Macedonia Update: Challenges and Choices for the New Government
Europe Report N°60
29 Mar 1999
The new Macedonian government marked its first hundred days in office in early March. Formed by the Macedonian Internal Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO–DPMNE), the Democratic Alternative (DA), and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) after the last parliamentary elections in October and November 1998, the government is headed by VMRO–DPMNE Chairman Ljubco Georgievski and has a comfortable majority of 73 out of 120 seats in the current parliament.
Prior to the elections, some of the parties now in government had made extensive promises, particularly in the realm of economic and social policy. Most promises have not been carried out thus far. The current government, whose capacity to act is limited by the general state of Macedonia’s economy and by limited financial resources, has a particularly disappointing record in the economic sphere. Few new jobs have been created, pensions have been raised only insignificantly, and public sector employees even face pay cuts. The budget for the current year leaves the government virtually no room to manoeuvre. The only possible way forward is to create a climate that attracts foreign investment.
The government has also given grounds for concerns with its employment policy, under which party affiliation seems to be more important than professional qualification. Contrary to earlier pledges, the government has sacked more than 1,500 public-sector employees. It has also taken firm control of parts of the media, most notably the state-run electronic outlets.
On the positive side, inter-ethnic relations have improved as the government has taken first steps to accommodate demands by Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian community. More problems remain to be solved, though, and further improvement will most likely come after the presidential elections at the end of the year.
The government’s decision in late January to establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) caused considerable controversy in Macedonia and resulted in the break-up of relations between Macedonia and China. If the government wants to profit from the recognition of Taiwan by bringing in Taiwanese investment, it must create a framework that is favourable to such investment. Otherwise, Taiwanese business will see little reason to invest in the country.
Following the break with China and the consequent veto by Beijing of an extension of the UN Peacekeepers’ mandate in Macedonia, the international community and Macedonia need to reach an agreement under which a multinational peacekeeping force can stay in the country.
Macedonia in February reached a breakthrough in relations with Bulgaria, a development likely to strengthen Macedonia's position in the region. Relations improved following the signing of a joint declaration and several bilateral agreements.
The Kosovo crisis, however, continues to cast its shadow on Macedonia and has raised concerns over the country’s stability. Around 35,000 refugees are estimated to be in Macedonia at the moment, and it is unclear how many more will come or how many the country can accommodate. The international community is currently providing considerable financial assistance in this field and should continue to do so. Western countries should also be prepared to take refugees from Kosovo if their number reaches a level that can no longer be handled by Macedonia alone. A recent government decision to close the border between Macedonia and Kosovo has been reversed, and it remains to be hoped that the border will remain open as more and more Kosovars seek refuge. In Macedonia proper, mistrust towards ethnic Albanians by parts of the population might yet create problems. Another danger to the country’s stability and security could come from ethnic Serbs and radicals within Macedonia. The recent violence of 25 March, directed against Americans and other foreigners, may not have been the last incident.
Over the past three months, cohabitation between the Social Democratic President and the centre-right government has not always been comfortable. In order to avoid conflict in the future, the constitution needs to be amended. Most importantly, a deadline for presidential vetoes against legislation needs to be introduced to prevent the legislative process grinding to a halt.
With some six to seven months to run until the next presidential elections, it is unclear who the candidates for the highest office will be. The ruling coalition has not yet announced whether it will agree on a joint candidate — most likely DA Chairman Vasil Tupurkovski — or whether VMRO-DPMNE will decide to field its own candidate. In this case, the current coalition might be endangered and a new coalition could replace it. One smaller party, the Liberal Democrats, has already indicated that they would be inclined to join any alternative coalition government.
Skopje–Brussels, 29 March 1999