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North Macedonia Turns Back the Clock — Global Issues

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Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images
  • Opinion by Andrew Firmin (london)
  • Inter Press Service

Long the country’s dominant political force, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE had been out of power since 2016. But this month, the political alliance it leads came first in the parliamentary election, taking 58 of 120 seats. In the presidential election runoff, its candidate triumphed with 61 per cent of the vote. In both cases the centre-left, pro-Europe Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had led the governing coalition and held the presidency, came a distant second. In parliament, its political alliance lost 28 of its 46 seats with only 14 per cent of the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE made its way back to office by harnessing widespread public frustration over the country’s attempt to join the European Union (EU), which has moved slowly, been dogged by controversy and forced the government to make numerous compromises. SDSM stood on a platform of rapid constitutional reform to accelerate progress, but VMRO-DPMNE, while claiming to support EU membership, opposes further changes. Its return signals a turn away from Europe, and a likely worsening of civil society conditions.

Rocky road towards the EU

North Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005. Negotiations are always lengthy, but North Macedonia’s road has been particularly bumpy. Before it could begin formal negotiations, it had to change the country’s name. Any existing EU member can block a non-member’s accession, and Greece stood in the way. The country shared its name with a region of Greece, which the Greek government saw as implying a territorial claim.

The hugely controversial issue brought extensive protests as name-change negotiations reached their conclusion in 2018. A referendum intended to approve the change failed when a boycott left turnout well below the level required; VMRO-DPMNE urged its supporters to reject the deal. The referendum was non-binding, and parliament went on to change the constitution regardless in January 2019.

Then Bulgaria intervened. The Bulgarian government insists its North Macedonian counterpart must do more to prevent the spread of anti-Bulgarian sentiments and protect the rights of the country’s Bulgarian minority. This heated issue, inflamed by much disinformation, helped force a political crisis in Bulgaria in 2022 when the government collapsed.

The two sides finally struck a deal to allow North Macedonia to begin EU negotiations in July 2022, but disputes still flare. In 2023 Bulgaria’s parliament warned it could halt the process again. North Macedonia’s outgoing government failed to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority.

Relations with Bulgaria played their part in the campaign. Some think the government has gone too far in compromising, and VMRO-DPMNE characterised the SDSM-led government’s actions as a surrender.

As a consequence of all the delays and compromises, public support for joining the EU has fallen.

A troubling return

VMRO-DPMNE led the government for a decade from 2006 to 2016, with Nikola Gruevski prime minister throughout. The party also held the presidency, a less powerful role, from 2009 to 2019.

Gruevski and his party fell from grace in 2016 amid allegations that he and many more of his party’s politicians were involved in a wiretapping scandal affecting over 20,000 people. Mass protests followed. VMRO-DPMNE still came first in the 2016 parliamentary election but couldn’t form a coalition, so power passed to an SDSM-led government. SDSM retained power in the 2020 election, and its candidate won the presidency in 2019.

Gruevski’s fall was swift. In 2018, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but he fled to Hungary, where the government of his authoritarian friend Viktor Orbán granted him political asylum. Further convictions followed, including a seven-year sentence for money laundering and illegal acquisition of property.

From exile, Gruevski has continued to criticise the government that replaced him. And while relations with VMRO-DPMNE’s current leader are hostile, ideologically VMRO-DPMNE still carries his fingerprints and the networks Gruevski developed among supportive media, the private sector and criminal groups remain. Under Gruevski, the party took a nationalist, pro-Russia and anti-west direction, promoting identity politics that hark back to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

For civil society, this makes the results concerning news. Conditions deteriorated during VMRO-DPMNE’s decade in power. The party’s identity politics fuelled a polarised environment. Nationalist groups physically attacked several journalists. Civil society leaders were among those subjected to illegal surveillance. Using the same tactics as Orbán, the government hurled abuse at civil society groups receiving funding from Open Society Foundations, accusing them of colluding with foreign governments. It subjected critical organisations to financial audits and raided their offices.

The election was held in an atmosphere of intense polarisation and proliferating disinformation, some originating in Russia, which doesn’t want any more countries joining the EU. There’s now a risk of a return to the politics of division, which would bring a resumption of attacks on civil society and independent media. VMRO-DPMNE has already made clear it’s looking for confrontation. New president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova upset Greece by using North Macedonia’s old name during her inauguration ceremony.

The EU impasse wasn’t the only reason voters were unhappy. People haven’t seen any progress in combating corruption or improving economic conditions and public services. In country after country, there’s a broader pattern of electoral volatility as voters, unhappy with the performance of incumbents in difficult economic conditions, shop around for anything that looks different. Populist and nationalist parties – even long-established ones such as VMRO-DPMNE – are doing best at making an emotional connection with voters’ anger, offering deceptively simple answers and promising change.

For civil society, that means there’s now work to be done in depolarising the debate, building consensus and defending civic freedoms: a tall order, but a vital one, for which it’ll need a lot of support.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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