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Macedonia - Politics

Political culture in Macedonia is “clubbish,” dirty, and corrupt. Tradition, culture, and religion affect the level of public participation and access to information. This seems to be particularly salient among the Albanian population. Macedonia’s electoral performance has always been more even-handed and open than most of the former Yugoslav republics.

Ethnic tensions between the Macedonian majority and a sizable Albanian minority have been an ongoing concern regarding both human rights and democratic development. The country has an area of 9,781 square miles and a population of 2.1 million. The country's two major religious groups are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Approximately 65 percent of the population is Macedonian Orthodox, and 32 percent is Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, various Protestant denominations, and Jews. There is a general correlation between ethnicity and religious affiliation--the majority of Orthodox believers are ethnic Macedonian, and the majority of Muslim believers are ethnic Albanian.

Ethnic cleavage represents one of the deepest cleavages in a society, and that is also characteristic for the Macedonian society. The gap along this cleavage broadens even more, especially when other distinctive characteristics are accumulated, like: religion, languages belonging to completely different language groups, different habits and culture, standard of living, relation between urban and rural population. Minority political parties are viewed as the most adequate way of expressing the specific representation of interests in a wider context, simultaneously rejecting the idea of belonging to bigger parties of the main ethnic group in the country. The basic motive for creation of such parties would be that it would be very hard for a larger party to satisfy such a variety of interests present in society (although minority parties seem to be efficient only at "first level" of protecting and defending their most immediate group's interests).

The essential characteristic of the political culture in the country is the deficit of democratic tradition and the enhanced cultural heterogeneity. Long periods of political and cultural subordination to autocratic rulers throughout history resulted in reserved or resentful behavior towards every factor that exercises "power". The substitution of this "lack of contact" is compensated through the identification with the wider family, the local community and the ethnic group. Cultural diversity in the country is perceived through the use of different languages and religions. This follows the syndrome of socialist (communist) culture, where decisions were left to be taken care by the "avant-garde". Power was monopolized, producing resignation and apathy, things incompatible with the citizen's individualism. Here should be added the readiness of subordination to charismatic leaders and the incapability of tolerating differences. Therefore, the road to real civic society is long and painful, due to the lack of developed political culture.

The Macedonian and Albanian communities led peaceful but increasingly separate lives under Yugoslav rule, with ethnic Macedonians becoming increasingly urbanized and dominating the public-sector workforce, while ethnic Albanians suffered from low levels of education and employment and tended to remain in the impoverished countryside.. During the Yugoslav period, most of Macedonia's Slavic population identified themselves as Macedonians, while several minority groups, in particular ethnic Albanians, retained their own distinct political culture and language.

Although interethnic tensions simmered under Yugoslav authority and during the first decade of its independence, the country avoided ethnically motivated conflict until several years after independence. Ethnic minority grievances, which had erupted on occasion (1995 and 1997), rapidly began to gain political currency in late 2000, leading many in the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia to question their minority protection under, and participation in, the government.

Ethnic tensions mounted, especially in the predominantly ethnic Albanian regions of the country, which bordered Albania to the west and Kosovo to the north. Eventually, armed clashes erupted in the spring of 2001 between Macedonian security forces and a formerly unknown group, the National Liberation Army (NLA—in Albanian, the group’s acronym is identical to that used by the guerrilla group that had fought Serbian forces in Kosovo two years earlier). The international community pressed for a swift end to the fighting, and in May 2001 a government of national unity was formed. The fighting came to close with the signing in August 2001 of the Framework Agreement, which had the full support of the United States, the European Union, and the OSCE. NATO forces oversaw a handover of weapons by the NLA. In September, the electorate approved amendments to the constitution, which were intended to address the main concerns of the Albanian parties. The changed constitution, for instance, gave greater recognition to the Albanian language and greater power to local Albanian minorities.

There is potential for political violence. Political disputes with neighboring countries and within Macedonia between rival political parties and ethnic groups add an element of uncertainty. Demonstrations and public protests occur frequently. Many groups demonstrate in front of Parliament and other government buildings. Demonstrations and rallies are generally peaceful. However, in February 2013, violent demonstrations resulted in extensive property damage and injuries in downtown Skopje.

In 2015, there were 81 reported demonstrations. The majority of these were anti-government demonstrations. Several protests were in response to the information contained in released wiretapped conversations highlighting government corruption and the government’s role in election rigging and possibly murder. At times, the demonstrations turned violent, causing property damage and injuries to police and demonstrators in downtown Skopje, and in some instances, police in riot gear and demonstrators clashed with injuries on both sides.

