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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Macedonia > Macedonia: Wobbling toward Europe

Macedonia: Wobbling toward Europe

Europe Briefing N°41 12 Jan 2006


The European Union summit’s December 2005 decision to grant EU candidacy status is a significant milestone on Macedonia’s path to European integration. However, its open-ended nature, with no start date for accession talks, indicates the practical and policy challenges the country still faces to become a stable post-conflict democracy. Implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended incipient civil war in 2001, is nearly complete and essential reforms are underway but progress, while significant, is also relative. The international community needs to keep pressure on the government to move faster and more seriously in vital sectors, including the police and especially the judiciary, which still lag and where on-the-ground implementation often does not keep pace with government rhetoric.

Just as the aptly-timed American recognition of Macedonia’s constitutional name did in November 2004, the EU’s decision gave an important boost to prestige and self-confidence. However, the cautionary language used indicates the EU will continue to press, as it should, for more movement on a number of fronts. Police and judicial reform are particular issues of critical concern for average Macedonians as well as their political leaders. Progress on them is not only a prerequisite for EU membership but also directly impacts coalition ability to govern responsibly.

The police reform mandated by Ohrid has made notable progress in recruiting and training new cadets, adding Albanian officers, and assuming responsibility for the borders. But until the government moves beyond a “ticking the box” approach and tackles fundamental management issues, including decentralising authority and instituting a merit-based personnel system, the police will still not be a transparent and accountable community-based service.

The judicial system remains unreformed and dysfunctional. A country of two million citizens has a backlog of some 1.2 million cases. The crippled system, which is still subject to excessive executive branch influence and corruption, suits entrenched political interests. The international community recognised the problem late, only after the judicial system began to endanger progress in other areas. The government has drafted several constitutional amendments aimed at promoting judicial independence, including life tenure and a required two-thirds parliamentary majority for appointments, but must now actually implement these measures and take immediate steps to improve quality and accountability by rooting out corrupt and incompetent judges and training the capable and qualified.

Two unrelated issues require particular attention in 2006. The imminent return of four war crimes cases from The Hague Tribunal threatens to stir up ghosts of the 2001 conflict and challenge the inadequate judicial system. How these cases are handled – operationally and politically – will have an impact on domestic politics and Macedonia’s relationship with its international partners. Increasing tension within the Islamic community, whose leadership disputes have spilled into the public arena, has raised the question whether the country is threatened by radical Islam. There is no genuine Wahhabi threat, but ethnic Albanian leaders are concerned that the power struggles reflect poorly on their community and could be manipulated by political foes.

Although the insecurities which culminated in the November 2004 referendum – including concerns about power-sharing among ethnic communities and the brief emergence of a group of armed ethnic Albanians on Skopje’s outskirts – seem long gone, Macedonia is still an immature democracy, vulnerable to spoilers seeking to hijack or exploit an imperfect reform process. The road to Europe will be secure only if it implements necessary initiatives and manages political challenges before they grow into crises. These are some of the necessary steps:

  • Judiciary. The international community and Macedonia should lobby the Hague Tribunal to delay return of the four cases until at least late 2006 (preferably 2008) while donors work with the government to fast-track judiciary reforms, including specialised training for judges on serious crimes; crime scene investigation techniques; a viable witness protection program; and a court for serious crimes. Once the constitutional amendments are passed, the government must quickly purge corrupt and non-performing judges, set up the new administrative court for misdemeanours, and establish a permanent judicial and prosecutorial training academy.
  • Police. The pending Law on Police should devolve authority to more, not fewer, police districts. Staff and resources (including an EU presence) need to be added to the Professional Standards Unit so it can investigate internal corruption and police abuse, and a merit-based career path, including a fast-track program for the best and brightest officers and recruits, should be developed. The police also need to coordinate work closer with other government agencies.
  • EU. Drawing staff and expertise from the former Proxima and the interim successor EUPAT police missions, Brussels should establish a new mission, to begin in June 2006, with increased financial and staff resources. Reporting to the new EU Special Representative (EUSR), it should be mandated to expand its scope to include the full justice sector including judges, prosecutors and prisons. It should place advisers in the justice and interior ministries, the public prosecutor’s office and the recently established regional police headquarters. EUSR should also work with the government to establish a justice and home affairs adviser in the prime minister’s office charged with pushing reforms and coordination between ministries and other government entities.

Skopje/Brussels, 12 January 2006