On March 1, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov addressed his nation, following three days of peaceful rallies for national unity in Skopje and other cities. The President announced that he would not award a governmental mandate to Zoran Zaev, leader of the leftist opposition SDSM, plunging the country into the latest bout of uncertainty.
Zaev had come to him with a governing coalition in hand, having hammered out a controversial deal with the largest Albanian majority party over the past several weeks. SDSM had nearly defeated the long-ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE in December’s early parliamentary election, using a strategy of pandering to the country’s ethnic Albanian minority. The closeness of the race (51 seats for VMRO-DPMNE to 49 for SDSM) was at odds with some polls that had VMRO-DPMNE with a 13-point advantage just before the election. Some VMRO-DPMNE representatives have even alleged that Zaev’s party had bought votes in the run-up. DUI, the ethnic Albanian party, with 10 seats this time around, decided not to join their longtime partners VMRO-DPMNE in government, opting to join up with the unpopular Zaev instead.
The main problem with Zaev’s proposed coalition, President Ivanov noted, was that SDSM had violated the constitution and acted against basic national interests by agreeing—after, not before, the elections—to an “Albanian platform” of maximalist ethnic-minority demands, which included the mandatory official use of the Albanian language across the country, even though the Albanian population was predominantly clustered in the country’s West. Most egregiously, the platform had been crafted for the country’s ethnic Albanian parties by Edi Rama, the leader of neighboring Albania, at a public meeting in Tirana. For many Macedonians, Rama’s unprecedented interference was regarded as a reckless violation of their country’s sovereignty. Other national minority parties in VMRO-DPMNE’s coalition also denounced it.
Adding further to the drama was EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Federica Mogherini, who came to Skopje the next day and essentially ordered the President to accept Zaev’s demands. Mogherini maintained that Zaev’s simple majority was enough to earn him the mandate, citing Article 90 of the Macedonian constitution. However, the President (a former law professor) cited Article 84 and a 1992 Constitutional Court decision, which authorize the President to delay or decline granting such mandates if a candidate’s platform could jeopardize Macedonia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. SDSM could have its mandate immediately, Ivanov added, if Zaev and Ahmeti simply rejected the so-called Tirana Platform, which had been drafted and signed in Edi Rama’s office, and then used by DUI as a condition for joining a Zaev government. The aspiring coalition partners have thus far refused to renounce it.
The tough talk from Mogherini, her EU confrères, and even NATO’s chief has not gone over well in Macedonia. These luminaries not only failed to criticize Rama’s intervention, they were also silent when Kosovo President Hashim Thaci urged Albanians in Macedonia to “take their destiny into their own hands.”
The widespread perception of brazen Western interventionism has fueled a series of grassroots patriotic protests, where up to 30,000 citizens, led by traditional drummers, stroll for unity through the capital city’s center each evening in a show of relaxed but determined solidarity. Tens of thousands more have also rallied in other cities and towns. The simple gathering has become known as “Ilinden 4” in a nod to the 1903 Ilinden Uprising against the Turks, which created the first, and very short-lived, Balkan republic, in the mountain town of Krusevo.
According to the mainstream view, Macedonia’s political crisis began in February 2015, when Zoran Zaev started to release recordings, purportedly from a wiretapping operation launched by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski against the opposition, that revealed widespread government corruption. Leave aside for the moment the inherently problematic proposition that Gruevski and his cousin, the counterintelligence chief Sašo Mijalkov, had somehow managed to record themselves in compromising conversations; the murky provenance of Zaev’s explosive tapes, alleged by Gruevski’s government ahead of their publication, has caused its fair share of political turmoil.
In January 2015, Gruevski announced that Zaev had approached him the previous autumn, warning that foreign (non-Balkan) intelligence services had given him incriminating information against Gruevski, and urging the latter to resign. As the Gruevski government prepared to prosecute Zaev and his associates for plotting a coup, Zaev started leaking the wiretapped conversations, dubbed “bombs” by local journalists. Western media and diplomacy leapt into overdrive to support Zaev’s cause. The EU sent an expert team, led by former European Commissioner member Reinhard Priebe, to analyze the situation. Their report led to the foreign-brokered Pržino Agreement being signed by Macedonia’s four main party leaders in the summer of 2015, which called for various reforms, including giving SDSM temporary posts in the government, and new elections. After having been deferred twice, those elections finally came to pass this last December, and have yielded the impasse the country finds itself in today.
