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Commentary | 18 June 2015

Crisis in Macedonia and the Trans-Hellenic Route to the EU

Image of Tomasz Żornaczuk

Tomasz Żornaczuk |Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

Balkans EU Greece Macedonia Euro-Atlantic Security

The political uncertainty in Macedonia continues, just as the last round of negotiations between the ruling coalition and the opposition parties on 10 June failed to put an end to the crisis. No agreement means that the anti-government demonstrations in Skopje that have lasted since 5 May will continue.

The crisis continues to grow after more and more recordings are unveiled by the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). They confirm earlier accusations by critics of Nikola Gruevski’s conservative government of widespread and illegal practices which flourished under the prime minister and his inner circle from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). These include charges of nepotism, corruption in public tenders, appointing judges to carry out specific political tasks, or electional shortcomings.

The protest can be seen as an event without precedent in Macedonia. First, it took the form of a tent camp in front of the seat of government (and is already compared to Euromaidan in Kiev). Second, dissatisfaction with the ruling elites united Macedonians and ethnic minorities, including Albanians, relations with whom have remained strained since the internal conflict in 2001. Third, the protests resulted in the resignation of the three most-discredited officials: two ministers and the head of security and counterintelligence service. However, the key demand of the protesting crowds—the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the appointment of a temporary cabinet with the participation of the opposition—has not been fulfilled.

Gruevski’s increasingly difficult position has been used by the left-wing opposition to call for the resignation of his cabinet. The strength of SDSM’s president, Zoran Zaev, who is the leader of the protests, increased after he was invited by Commissioner Johannes Hahn (in charge of EU enlargement negotiations), to the talks with the government which were held under the auspices of the European Union. In the course of the negotiations, Gruevski aimed at the rapid organisation of early elections. That could not be accepted by Zaev, aware as he was of government control over the state institutions and, therefore, over the course and, potentially, results of the voting (the OSCE had earlier pointed out irregularities in the Macedonian electoral system).

The opposition’s idea is to hold parliamentary elections in the spring of 2016. Between now and the 2016 elections, a national unity government would be formed composed of representatives of VRMO-DPMNE, SDSM and the Albanian parties. It would set electoral law and take measures to increase media freedom and the independence of the courts. The date of the election has been preliminarily agreed upon, but not the structure of the temporary government: Gruevski wants to keep his position as prime minister until the end of this year. An immediate resignation—demanded by the opposition—would probably mean not only scaling down illegal governmental control over state institutions but also criminal charges being levied against the current prime minister and his colleagues.

There is a clear correlation between the decline of democratic standards in Macedonia and the lack of progress in Euro-Atlantic integration. The responsibility lies with both the Gruevski government and the EU itself. Until 2008, Macedonia had been the most successful country in the Western Balkans in terms of internal reforms (efforts to combat corruption, improve security and enhance freedom of the press). This was when Greece—objecting to the use of the name Macedonia—blocked the country’s accession to NATO (although all the technical conditions had been met) and, the following year, also blocked the start of membership negotiations with the EU (contrary to the recommendation of the European Commission).

The basic condition for Macedonia’s return to the path of democratic transformation is to restore the prospect of its membership in NATO and, above all, to start talks on accession to the EU. The clear benchmarks for progress established in the framework of negotiations proved to be the most effective instrument for stimulating reforms and strengthening democratic institutions in other Balkan countries.

To return to the positive path of development, substantial changes are needed in Macedonia and the EU. The latter should not limit its activities to mediations between the government and the opposition nor to an offer to send a special envoy to Skopje should the parties fail to reach an agreement.

It is clear that the road for Macedonia to the European Union passes through Athens. After stabilizing the political situation in Skopje and the appointment of a new government, the EU should focus on activities aimed at establishing a constructive dialogue with Greece and motivating both parties to conclude an agreement that would allow the start of membership negotiations with a final resolution of the dispute before their completion. Since the Greece-Macedonia conflict is a direct cause of Skopje abandoning the democratic transition path, the EU should be aware that disregarding this problem will result in other, perhaps deeper political crises. Macedonia will remain even further behind its neighbours in the Western Balkans in terms of development and integration with the EU, and thus vulnerable to the politics of other countries that are not interested in Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic integration.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.