MACEDONIA'S CRISIS HAS BECOME EXISTENTIAL
Macedonia’s long-running political dispute has just taken a dramatic turn for the worse, transforming a crisis of corruption and governance into a burgeoning crisis of state. On Wednesday last week, President Gjorge Ivanov refused to give a governing mandate to a diverse coalition of political parties whose stated objective is an enhanced status for Macedonia’s large Albanian minority.
In the process, Ivanov has temporarily - and perhaps more permanently - shut Albanians out of the political process, with potentially serious consequences.
The backdrop to this move was a set of EU-sponsored elections in December, which were supposed to bring a two-year political crisis to an end. The idea was to restore the legitimacy of government after revelations of gross corruption in the main party of government, VMRO-DPMNE. Either VMRO-DPMNE would gain a fresh democratic mandate or the opposition Social Democratic Party, SDSM, would be elected. Either outcome was supposed to put a full stop on matters.
However, neither VMRO-DPMNE nor the SDSM won enough seats to form a viable government - even in coalition with the main Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, which lost much of its support because of its long association with VMRO-DPMNE. Instead, the balance of power was held by two new Albanian parties, Besa and the Alliance for Albanians, which campaigned on a platform of enhanced rights for Albanians in what they argued was a state run primarily in the interests of its Macedonian majority.
Unable to form a government without the help of Besa and the Alliance for Albanians, the DUI turned for help to Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, who summoned the leaders of the various Albanian parties to a summit in Tirana. What then emerged was a joint declaration, which set out their conditions for entry into government with either one of the main Macedonian parties.
This declaration was a radical document that effectively demanded that Macedonia be redefined as a binational state comprised of two equal partners - Macedonians and Albanians - rather than as a Macedonian national state with a tolerated Albanian minority.
Its more innocuous demands included the right to proportional representation for Albanians in the institutions of government where their numbers fell short, especially the security services and the judiciary, and a proportional share of the budget revenues - in effect, a request for completion of the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement.
More controversially, the declaration also demanded the official use of Albanian everywhere in the country, not just the western part where Albanians predominate; a debate on revision of the flag, anthem and state symbols; Albanians’ involvement in a resolution of the dispute over Macedonia’s name with Greece (implying an end to the use of the name ‘Macedonia’); and the adoption of a resolution in parliament condemning alleged genocide against Albanians in the early-20th century.
Unsurprisingly, these demands were anathema to the majority Macedonian population, which is trying to create a national state in its own image based on Slavic Orthodoxy, the Macedonian language and a purported lineage from ancient Macedonia – most graphically expressed in the rebuilding of Skopje at huge expense in a mock-classical style.
This inevitably led to complications in forming a government. At first the Albanians, led by the DUI, began negotiations with VMRO-DPMNE, making the issue of language rights a sine qua non. When negotiations failed, the Albanian parties turned to the SDSM, which initially hesitated but eventually agreed to a new law on language, provided it was consistent with the constitution. The party then duly notified the president that it had the necessary signatures to form a majority government.
However, no sooner had it done so than thousands of ethnic Macedonians took to the streets to decry what they saw as a takeover of the Macedonian state by ethnic Albanians, organised by Tirana and supported by treacherous politicians from the SDSM, who were happy to sell out the country for the sake of power.
The identity of these protestors is not entirely clear. Many are undoubtedly members and clients of VMRO-DPMNE, which desperately wants to prevent the formation of an SDSM-led government and the party’s relegation to the opposition where it could be subject to criminal prosecutions. However, the main organiser of the protests, the Civic Initiative for a United Macedonia, denies links with VMRO-DPMNE and many of the protestors seem to have a genuine political motivation. At a minimum, a poll in January which states that 90 per cent of ethnic Macedonians are opposed to a new language law, suggest the demonstrations take their strength from a broader nationalist backlash.
This was the context in which President Ivanov, a moderate nationalist who is close to VMRO-DPMNE, refused to grant a mandate to the new SDSM-led government. On Wednesday last week, he emphasised both the risk to Macedonia’s integrity of recasting the country as a binational state, and the violation of sovereignty implicit in accepting a political platform which was, he claimed, scripted by a foreign government.
In doing so, however, he has plunged Macedonia into a new and more dangerous phase of its long-running political crisis.
What happens next is an open question. In a best-case scenario, Western diplomats will succeed in pressurising the key actors to compromise, the Albanian parties will drop their demands for a binational state, at least for now, and Ivanov will recognise the basic legitimacy of the Albanians’ grievances.
In short order, Ivanov will look for some arrangement that allows a continuation of the inter-ethnic power-sharing on which Albanians’ stake in the country depends. He will then initiate a dialogue between Macedonians and Albanians about forging a more equitable state. That way, he can transform what is currently an ultimatum by the Albanian parties into a formal negotiating process with give and take on both sides.
However, the immediate prospects of any such breakthrough are limited. In his statement last Wednesday, Ivanov said he would not bargain away Macedonia’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence”. At the same time, there is no immediate hope of the Albanians backing down. Even if the DUI could be persuaded to pursue a graduated approach, the more ideological Besa and the Alliance for Albanians are committed to delivering the key elements of the joint declaration of the Albanian parties.
Meanwhile, the leverage of outside actors to shape internal outcomes is waning, particularly among VMRO-DPMNE and its supporters who have accused Western diplomats of gross interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs.
If this scenario proves elusive, then Macedonia is probably looking at fresh parliamentary elections in a few months’ time when the country holds scheduled local elections. Unfortunately, however, even these may not provide much remedy. Opinion polls point to a similar outcome to last December’s ballot, while new elections will do nothing to overcome the basic impasse – that Albanians are conditioning their participation in government on demands that are unacceptable to most Macedonians.
This raises the possibility of a much more dangerous scenario in which VMRO-DPMNE and Ivanov, backed by protestors on the streets and Russia abroad, effectively exclude Albanians from government on an indefinite basis as a means of thwarting their demands.
The question then is how Albanians would respond. Ideally, a combination of international and domestic political pressure would resolve matters before Albanians anything too drastic. But if the impasse dragged on, the risk is that Albanians would switch their focus from seeking equal partnership with Macedonians to creating a devolved Albanian entity in the west of the country, which Albanians could run in their own interests.
With some variations, this would amount to a repeat of the circumstances that led to civil conflict in 2001 when the Macedonian army sought to wrest control of territory from Albanians who had repudiated the authority of the central government.
Worse still, this drama would play out at time when tensions between Serbs and Albanians in neighbouring Kosovo are running high. Only a radical optimist would bet on two parallel disputes over power and territory between Albanians and their Slavic neighbours not, in some way, joining up.
The immediate issue is who makes the next move. The DUI’s leader last week urged Albanians not to take any steps that might transform a “systematic crisis into an ethnic conflict” and Besa has also urged “restraint and caution”. Both can no doubt foresee a situation in which hasty Albanian action provokes a hostile reaction from angry Macedonians.
In the meantime, VMRO-DPMNE and the Macedonian nationalists on the streets are pursuing tactics that could well bring about the very thing they want avoid - a de facto partition of the Macedonian state.
Two years on from the first revelations of corruption, Macedonia’s political crisis has now become existential in nature. The best hope for stability is the willingness of local parties to step back from the brink and avoid a potentially violent escalation. But with Western leverage limited, and the country fractured by the long-running political crisis, there are no guarantees of a happy ending. Policymakers everywhere should be planning for worse to come.
This article originally appeared in Balkan Insight on 6th March 2017