The great tragedy for the U.S. is that it could have just sat this one out. The CIA does not appear to have been involved in the taping misadventures—German, British and Italian services have all been rumored to have had their fingers in the pot. But a combination of hubris coupled with a determination to side with its EU allies led the Obama Administration to step up. Unsurprisingly, nothing good has come of its efforts. Since 2015 in particular, active U.S. diplomacy has not only failed to resolve Macedonia’s political crisis, but it has in fact prolonged it, with every initiative (both covert and overt) having backfired in some way. Rather than raising local politicians up to a higher level of ethics and transparency, the local U.S. mission itself long ago dropped to local standards of tactical trickery.
The Macedonian diaspora in the United States has not let it slide. Late this past month, seven U.S. Congressmen wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office, urging an investigation into the suspected pro-SDSM activities of U.S. Ambassador Jess Baily, the embassy, and its local USAID operation. Then on February 28, the American conservative group Judicial Watch cited official documents that apparently revealed “the U.S. government has quietly spent millions of taxpayer dollars to destabilize the democratically elected, center-right government in Macedonia by colluding with left-wing billionaire philanthropist George Soros.” Judicial Watch further claimed that “Barack Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Jess L. Baily, has worked behind the scenes with Soros’s Open Society Foundation to funnel large sums of American dollars for the cause, constituting an interference of the U.S. Ambassador in domestic political affairs in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” A stream of angry tweets, presumably by VMRO-DPMNE supporters, have gone out every day for the past three months straight, demanding Baily’s resignation. Posters reading “Baily go home, we don’t need you” have also popped up amid the recent protests.
I have to confess that in 15 years of life in Macedonia, I have never seen anything remotely like the current circus. It would of course be unfair to blame Ambassador Baily, or any other individual, for the fiasco. The current embassy leadership has inherited a policy shaped by a long history of decisions based on misguided ideological tendencies, by the connections and special interests of locals who know how to skillfully play the foreigners, and above all by a (possibly now outdated) presumption that Macedonia will eventually join the EU and NATO.
But just because there is no single author of this mess does not diminish its gravity. The Russians and the Chinese, both parvenu powers with various designs on the Western Balkans, must be delighted; they have had to do literally nothing but watch as the United States flails about. If the Tirana Platform is implemented and leads to ethnic federalization, or even just more minority concessions, Russia, in particular, could cite this as a “precedent” to demand more rights for Russian minorities in the Baltics. And an aggressive Turkish leadership could also cite the Macedonian precedent to interference on behalf of its minorities in other EU and NATO members Bulgaria and Greece. Thus, one dangerous political decision in a seemingly unimportant Balkan country could have catastrophic repercussions for wider European stability.
The evolution of Macedonian party politics, and how it has both been shaped and influenced by U.S. diplomacy in the country, is a complex and convoluted topic. Those interested in its granularities might enjoy my e-book, The Macedonian Mosaic, but a full treatment is beyond the scope of this essay. A mere outline will have to suffice.
Broadly speaking, the country’s shift toward a more nationalistic stance began in 2008, after Greece for the umpteenth time vetoed Macedonian NATO membership at the Bucharest Summit. VMRO-DPMNE used public anger to call snap elections, which it won handily. However, VMRO-DPMNE replaced its previous ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the long-established DPA, with DUI, a party that traces its origins to the National Liberation Army (NLA), an ethnic terrorist group that was transformed into a political party by its Western handlers in 2002.
