanov. Zaev also accused Ivanov of deliberately stalling the political process, helping Gruevski cling to power.

Macedonia’s crisis is acute. The longer it takes to resolve the impasse, the greater the risk of political violence between supporters of Gruevski and Zaev.

Macedonia is also undermined by external powers. When the United States and the EU criticized the government, Russia labeled the SDSM a tool of the West. Russia is pursuing insidious goals to discredit Western influence.

Macedonia needs a conflict resolution plan, which can stabilize the country and mitigate the prospect of political violence.

Political parties should urgently agree on a new Speaker of the parliament. Talat Xhaferi is under consideration.

The new Speaker should work with Ivanov to form a government. He could seek to establish a coalition based on the election results from December 11. However, Gruevski could destabilize the country by sending his supporters to the streets.

The Speaker could facilitate the formation of a national unity government in which all parties are represented. However, Zaev could reject power sharing. He and Gruevski have a poisonous relationship.

The Speaker also has the option to do nothing, punting on political negotiations in lieu of elections sometime in the future. This passive approach could antagonize all sides.

Either way, Macedonia must reinvigorate the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA), which institutionalized benefits to Albanians, as part of the peace deal ending the conflict of 2001. It should adopt specific benchmarks and a timetable clearly measuring progress. The present impasse involves the two major parties. Macedonia does not want the problem to assume an ethnic dimension, further roiling tensions.

I have worked in Macedonia for 25 years. Sadly, Macedonia’s political elites still lack the political maturity for compromise. Its politicians prefer a zero sum game. Macedonia is a vulnerable, small, new nation in a volatile region with cavetous neighbors.

Macedonia’s deep structural and political problems will only worsen if current trends continue. An interim solution would kick the can down the road, creating time for dialogue and breathing space for politicians to set aside their narrow parochial pursuits in service of the national interest.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the US Department of State under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.