North Macedonia

Last update: 4 weeks ago

For a long time, North Macedonia has been considered a relative success story in the region: no major conflicts, a fairly successful state-building process, and no territory issues. After years of showing dedication to the Ohrid Agreement – the 2001 peace deal between the North Macedonian government and ethnic Albanians – and implementing reforms, the country received EU candidate status in December 2005. The promises of EU and NATO membership (by 2008 the criteria for entering NATO were fulfilled) are important tools in uniting Macedonians with Albanian minorities. However, despite UN mediation, the long-standing name dispute with Greece has been stagnating the EU integration process and NATO membership as Greece has been vetoing the opening of the accession negotiations. During the accession negotiations, the EU has most leverage and influence on structural and sustainable reforms – for example on the rule of law and fundamental rights – in a candidate state.

In addition, the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski, in power between 2006 and 2016, misused the lack of progress on the European road to establish an authoritarian regime and to engage in a nationalist identity-building project. Defending their activities under the slogan ‘at least we built something’ the government invested hundreds of millions of euros in building marble Greek-style statues, fountains, and buildings, turning the capital in something close to a theme park.

In the context of nationalism, ethnic conflicts are influencing the political landscape. This is something that could be seen during the last presidential elections, as well as the most recent parliamentary elections. Each time, the VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) ended up in an extremely close tie. The VMRO-DPMNE, known for their nationalistic stance, is mainly focused on ethnic Macedonians, while the SDSM is centre-left and has shown to be more accepting and accommodating towards the country’s ethnic minorities. The SDSM barely won the 2019 presidential elections and in the 2020 parliamentary elections, while running with the Besa Movement as the “We can” coalition, it got 46 seats, it became the largest faction. The VMRO-DPMNE obtained only two seats less. Therefore, the SDSM and Besa Movement had to form a coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which represents the Albanian minority in North Macedonia. Coalition talks between the two factions were not easy since the DUI demanded an Albanian Prime Minister. However, the SDSM already rejected this call during the election campaign and would therefore not fully agree to it. Both parties eventually agreed on appointing a non-ethnic Albanian Prime Minister until the last 100 days before the next elections, making Zoran Zaev the leader until then. The coalition has 62 of the 120 seats in parliament.  With the struggling economy, it will be challenging to implement left-wing socio-economic policies. Short term, progress can be made with regards to EU integration (blocked for years by Greece due to the name issue), human rights and press freedom. International actors should show strong support in achieving these goals.

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Map of North Macedonia

Short facts

Population:
2,083,459 (World Bank est.)
Governmental Type:
Parliamentary democracy
Ruling Coalition:
SDSM, Besa Movement, DUI
Last Elections:
2020 (parliamentary elections)
Next Elections:
2021 (local elections) 2024 (parliamentary elections and presidential elections)
Sister Parties:
Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)
Image of Stevo Pendarovski

Stevo Pendarovski

President

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Image of Zoran Zaev

Zoran Zaev

Prime Minister

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Political Situation

North Macedonia is a parliamentary republic with the prime minister as the head of government. The political organisation of the country was determined in the 1991 Constitution.

The Assembly, or the Sobrania, is the only chamber of parliament and comprises 123 members. The assembly members are elected by proportional representation for a four-year term in office. In general elections, North Macedonia is divided into six constituencies electing 120 MPs each. Three seats are elected by representatives of the Macedonian citizens living abroad: one from Europe, one from North America and one from Asia and Australia.

The combination of a lack of European perspective and nationalism has proved to be a serious threat to democracy and stability in North Macedonia: manipulation and fraud at the elections, control over the judiciary and weakening of the rule of law and media freedom, a non-functioning parliament and growing dissatisfaction among the Albanian minority.

The "Extortion Scandal"

The previous progressive government led by Zoran Zaev (Social Democratic Union, SDSM) made promising steps in the fight against corruption and restoring the rule of law.  However, the alleged wrongdoing of the Special Prosecutor for organized crime cases herself has been a setback.  It started when a well-known businessman, Bojan Jovanovski, was arrested on suspicion of extortion. Shortly after that La Verita, an Italian right-wing newspaper released videos and audio recordings which allegedly showed that the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime Katica Janeva was offering leniency to Jovanovski and another businessman in exchange for cash. She was arrested on August 21 on suspicion of offering leniency to a businessman. 

