There is a saying that “a year is a lifetime in politics.” In Macedonia, such a “year” can take a violent turn in a matter of moments.
Macedonia’s ruling conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) political party and the Social Democrats opposition party (SDSM) are currently engaged in a power struggle for control of Macedonia’s government. In the December 2016 election, the two parties won an almost identical number of seats in Parliament. VMRO won a slightly higher number of seats outright, but SDSM edged out VMRO for a parliamentary majority by forming a coalition with other parties.
VMRO leaders refuse to hand over power. On April 27, VMRO supporters stormed Parliament to protest the prospect of a government led by SDSM. Such a government would likely send VMRO’s leader and former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to prison. Gruevski and his cousin Saso Mijalkov, the former head of the country’s secret police, are being investigated and face indictments from a 2015 wiretapping scandal.
Violent protests and the storming of Parliament
The storm on Parliament came moments after SDSM elected its own Talat Xhaferi as Parliamentary Speaker. “Hundreds of thugs, some of them masked, stormed parliament and beat up MPs and journalists as a political crisis became more sinister,” the BBC reported on May 5.
The Atlantic described the scene this way: “Zaev [SDSM’s leader] and others were beaten. Journalists and MPs were hospitalized. SDSM deputy leader Radmila Sekerinska received stitches in the hospital, and ethnic Albanian MP Zijadin Sela was dragged, blood streaming from his face, across the assembly floor; he would later receive treatment for brain injuries.”
Radmila Sekerinska, a leading politician, was swung around by her hair by a protester. She still wears an orthopaedic collar from the incident.
Both the United States and European Union supported the election of Xhaferi as speaker. The international community condemned the violent protests. The U.S. sent deputy assistant secretary of state Hoyt Brian to Skopje for talks to end the government deadlock.
VMRO’s grip on power
The VMRO has led the government for more than a decade, led by Prime Minister Gruevski. Their chief ally has been President Gjorge Ivanov.
For the past five months, SDSM MPs have staged filibusters while President Ivanov has refused to hand over power of the government. His reason? According to the BBC, “Mr Ivanov claimed the Social Democrats were threatening the unity of the country by offering concessions to Macedonia's ethnic-Albanians. Therefore, he could not allow them to take office.”
Ethnic Albanians make up between one-quarter and one-third of Macedonia’s population. “No one knows the exact proportion because there has been no census since 2002, as the parties cannot agree to hold one,” The Atlantic recently wrote.
Support for the VMRO majority party has eroded in recent years, due to corruption, high unemployment, and a controversial one billion dollar renovation of the capital.
Wiretapping release and investigation
In 2015, Zaev facilitated the release of 670,000 wiretapped recordings of up to 20,000 people, including politicians, journalists and activists. The scandal implicated 56 public officials in corruption, fraud, and even a cover up of an alleged murder.
When President Ivanov pardoned all 56 officials, Macedonian citizens staged daily demonstrations in Skopje. Eventually, after pressure from the EU and United States, Ivanov had to retract his pardons.
In early 2016, Gruevski was forced to step down as Prime Minister. The EU and US formed a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the alleged acts of corruption.
The office found a number of electoral irregularities. The voter roll had been inflated with voters from other countries. Dozens of individuals within the same address were registered to vote. Dead people and those who had migrated also “voted.”
According to Balkan Insight, “Gruevski has successfully created an artificial democracy using populist rhetoric, a strenuous media campaign and abuse of power and corruption at all levels of the system. He has manipulated every democratic mechanism to create and maintain an autocratic regime. He has also manipulated the country’s international partners, such as the EU and US, and the problems Macedonia has with its neighbors, Greece and Bulgaria…Gruevski, his family and close business partners, have created fortunes and do not hesitate to use these funds to remain in power. They use money stolen from citizens to pay lobby groups, the media, influential politicians and individuals in order to present an image of international support among the local population.”
The end game
How this deadlock will end is anyone’s guess. Neither party appears ready to concede. VMRO holds the upper hand, as it has controlled the government for the last decade. Instead of ceding power to SDSM, VMRO wants to force new elections.
Additionally, Macedonia faces significant problems, mostly surrounding government corruption. Transparency International gave Macedonia a score of 37 out of 100 on its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (with 0 being the most corrupt, and 100 the least).
Overall, Macedonia is ranked 90 out of 176 countries for corruption.