Fading Hegemon. The two crises in Macedonia


Elena B. Stavrevska

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Between a Fading Hegemon and the Quest for Radical Democracy: the Two Crises in Macedonia

There is a joke that everyone in Macedonia knows. It goes like this: during World War II, the Partisans fought the German troops over a forest. The first day the Partisans took over the forest. The second day, the Germans retaliated and took control. The third day the Partisans regained control of the forest again. On the fourth day, the Germans got it back. On the fifth day, the forester lost patience, chased them away and took control over the forest. Whenever there is a political crisis in the country, with the government and the opposition being unable to reach an agreement, the joke gets invoked and the citizens’ eyes turn westward, normally to the European Union (EU), to look for the forester. Given the international community’s involvement in the country, most notably the EU, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The Declining Hegemon

If there is one thing that all Macedonian governments since the country’s independence in 1991 have had in common, even if solely declaratively at times, and that is the EU membership as a strategic goal. That, together with the hegemonic position that the EU has had in the Balkans, has given the Union a unique power on the domestic political scene.

Both aspects are worth analysing. Starting with the latter, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ambiguous institutional setups in some of the successor countries have created the necessary vacuum for the then European Community to emerge as a hegemon in the region. In the case of Macedonia specifically, the brief inter-ethnic conflict in the summer of 2001 was terminated with the signing of what came to be known as the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA). The Agreement, signed by the leaders of the four largest political parties in Macedonia at the time, has the EU as one of its guarantors. In addition to this, the EU employed various instruments to help the country stabilise and reform after the conflict. This created an environment where the EU was in a position to assume greater responsibilities in the country. It was called on to co-ordinate the efforts of the international community in facilitating, monitoring and assisting the implementation of OFA. At the same time, by being the guarantor of the implementation of the Agreement, the EU has become heavily engaged in managing the domestic politics of the country. It was no longer seen as a mediator, but as a key decision-maker in Macedonia. Moreover, given the power asymmetries, the Union has become positioned atop a hierarchical governing order in the country. The ideological appeal and prestige of the power or the entity that is the hegemon is important in making the hierarchical order also a stable one.

This appeal in fact relates to the second aspect mentioned above: the EU membership as a primary strategic goal of Macedonia. The support for the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations has always been strong among the population, with the latest opinion poll showing above 80% support.  This support, however, has in the last seven years been aggressively juxtaposed in the public discourse to the country’s right to use its constitutional name internationally. Namely, since the Greek veto of the Macedonian NATO membership bid at the Bucharest summit in April 2008, the ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE or VMRO for short) headed by the Prime Minister Gruevski has been actively shaping a narrative in which the ‘national dignity’ is at stake when it comes to Euro-Atlantic integration. The event marks a turning point in the government’s policy and rhetoric, with them now focusing on redefining the collective identity, the collective external and internal enemies, the image of what constitutes ‘a true Macedonian’, and on attempts of relating that image to the ancient Macedonians and the myths of Alexander the Great. Many of the historical myths that have since been put to the fore in defining the national narrative are ones where the Macedonian people are portrayed as victims, which is not uncommon in the Balkans. Those myths and the myths of the ‘ancestors’ unyieldingness’ are invoked at convenience in the context of the name dispute when the EU’s tune is unfavourable to the ruling elite. At the same time, many of the reforms, as well as the prospects for a better future are publicly presented under the banned of EU integration. With most of the major national media controlled by VMRO, this two-tier approach not only makes the ‘European integration’ an empty signifier at the ruling party’s disposal, but also weakens significantly any ‘sticks’ the EU might have.

‘Uncapturing’ the State?

This contextualisation is important in trying to understand the lack of aces the Union had up its sleeve in handling the most recent, which is the biggest since the independence, political crisis in the country. The beginning of the crisis could probably be traced back to December 24, 2012 when in the ruling party’s attempt to rapidly pass the 2013 budget through the Parliament, the opposition MPs and the journalists were physically removed from the Parliament building. The opposition bloc, led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM for short) did not return to the Parliament until an EU-brokered agreement was reached in March 2013. The agreement was only partially respected by VMRO, whose failure to implement the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations regarding the electoral law and the voters’ registry led to SDSM not recognising the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in April 2014 and boycotting the Parliament ever since. That has not stopped VMRO and its MPs, along with the other representatives of the ruling coalition, to continue the trend of overregulating all aspects of the public and the private life and by passing and implementing a number of problematic laws to further strengthen their rule by law, rather than rule of law.

