Beware this Macedonian Crisis … It could grow into another Balkan Tragedy
Beware this Macedonian Crisis … It could grow into another Balkan Tragedy
Внимавајте на македонската криза..може да прерасне во нова балканска трагедија
Внимавајте на македонската криза..може да прерасне во нова балканска трагедија
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

Beware this Macedonian Crisis … It could grow into another Balkan Tragedy

As summer ended, Macedonia declared a state of emergency and temporarily closed its borders with Greece and Serbia. The small Balkan nation joined much of Europe in a panicked, poorly considered and awkwardly implemented response to the asylum tragedy. Macedonia is a bit player in that crisis, which is assuming the dimensions of a new Voelkerwanderung – a mass movement of people the scale of which has not been seen on the continent since the Roman Empire crumbled. But as summer turns to fall, Macedonia must  quickly and constructively address its own domestic crisis, or risk violent confrontations.

Two shocks hit early this year: a scandal over leaked wiretaps that revealed a state apparatus captured and corrupted by the leading party; and a battle in the ethnically-mixed town of Kumanovo between police and ethnic-Albanian gunmen, many from Kosovo, that produced the region’s largest loss of life in a decade. Because discredited national institutions cannot cope alone, the European Union is conducting a mediation that produced an agreement on 15 July between the four main parties. It lowered tensions sufficiently for Macedonians to take August holidays. The main tests, including filling in significant gaps or ambiguities, now have to be faced. Neither recent history nor signs that the old politics is reasserting itself give grounds for confidence.

The main opposition party Social Democrats (SDSM), began publishing excerpts in February from what it called an illegal wiretap program leaked by unidentified persons. The massive surveillance, from at least 2010 to 2014, seems to have targeted thousands of individuals, including nearly all top opposition and government officials. The fraction of published wiretaps focus on apparent conversations of senior government officials plotting to rig elections, manipulate courts, control the press, and punish enemies.  Many who should deal with apparent illegalities are implicated.  

In the midst of this, the police raid in Kumanovo on 9 May led to fighting that left a neighbourhood destroyed, eight police and fourteen gunmen dead, 37 police wounded and about 30 gunmen in custody.  Much remains unknown, including the group’s plans, possible allies on both sides of the border and details of the police operation.

Ethnic Albanians, roughly a quarter of Macedonia’s population, resent what they consider second-class status in a state dominated by ethnic Macedonians. They expected more from the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement that ended the incipient civil war and was meant to give them power-sharing in a unitary state. For now, there is little constituency for fighting, but while the inter-ethnic peace has proven resilient, further wiretapping revelations or a new deadly incident could raise risks unpredictably.

After it escaped Yugoslavia’s collapse relatively unscathed and after Ohrid, Macedonia appeared to be building a modern, transparent state and integrating its ethnic Albanian community, but progress has ceased or worse since a 2008 Greek veto over the republic’s name blocked EU and NATO integration indefinitely. The wiretaps, which appear to show that governing parties have entrenched power and privileges through corruption and criminality, have also dramatically compromised the ruling coalition’s ethnic-Albanian partner. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE), who denies wrongdoing, and opposition leader Zoran Zaev are playing high-stakes poker.

The July agreement requires Gruevski, who has led the country since 2006, to resign on 15 January. A transitional government in which the opposition is to hold key ministries, including interior, and right of veto in others like finance, is then to prepare elections 100 days hence, on 24 April, two years ahead of schedule. This satisfies major demands that brought thousands into the streets during spring and early summer: Gruevski’s departure and early elections.

Other key provisions commit the parties to strengthen institutions with essential roles if elections are to be fair, including the electoral commission, the media agency and the public safety bureau, or, like the anti-corruption commission, the revenue office and the independent judiciary, are vital to reform regardless of election results. Most sensitively, the parties agreed that a special prosecutor is to be responsible for investigations into the wiretapping revelations.