One year later, the International Court of Justice ruled that Greece had violated its 1995 Interim Agreement with Macedonia with its veto, but the ruling was non-binding and the West brought little pressure on Greece in the following years. As time passed, everyone concerned adjusted to life without a resolution of the NATO Summit fiasco. Under Prime Minister Gruevski, Macedonia continued to participate in NATO missions abroad, but also looked to new potential partners, ranging from Israel and the Arab Gulf states to China and India. In any case, Athens was in no shape to prioritize name-issue negotiations with Skopje, being increasingly preoccupied with its deepening financial crisis. Greece’s mess luckily did not bleed over into Macedonia. Gruevski’s pro-business initiatives—mainly tax incentives for foreign businesses and investors—kept the economy growing, albeit fitfully. At the same time, VMRO-DPMNE championed a generous set of social programs, such as a stipend for families with three or more children, that effectively cut the legs out from under its socialist opponents.
By the 2011 elections, SDSM was already becoming essentially a protest movement running solely on legacy—and that legacy was not a very attractive one. Founding leader Branko Crvenkovski had served as Prime Minister during much of the 1990s, and was closely associated with the period of post-Communist transition, when (as elsewhere in Eastern Europe) state assets were privatized in various, shall we say, creative ways. The SDSM brand was also associated with the humiliating concessions made to the Greeks in that period, most notably changing the country’s original flag and allowing the ungainly “FYROM” title to be used at the United Nations. Frozen out of power, SDSM essentially stopped offering constructive policies and began spending all its energy on criticizing VMRO-DPMNE, which (along with its partner DUI) had consolidated patronage systems at the local and national levels.
By June 2013, when Crvenkovski retired and was replaced by Zoran Zaev, the Mayor of the agricultural town of Strumica, the once-proud SDSM was a shell of its former self. Nevertheless, Zaev and his powerful deputy Radmila Sekerinska, saw an opportunity with a West that had grown tired of Gruevski’s dominance and was looking for a countervailing force. (Gruevski did not help himself much, ignoring the need for sustained outreach with partners in the West.) Many Western diplomats were thus eager to hear about the corruption of “the regime”, led by the “dictator” Nikola Gruevski. Zaev, Sekerinska and their leftist allies would tell their Western interlocutors that while most Macedonians hoped for EU accession and a resolution of the name issue, the marks of Gruevski’s “dangerous nationalism” were everywhere, stymying their dreams. Skopje’s airport was renamed after Alexander the Great to provoke the Greeks, and the many statues of historical personages and other patriotic construction projects involved in the “Skopje 2014” development plan were a front for runaway corruption, Zaev and his associates alleged.
This was the great SDSM echo chamber, an edifice more significant than any collection of statuary strewn willy-nilly across the capital. An out-of-work SDSM, supported by an ever-growing number of “civil society” organizations, created a simple narrative and promoted it to foreign diplomats, journalists, and European bureaucrats. Macedonia had no media freedom, no rule of law, no “European values,” an excess of nationalism, and a ruthless regime. Everyone in Western polite society knew this to be true, because it was what they heard constantly from locals who knew the buzzwords needed for successful grant applications.
In reality, the narrative merely concealed SDSM’s own ploy. A few dozen power players used it to accrue substantial sums of international aid money for their own personal benefit, and in doing so completely blurred the lines between politics and civic activism. This emergent civil society cottage industry grotesquely mirrored established political parties: whereas the latter misused Macedonian taxpayer funds, the former abused the money of U.S. and European taxpayers. Becoming a professional activist became a well-remunerated career option.
Credulous Western diplomats—Americans included—failed to appreciate the cynicism of the whole arrangement. Everyone on Macedonia’s political scene benefited in some way. In a perverse symbiosis, the myth of a dictatorial regime had to be sustained by the left to keep foreign funds rolling in, while said dictatorial regime was equally happy to let the opposition continue to dissolve into an incompetent “movement”, one increasingly influenced by NGO types instead of politicians.