This aspect of the crisis started moving towards culmination in early February of this year, when the leader of SDSM, Zoran Zaev, accused Gruevski and his closest ally, his cousin Mijalkov, who had been the head of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, for illegally wiretapping more than 20,000 citizens in the course of at least four years. Consequently, Zaev started publicly broadcasting leaked wiretapped materials, calling the whole undertaking ‘The truth for Macedonia’, which showed massive abuse of power by the closest circle around the Prime Minister and a complete state capture. The materials were released in sets called ‘bombs’, with each of them focusing on a different issue, in the course of several months. The strongest public dissatisfaction came on May 5 as a result of a ‘bomb’ that contained evidence of top government officials, including Gruevski, knowing of and contributing to concealing a fatal case of police brutality that had sparked massive civic protests in 2011. The May 5 protest was large in size and even though initially peaceful, ended with violence and the police using brute force against the protestors, which contributed to the protests continuing in the days that followed. The biggest protest, albeit organised by SDSM and the coalition it formed with other opposition parties and civil society organisations called ‘The citizens for Macedonia’ (GM for short), happened on May 17 in Skopje. VMRO and its supporters, on the other hand, had a large rally organised on May 18. Following these two largest gatherings, GM and VMRO supporters set up protest camps in front of the government and the parliament buildings respectively, just as negotiations among four of the political party leaders started and the public sphere was emptied out of the political. The duration of the release of the ‘bombs’, the camps, and the negotiations had made the state of crisis the new normal, the new reality in Macedonia.

EU-mediated negotiations, supported by the USA, with hurdles along the way, had been unfolding until July 14. The negotiations, by and large far from the public, involved solely the leaders of the four biggest political parties, two predominantly ethnically Macedonian and two predominantly ethnically Albanian. An initial agreement on certain issues was reached on June 2 and the agreement was finalized with a protocol that was agreed in the early morning of July 15. In the meantime, a senior experts’ group appointed by the EU has issued a report with recommendations on the rule of law issues. It could be argued that the findings from the report made the very involvement of Gruevski, as someone contributing to the problems the report identified, in the negotiations problematic. This, together with the EU’s tied hands in using any sticks, had made the agreement that was reached but the lowest common denominator.

To that end, the agreement solely attempts to address the state capture by proposing establishment of a special prosecutor dealing with the leaked materials, return of the opposition to the parliament and formation of a transitional government in October, which will be headed by Gruevski until January when he resigns, and will have the mandate to organise new parliamentary elections in April 2016. This is merely a move in the direction of ‘uncapturing’ the state and whether it is sufficient is a moot point at this moment in time. What is important, nonetheless, is to acknowledge what the agreement does and what it does not attempt to do. The current crisis is both a systemic crisis and a legitimacy crisis, and the agreement solely addresses the first crisis. While not unrelated, addressing the former does not by default address the latter.

The systemic crisis is essentially a state capture involving a “substantial, institutionalized, particularistic, self-interested influence or control of unrepresentative actors over public finances or state policy formation and implementation.” State capture does not refer to the consequences, that is the corruption, but the problem itself, that is the failure of the system which in its design does not have functioning checks and balances of the political power.  These deficiencies are integrated in the institutions and the laws, making the above-mentioned rule by law possible while mimicking democratic processes and institutions. Therefore an agreement zeroing in only on the systemic crisis in the country has the quantity, not the quality of democracy as its primary target.

The Revolution Is on Hold, Long Live the Revolutionaries!

The crisis of legitimacy, on the other hand, is a political problem and, while it may be affected, it cannot be resolved with technical solutions, such as the ones the agreement proposes. As David Chandler in his seminal analysis of statebuilding in Bosnia rightfully argues, the problems of politics can only be resolved within the realm of the political, suggesting that solutions for political problems are unlikely to be found in the realms of law, administration and/or social policy.

In the political realm, legitimacy broadly refers to the right to govern, which in democracies depends both on the support of the majority and the ability to prevent the tyranny over the minorities. Using the heuristic device of distinguishing between input and output legitimacy or, as Lipset suggests, between legitimacy and effectiveness respectively, whereby the former relates to “the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society” and the latter relates to “the actual performance of a political system, the extent to which it satisfies the basic functions of government as defined by the expectations of most members of a society, and the expectations of powerful groups within it which might threaten the system.” The stream of protests and plenums that were formed in the last year point to a crisis of legitimacy on both fronts.