This is promising, but citizens and the EU alike know the devil is often in details in Macedonia. In 2012-2013, after police expelled filibustering SDSM legislators, parliament passed the budget, SDSM boycotted parliament, and the EU mediated a deal to resolve the crisis. VMRO accepted, then called the document “toilet paper”, and it remained unimplemented. Brussels has sent senior specialists to Skopje to maintain pressure for a better follow through this time: Pieter van Houte, ex-Belgian legislator and veteran of the earlier fiasco, and James Hamilton, former public prosecutions director in Ireland, widely experienced helping Balkans countries on rule-of-law.

Their work is cut out. Working groups the parties formed in July have met several times, with meagre results. Agreement may be near on an innovative procedure for citizens to take the initiative to register to vote, so as to escape tricky questions of voter-roll revision. There is also talk of changing how legislative seats are apportioned. Otherwise VMRO and SDSM have largely postured.

Without agreement by mid-September on a candidate, the EU would have had to name the special prosecutor. At the last moment, however, on 15 September, the four major parties selected Katica Janeva, a largely unknown prosecutor in the provincial town of Gevgelija who also teaches criminal and procedural law at the judicial academy, for this key job and granted her the right to form her own team and budget.

The SDSM had again boycotted Parliament, arguing VMRO used fraud to win the 2014 election. Before the opposition returned to its seats on 1 September, VMRO passed an unprecedentedly large budget that SDSM suspects is to enable vote-attracting, pump-priming projects. No one appears interested in pursuing the Kumanovo incident, suggesting that ethnic Albanian complaints may continue to be sidetracked. In short, the manoeuvres suggest the zero-sum concept of politics has changed little.  

Macedonian politics have long been defined by bitter VMRO-SDSM confrontation. Overwhelmingly ethnic Macedonian, both have shared a winner-take all belief in their right to run the country and tended to treat electoral success as licence to use the state for private benefit.

Except for 2006-2008, ethnic Albanian politics has been dominated by the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), a member of the ruling coalition with VMRO or SDSM virtually since creation as a political movement by veterans of the 2001 uprising. The years with ex-enemies have drained much of its rebel credibility, and it suffers from wiretap revelations that seem to show it collaborating with partners who disparage Albanians. Gruevski's promotion of his vision of Macedonian identity has left Albanians feeling like strangers in another's house, and discontent with DUI defence of community interests has grown.

Elections have been marred by fraud and occasional violence. SDSM accuses VMRO of corruption and authoritarianism; VMRO replies SDSM in power was no better. Outsiders see a government that mostly runs the trains on time but rules by fear and intimidation and calls the opposition weak and disorganised.

The wiretaps, considered authentic by EU experts, show illegal surveillance on a breath-taking scale. Hundreds of thousands of recordings focus on a core group of 4,000-5,000 individuals but capture roughly 20,000 overall. The EU experts concluded that apparent criminal or corrupt behaviour included:

“... apparent direct involvement of senior government and party officials in illegal activities including electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, … pressure on public employees to vote for a certain party with the threat to be fired, … severe procurement procedure infringements aimed at gaining an illicit profit, nepotism and cronyism; … unacceptable political interference [with] judges as well as interference with other supposedly independent institutions for either personal or party advantage.”

The Gruevski government did not pioneer [corruption or state capture practices in Macedonia. Corrupt practices were common under previous governments, including the 2002-2006 SDSM administration. VMRO officials argue that, at worst, they have not improved the system but, unlike SDSM, have run a competent government, boosted employment and built national pride.

DUI is in a difficult situation. Despite VMRO’s overt nationalism, it sees little difference between Gruevski and Zaev for advancing ethnic-Albanian interests. Because he is in power, the former is considered a better partner in some respects. But DUI influence is not nearly what its community desires. Gruevski has delegated only a modest share of budget and jobs, not national policy or governance. Most ethnic Albanians want full implementation of their view of Ohrid: state-wide use of their language, equal access to good jobs and a meaningful role in running the state. The communities increasingly live separate lives with little interaction. Deep poverty persists in ethnic-Albanian areas.

The crisis received a jolt from the Kumanovo incident. It spawned conspiracy theories, including one popular among Albanians and pro-opposition ethnic Macedonians, that the government staged it to deflect anger from the wiretapping to a convenient ethnic target.

