On Tuesday, 13th December, Macedonia’s opposition group contested their defeat by the country’s ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which appeared to have won a narrow lead the day before. Tensions between the two sides have begun to reach a dangerous level, experts say, with neither group having won enough votes to form a new government.
The election was called as part of an EU-brokered agreement to defuse a two-year political crisis sparked by a massive phone-tapping scandal that led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in January and his replacement by a caretaker government. The new government’s attempts to pass reforms to guarantee fair and free elections were hampered by setbacks, which led to the polls being delayed twice due to unmet conditions.
To the disappointment of observers, who had hoped that this weekend’s election would constitute a break with the questionable iterations of years past, this round appears to be no different from others. Looking back, it seems it was doomed from the outset.
The campaign occurred in an atmosphere “characterised by public mistrust in institutions and the political establishment, and allegations of voter coercion”, according to a preliminary report from the OSCE. And in the past two days alone, post-election tensions have reached drastic levels. On Tuesday night, special police units entered the home of local police chief Stojance Velickovic, purportedly to search for evidence of election rigging. Velickovic, who is a member of the opposition party, said that the VMRO-DPMNE party set up the raid.
To better understand Macedonia’s protracted political dysfunction, we need to look more closely at the scandal that set off the crisis in 2014.
At the time, opposition leader Zoran Zaev accused then-Prime Minister Gruevski of authorizing the illegal wiretapping of roughly 20,000 people. Gruevski denied the allegations, blaming the operation on unnamed ‘foreign intelligence services’. Zaev later leaked taped phone conversations that apparently implicated Gruevski and his government in corrupt deals, vote rigging, and sham criminal prosecutions against political opponents.
An EU investigation of the recordings found that Gruevski ordered the wiretapping and that the tapes held evidence of “apparent direct involvement of senior government and party officials in electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion and criminal damage.” The crisis persisted into 2015, which was marked by an opposition boycott of parliament, widespread demonstrations, and 18 deaths in a shootout in the town of Kumanovo, the circumstances of which remain unresolved.
Clearly, the EU, while quick to congratulate Macedonia on its election results, should remain concerned about the country’s political future following the apparent victory of a man like Gruevski – whom the European Union itself has accused of engineering “state capture.”
Now that Gruevski seems to have won, despite his many failings, this might embolden other governments in the region that have thumbed their noses at law, order, and democracy. In fact, a number of other candidate states in the Balkans have already failed to make adequate progress in the realms of anti-corruption, crime prevention, and rule of law, which has prevented them from qualifying for EU membership.
In just one example, barely two months ago, Montenegro went through its own drama-filled elections. The country’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, who had led the country for the past 21 years, stepped down after announcing that his government was investigating the possible involvement of Russian nationalists in an attempted coup aimed at disrupting Montenegro’s elections. At the time of the vote in late October, authorities arrested 20 Serb citizens accused of illegally entering the country to stage armed attacks. Critics have questioned official accounts of the incident, and one opposition member claimed that the entire affair was staged. Some observers say that Djukanovic may well have used the alleged coup as an excuse to begin a witch hunt of his opponents, as well as to strengthen his own position as a purported pro-EU, pro-NATO bulwark against Russian interests.
Although Djukanovic has stepped down from his role as prime minister, he is likely to maintain power from behind the scenes – which should be worrisome for both Montenegro and Europe, given his own track record. In 2015, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named Djukanovic “Man of the Year” for his role in building “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.” According to OCCRP, Djukanovic has contributed towards an oppressive political atmosphere and an economy “choked by corruption and money laundering.”
Djukanovic’s shady past, and his apparent attempt to use the elections to start hunting down his opponents, is thus sadly comparable to the situation in Macedonia, which also suffers from a strongman political leader and a political atmosphere characterized by fear.
Dysfunction and crumbling democratic systems, it seems, are becoming a hallmark of southeast Europe, which is all the more worrying for the EU, as this includes a number of potential and existing candidate states in the region. Despite the small size and clout of a country like Macedonia or Montenegro, EU member states should take their post-election maelstrom as a sinister sign: an indication of persistent and even growing authoritarianism, corruption, and political dysfunction on Europe’s borders. Another item to add to the EU’s list of concerns.
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