Regarding the latter, perhaps the best indicator of the citizens’ dissatisfaction is the growing size and frequency of civic activism in its various forms in the last few years. In regards to protests specifically, particularly since the student protests in the fall and the winter of 2014, the frequency has exponentially increased, with protests becoming if not weekly, at least monthly occurrence. To that end, the broadcasting of leaked materials regarding the fatal case of police brutality that led to the massive protests on May 5 was the immediate reason, but not the sole cause for citizens’ dissatisfaction. In the crowd there were media workers protesting the restrictive media law and the media blackout that is the result of the current government practices. There were contract workers dissatisfied with the law that targets them and was passed a few months earlier. There were students who were protesting against the law on higher education that would have resulted in obliteration of the university’s autonomy. There were LGBTQI activists dissatisfied with the mistreatment by the judiciary of the cases of physical attacks against some of them. There were workers whose labour rights have significantly and constantly been decreasing, while the unions have become government’s pawns. There were architects who have seen Skopje turned into ‘Europe’s capital of kitsch’. There were women who have been the subject of several restrictive laws. There were youths who see little prospects for any kind of employment without becoming a party member. There were parents of young people who have left the country in thousands. There were citizens who have experienced injustice by the current government in one form or another.

As the protests continued to grow in size, a violent clash between the Macedonian police forces and an armed group, with a total of 22 casualties, occurred in Kumanovo, an ethnically heterogeneous city in the northeast of the country, on May 9-10. Inhabiting and understanding the country through what Brubaker has labelled as the prism of groupism, whereby groups, such as ethnic groups, are seen as the primary societal actors with ascribed interests and agency, the first assumption of many was that the incident was an inter-ethnic clash. The media blackout and the lack of information from the officials, however, along with the many inconsistencies in the narrative that the government presented in the end, contributed to the people questioning the government’s effectiveness. The popularity of a video of an ethnic Albanian, joined by an ethnic Macedonian, calling for responsibility of the officials is but one example of how the Kumanovo incident in fact contributed to the citizens’ dissatisfaction and the crisis of legitimacy.

In regards to the former, the so-called input legitimacy, most public opinion polls show distrust of political institutions. This is alarmingly so among young people, whose dissatisfaction with the state of democracy is exceptionally high. One study, for instance, shows that only 6% of the youth in Macedonia are satisfied with the state of democracy. Interestingly, the same study shows that the least trusted institutions among the youth are the political parties and most of them feel not represented in politics at present. The distrust is not solely of VMRO, but of most active political parties, in particular the bigger ones, those perceived as mainly ethnic Macedonian and those seen as mainly ethnic Albanian alike. An indicator of this is also the figure, which shows that while VMRO’s support has been declining with the release of the ‘bombs’, SDSM’s support has not been growing. There are several reasons for this. One is the legacy of the party, which was governing the country through the privatisation process. Another is the selective and calculative release of the leaked materials. Many citizens, in particular the ethnic Albanians regarding the lack of materials that involved the Albanian politicians, have complained that instead of the ‘truth for Macedonia’, the project had turned into the ‘selected truth for a part of Macedonia, as narrated by the opposition party’. Yet another is the way the opposition party had approached the civic protests. Potentially unaware of its own political gravity, SDSM initiated the formation of the above-mentioned GM coalition with party of the civil society sector, which ultimately ended being perceived as the coalition of SDSM. This led to many of the protesters who were joining the street protests every day to feel calculated with and distrust the opposition party. In addition to the usual voters’ turnout being below 60%, with the four biggest parties as the authors and the signatories of the recent agreement, that made a large part of the country’s population unrepresented at the negotiations. That said, in addition to the current government’s input legitimacy being debatable due to election fraud, it is also the transitional government input legitimacy that is questionable.

The crisis of legitimacy was evident in the forms of various citizen groups’ organisation when forming and communicating their demands in the past period. The plenums have been quite a popular form, with them serving not only as a platform to give voice to the unrepresented, but also as a form of radical democracy. In the words of Laclau and Mouffe, this allows for politics not to be reduced to a simple registering in a vote of already existing interests, but for political identities and preferences to be (re)constituted through debate in the public sphere. It is politics itself, they argue, that actually plays a pivotal role in shaping the political subjects. The plenums were precisely that. They allowed for a plurality of voices to be heard and positions and views to be formed through a discussion. The support and the number of plenums that have been formed in the last year is yet another example of the citizens’ needs to be heard beyond the elections and the system as it currently is.

Considering all of the above, it becomes clear that the solution that the agreement proposes addresses only certain aspects of the systemic crisis or the state capture, but not of the crisis of legitimacy. While the legality that the agreement might restore could pave the way for addressing some issues that relate to the crisis of legitimacy, it is unfound to assume that legality also presupposes legitimacy. With that in mind, it will not be a surprise if the citizens’ dissatisfaction continues until a more sustainable solution is reached and the crisis of legitimacy is overcome. Going back to the joke from the beginning of the text, it seems that instead of westward, for a sustainable solution, the people of Macedonia should be looking for the forester inward.

Elena B. Stavrevska is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Central European University in Budapest. She currently works with the Institute for Research and Social Innovation in Skopje, Macedonia.

Prispevek je bil prvotno objavljen v 20. številki Razpotij (poletje 2015).

Foto vir: Vanco Dzambaski/FOSIM