In May 2015, approximately 60,000 demonstrators protested against the ruling party. Also in May, 70,000 demonstrators took to the streets in a pro-government rally. Travelers were cautioned to avoid such gatherings. While recent demonstrations have not targeted American citizens or interests, travelers should be aware of their surroundings and current events.

Beyond ethnicity, characteristics including geographic setting, age, and objectives preclude any uniform assessment. For example, the leadership and culture of some organizations build upon older structures and experience. Although they seek to embrace new organizational and political approaches, both leaders and members tend to come out of the former system. In contrast, younger citizens are beginning to initiate their own projects and organizations, and seem to exhibit a more specialized and innovative approach. In terms of location, organizations in Skopje typically have access to more information and resources than do others, whereas those in smaller communities often have greater impetus for cross-cultural collaboration.

Since Nikola Gruevski and the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party came to power in 2006, Macedonia's position has deteriorated on all relevant international lists that monitor the state of a country's democracy, respect for human rights and press freedom. According to Freedom House, it is the only European country where the press is "not free" - along with Turkey and Russia.

Macedonia has been without a functioning government since 2015 when the country sank into political turmoil over a wiretapping scandal that brought down the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party bloc. Following former Prime Minister Gruevski's resignation in January 2016, the country was run by an interim government in a deal brokered by the European Union until the elections in December. Elections were held in December 2016, but no government was formed. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his clique from the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party won a narrow victory, but failed to build a governing coalition.

The Social Democratic Union under the leadership of Zoran Zaev was more successful, forming a coalition with three Albanian parties. Albanians are the second-biggest ethnic group in the country, at around 25 percent. The Albanian parties had refused to work with Gruevski because of his nationalist statements and attempts to stamp out democracy in Macedonia. After losing the majority in parliament, Gruevski and his party opted to block parliament and prevent the election of a speaker, as well as the formation of a new government.

Protesters stormed into Macedonia's parliament and assaulted the leader of the Social Democrats after his party and ethnic Albanian allies voted to elect an Albanian as parliament speaker. Talat Xhaferi became the first ethnic Albanian parliament speaker in Macedonia since the small Balkan country won independence from then-Yugoslavia in 1991. Ethnic Albanians comprise a third of the country's population.

Violence erupted after protesters supporting the rival Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), entered parliament waving Macedonian flags and singing the national anthem. Hundreds of people under the direct command of VMRO-DPMNE stormed parliament, wearing black masks to cover their faces. Some of them carried guns, knives and baseball bats. The police, in league with Gruevski, didn't just let them in, they even greeted them.

Only after two hours had passed were special units able to enter parliament. MPs from the new parliamentary majority were the main targets of the attack. Macedonia's opposition leader was among nearly 10 people injured in parliament after protesters stormed the building when an ethnic Albanian was elected as the speaker of parliament. Macedonian police fired stun grenades to disperse protesters outside the parliament and clear the way for the evacuation of lawmakers still in the building.

For Nikola Gruevski and his clique from the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, losing power means they will likely be looking at jail sentences of several years. The Special Prosecutor's office, founded several years ago after pressure from both the EU and the US, accuses him of spying on tens of thousands of citizens via intelligence services while he was prime minister. He's also accused of election fraud and ties to other corrupt practices.

Gruevski and his party for months had been deliberately trying to provoke an ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, labeling anyone who cooperates with them as "traitors." Controlled destabilization of the country could provide Gruevski with the trump card he needs to be recognized again as a negotiating partner with the international community. And that, in turn, would open the door for an amnesty for his decade-long criminal regime.

The current crisis is the worst since 2001 when Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency, promising it a route to membership of the EU and NATO. But Macedonia has made little progress in that direction due to a name dispute with Greece.

Macedonia's parliament endorsed a new government led by Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev on 31 May 2017, in a first step towards ending the country's two-year political crisis. Zaev, whose SDSM party has formed a coalition with parties representing the country's ethnic Albanians, won the support of 62 out of 120 MPs, in a vote that came nearly six months after parliamentary elections. Forty-four voted against and five abstained.

Macedonia's new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, was sworn in on 01 June 2017 after the parliament approved his coalition government, ending six months of political deadlock. Zaev leads a three-party coalition of Social Democrats and two ethnic Albanian parties. Zaev faced a potentially monumental task -- restoring confidence in a state that at times over the past three years wavered between paralysis and authoritarianism. Legislative allies of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski were expected to demand new elections before any of the ongoing investigations into possible corruption during Gruevski's decade-long administration reached the courts.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called for early elections after the European Union failed to open membership talks with the Balkan state, a key goal of his administration. "This is what I'm proposing: organizing quick snap elections where you, citizens, will decide the road we are going to take," Zaev said in a televised address on 19 October 2019. Commenting on continuing local media speculation that elections could take place in December, March or possibly May, Zaev said that he has no personal preference at the moment and that the date will be agreed with all the political players, including the opposition and the smaller parties.