Much is uncertain: the aims of the fighters, whether some remain at large or not, links, if any, to Macedonian authorities, ability to operate with impunity on both sides of the border, and the force deployed to subdue them. The internal affairs ministry quickly approved the operation, but this is insufficient.

Several worrying things are clear. The highest levels of power in Kosovo and Macedonia knew about the group for months; many members had experience fighting in Macedonia. Several had been convicted there on charges including murder and robbery, but could circulate unimpeded; the group “treated Macedonia as their back yard”, a diplomat said.

Rumours abound connecting members to crime, especially drugs, or to Macedonian security services. For the old-fighter community, these stories distance the group from the ethnic-Albanian struggle narrative, by portraying them as fringe players or criminals. 

The group’s core is said to have rejected Ohrid and sought to reframe Macedonia as a federal state with an Albanian unit. If its goal was to spark an uprising, it miscalculated. All whom our organisation, the International Crisis Group, interviewed this year agreed ethnic Albanians have no appetite to re-start the conflict. But Kumanovo has been traumatised, and the political crisis that consumes the country presents serious challenges, not least to the ethnic-Albanian leadership, whose credibility has been eroded by years in corrupt governments. A worsening of that crisis or another deadly incident, whatever its provenance, might change attitudes quickly.

The problems at the heart of the crisis will trouble Macedonia past elections. Something more fundamental than shuffling posts among politicians is needed to address what the wiretaps have exposed and the cynicism about the system to which it contributes. Until then, Macedonia is vulnerable to political brinksmanship and violent spasms of a Kumanovo-like event.

“Benchmarks [on a reform roadmap] on their own are useless”, however, Erwan Fouéré, the EU’s former Special Representative for Macedonia, told Crisis Group, “because the politicians in Skopje are skilled at ‘tick[ing] boxes but not implementing’.  The EU needs to rigorously monitor what politicians do in the lead-up to elections. It will not be enough to name a special prosecutor. That official must be assured not only of the theoretically broad powers required to perform the tasks assigned by the July agreement, but also of the resources to use those powers. A comprehensive investigation also needs technical aid that EU and U.S. experts can best provide.

The EU should not only monitor and offer expertise, but also connect the reform process to the accession dialogue it holds with the main political parties and civil society, associating them with the annual membership candidacy progress report the European Commission issues. Extensive engagement is needed beyond April, including more extensive monitoring than is customary in the annual candidacy review, until the European Commission is satisfied progress is real.

Kumanovo is a special problem the parties should not be allowed to ignore. Serious investigation could dampen fears, clarify circumstances, decrease recurrence risk and prevent hijacking to serve false political or ethnic narratives. 

This crisis suggests Macedonia is less a democracy with difficulties than a country needing transition to democracy, its parties often giving the impression they have fewer problems with state capture than with whom that situation benefits. Today only a fringe of the ethnic Albanian community is willing to fight, but many are disappointed with Ohrid implementation and share the aims that seem to have motivated at least some Kumanovo fighters.

Reforms are urgently needed that go deeper than an early election. Macedonia’s reputation as almost head of the western Balkans class of countries is in tatters. The country has an outwardly modern legislative and regulatory framework that leaves the patronage machine undisturbed, to an extent that exceeds similar dysfunction elsewhere in the region, notably Montenegro and Serbia.

This is the chief problem for the EU: Macedonia has developed an immunity to the medications it prescribes. It knows how to formally implement what is asked but also how to ensure it makes little difference.

It may take a trial and error approach to develop better therapies but treatment is dangerously overdue, and there is no realistic chance it can be fully self-administered. EU leverage is less than it once seemed, because membership is not a close prospect, but Brussels still has the greatest influence, and it retains security interests in assisting transformative change. A U.S. assistant secretary of state was in Skopje just prior to the July agreement ;the American ambassador should continue to offer support.

The July agreement needs to be given life this fall, but it also should lead to creative and intrusive cooperation with national authorities in monitoring what is really happening on promised reforms. Brussels should withhold any seal of approval until there is a solid track record. Anything less than close, skeptical political-level attention carries an unacceptable risk of another Balkan tragedy.


Former Vice-President of Research & Publications
Ilija Prachkovski
Ilija Prachkovski
Former Crisis Group Intern

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.