Westerners assumed that funding an opposition bloc was necessary to “level the political playing field” against what they perceived to be excessive political control and unchecked, corrupt rule by VMRO-DPMNE. But by uncritically backing SDSM, they only managed to cement the perception among many voters that the West was at best hopelessly out of touch, and at worst actively involved in partisan behavior and even corruption. While many citizens had justifiable grievances with the Gruevski government by the time of the 2015 crisis, the alternative was seen as not much better—an AstroTurf activist movement led by a rural mayor who frequently lied and contradicted himself during the crisis, and who himself had previously been officially pardoned by President Ivanov’s predecessor (the former SDSM chief, Crvenkovski), over a corrupt scheme of his own. (This was essentially a “kiss of death” pardon—it deprived Zaev of the chance to prove his innocence in court, forever casting a cloud over his past activities.)
Western diplomats and journalists who eagerly engaged in elevated talk of European values and freedoms never seemed to understand these local realities, nor the larger context of how the crisis actually began, and who it implicated. They did not appreciate that in a small country of two million people, where everyone knows everyone else and has long memories of events going back decades, personal and political allegiances are more fixed than fluid, and have nothing to do with whatever scandal outsiders feel is the most burning issue of the day.
The main outcome of a decade of selective Western political support is that the United States has lost all leverage over Macedonia’s most powerful party. Once the Obama Administration had decided to go all-in against VMRO-DPMNE, the party became increasingly inflexible and confrontational. Instead of engaging (and thus, influencing) all sides, the U.S. and its EU allies, often blindly guided by local staff with less-than-pure motives, breathed life into what amounted to not much more than a parallel patronage network with tenuous grassroots support. This is nothing but an own-goal. Russia, which has little traditional sway in the country, has backed VMRO-DPMNE’s denunciations of foreign involvement in Macedonia’s internal affairs through sporadic local embassy statements. With pressure from the EU mounting, Moscow has involved its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which on Thursday blasted the West for stirring up forces that could lead to Macedonia’s disintegration.
Macedonians have tolerated a lot since 2015. The nonstop drama of the political crisis has had a wearying effect on an already disillusioned public. But if the Obama Administration assumed that the crisis would yield easy regime change, they appear to have badly miscalculated. The SDSM’s post-election gambit to court DUI by acquiescing to their Tirana-authored demands has awoken a dormant sense of patriotism among people who are not necessarily politically active. Historically, the political parties here have organized most protests carefully, bussing people in and even hiring them for their time. That has not been necessary this time around. Macedonians are genuinely afraid that their country is in existential danger. What I have seen this past week are regular people of all ages demonstrating calmly, but with resolve. It is the diametric opposite of the “colorful revolution” of this past spring, in which NGO agitators, SDSM members, and street thugs smashed public property and defaced monuments. On a couple of recent occasions, however, pro-opposition journalists have claimed to be attacked by protest supporters, allegedly under VMRO-DPMNE instructions. Even though these cases remain personally unverified by me, intimidation of individuals could well increase, and be increasingly reported, if the crisis worsens.
The Macedonian public has sprung to life, but a solution to the governing crisis does not appear in the offing. Many Macedonians are furious with Zaev for offering the country to a minority population—one that has blocked a new population census for 15 years now. (The “official” 25-percent Albanian minority might actually be significantly less.) Meanwhile, an increasing number of VMRO-DPMNE supporters have come to blame Gruevski for not crushing the opposition’s “coup” two years ago, seeing it as proof of his own personal weakness and, quite possibly, Western blackmail. Political disillusionment is also high among the country’s Albanians, with the newcomer Besa party criticizing DUI founder Ali Ahmeti for doing little for Albanians since 2001, despite playing kingmaker in almost every government. The future might well see new alliances and shake-ups. The regularly scheduled local elections are slated to happen by early summer, and the results will reveal exactly what the larger public thinks of the party leaders’ behavior since 2014.
“Time is on our side,” one middle-aged rally supporter told me the other night, drinking a beer and clutching a red-and-yellow knotted cloth—the simple symbol of the new “Ilinden 4” movement. He seemed eerily calm. “All of the foreigners, the political parties, the NGOs, they are all rushing to finish their mission. We Macedonians are not in a rush. We always survive.”
Indeed, in a country with an ancient past where change comes slow, the new administration in Washington might want to consider this.