For the first time in North Macedonia's 30-year history, a prime minister resigned 01 November 2021. Zoran Zaev stepped down after a defeat in local elections, plunging North Macedonia into political crisis. North Macedonia entered a new phase of political instability after Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced his resignation following the heavy defeat of his Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in Sunday's local elections. "I take responsibility for the outcome of these elections and therefore I'm resigning as prime minister and as president of the Social Democratic Union," Zaev said during a press conference at party headquarters.

The announcement came after it became clear that the main opposition party, nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, won at least half of the country's 80 municipalities, while Zaev's Social Democrats won fewer than 20. The result marks a major turnaround on North Macedonia's political stage: Four years ago, the Social Democrats won 57 municipalities and VMRO-DPMNE only five. Ahead of the elections he told voters he had already resolved to step down if his party failed to secure a majority. "On October 31, we are 'all in'," he said, using the English expression. "The decision is made, and the people will choose. This is not a threat," Zaev told a local TV show a week earlier. As he later explained, his aim was to mobilize the "progressive part" of society to support his government's pro-European and liberal policies.

His plan backfired. Many people unconvinced by either of the two main parties decided to stay at home rather than vote for candidates they see as unfit for the job. Seen as a rare moderate voice in the historically volatile Western Balkans region, Zaev was praised internationally for resolving the decades old dispute with Greece and changing the country's name to "North Macedonia" in 2018. The former Republic of Macedonia became NATO's 30th member in March 2020 under the new name. But vetos from France in 2019 and Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia's path towards the European Union — leaving Zaev's most important promise to his voters unfulfilled. Already labeled a "traitor" by the nationalist opposition, which still strongly opposes the deal with Greece, many of the government's domestic policies alienated the majority of Zaev's voters. Promised reforms in the fields of rule of law, the fight against corruption, chronic nepotism and cronyism in Macedonian society failed to materialize. The stagnating economy and poor management of the COVID pandemic added to voters' sense of disappointment.

Most importantly, many of the "progressive voters" — as Zaev calls them — simply lost hope in the country's chances of EU accession. Confidence that North Macedonia will one day become a member of the European Union is at a historic low among the general public and many people no longer see the point in voting for pro-European politicians and policies after years of bitter disappointments and broken promises from Brussels and other European capitals.

North Macedonia's governing coalition, consisting of the Social Democrats and the DUI, the country's largest ethnic Albanian party, has a small majority, with 62 seats in the 120-seat parliament. After Zaev's resignation, it remains to be seen if the Social Democrats will continue governing under a new leader. The alternatives — a VMRO-DPMNE-led government or early elections — seemed unrealistic. While Zaev and his party were opposed to early national elections, after the last ones held in July 2020, Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, called for an early parliamentary election but did not mention a more specific timeline. "The governing party is now delegitimized, and this is a new reality. The best way forward is with early elections,'' Mickoski said, after declaring victory in the local election. The opposition party would likely be happy to wait until spring, knowing that its lead in the polls will presumably only increase considering the difficulties ahead for the government.

North Macedonia faced some difficult months. In addition to the tough economic situation and the coronavirus pandemic, the country is in a state of uncertainty due to the energy crisis threatening the whole of Europe. There is already talk of electricity restrictions and price increases in the winter months. The government was planning to relaunch talks with neighboring Bulgaria after the elections, hoping that a compromise would open the door for the beginning of long-awaited EU accession talks during the December summit of European heads of state. Sofia has blocked the beginning of talks for the last two years, insisting that Skopje should first admit that the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect, and that the identity of modern-day Macedonians is actually Bulgarian. While the Social Democrats were ready to compromise on the issue, opposition VMRO-DPMNE is strongly against any talks about national identity.

After leading the then opposition Social Democrats through one of the most difficult periods for the country, during the rule of the previous 10-year regime of Nikola Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE, and after four years at the helm of the government, Zoran Zaev leaves disappointed with both voters and the international community. "It is not difficult to leave politics," Zaev said on Sunday. "What is difficult is the fact that this is how the people voted." The fact is that the Macedonian people have lost faith in the path to the EU that he and his party promoted, and also in his ability to lead them there. The Social Democrats now need to elect a new party leader quickly and then hope that he will be accepted by the majority in the parliament.

Unfortunately, Zaev did not leave behind a clear successor in either the party or the government. And, as one Social Democrat party official told DW on condition of anonymity, while there are many candidates willing to fight for the party leadership, there are not many that would be interested in taking over the reins in midst of a deep political and economic crisis.

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Page last modified: 06-12-2021 10:05:10 ZULU