Furthermore, in one of the audiotapes, Jovanovski mentioned he met Zaev and that he wouldn't "make any problems". Zaev stressed he had nothing to do with the scandal, but it had already caused a lot of commotion. The VMRO-PPMNE has pressed for Zaev's resignation, stating that the government has not done enough against corruption and one of the tops of that is involved in criminal activities. Even its European allies were concerned about the scandal in North Macedonia. European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn commented that the latest revelations showed it is important to establish legal accountability for all crimes. The EU has asked North Macedonia to establish judicial reforms before it wants to start accession talks.

Name Change in 2018

After an almost three-decade-long dispute, North Macedonia and Greece finally settled on a historic name change agreement. On June 17th 2018 Prime Minister Zaev and his Greek counterpart Tsipras signed a landmark agreement at the Lake Prespa. According to this agreement, Macedonia’s name was officially changed to “Republic of North Macedonia.” In exchange for this, North Macedonia expects accelerated NATO membership and EU-accession talks, and Athens promised not to block their initiatives anymore.

The language of the country will still be “Macedonian,” and the citizens will be referred to as “Macedonians” or “Citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia.” This was an important part of the agreement for the Macedonians who want to protect their identity. The agreement was answered with international and local praise, but also with protests from nationalist factions in both countries.

After the Prespa Agreement was ratified by both parliaments – which was a major challenge – the had to be supported by a majority of Macedonia’s citizens. On September 30th 2018 a non-binding referendum was held, inquiring the public opinion on the name-change deal. The turn-out was below the 50% threshold, as only 36.8% of the Macedonians participated in the referendum. However, among those participants, 91% voted in favour of a name change, hopeful that it would remove a significant impediment to EU and NATO membership. Despite the low turn-out, the government saw the outcome as a green light to implement the name change.

On October 8th, the government adopted a motion to undertake the constitutional changes, and on January 11th the parliament agreed upon the change. On January 25th, the Greek parliament also approved by 153 votes to 146 on the name change, ending the diplomatic dispute between the countries. North Macedonia is the first country in modern times (except for Austria after World War I) that forcefully had to change its name.

Parliamentary elections of 2020 during COVID-19

Originally, the parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held on 12 April 2020. However, less than a month prior to this date, the President, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, the Prime Minister and representatives of seven political parties agreed to reschedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this decision, North Macedonia had relatively few COVID-19 cases. Nonetheless, in order to avoid a national health crisis and to be able to put more effort into handling the pandemic, rather than into being reelected, all parties agreed that postponement would be the best option. On 15 July 2020, the elections were held at last.

Parliamentary elections of 2016

Following the resignation of PM Nikola Gruevski new elections took place on 11 December 2016. Gruevski had been in power since 2006 up to 18 January 2016,  in a coalition with the Albanian party; Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).

Pressure on 2016 elections
In recent years, the opposition boycotted the parliament multiple times. They did this because the previous elections often lacked transparency and were rigged. Eventually, the opposition did not want to participate in the parliamentary process. The incumbent party repeatedly dismissed these claims, adding that the opposition is simply afraid to go to the ballot box. Following this, the State Electoral Commission decided to investigate if registered voters were deceased, lacked citizenship or did not have the right age. Eventually, the opposition also received the support of the EU and the US to their critique of democracy in Macedonia. On 21 February 2016, the EU and the US sent a joint letter pressuring the government to postpone the date of the elections. Initially, elections were set for 24 April 2016, but they were postponed to 5 June 2016. The letter further declared that not all conditions needed to organise credible elections had been met, such as the clean-up of the electoral roll, the creation of a level playing field for all political players, media reforms ensuring objective and unbiased election coverage and measures to separate state and party political activities. As such, the external interference arranged prerequisites for the elections. As the above mentioned main conditions were not met on time it was decided to postpone the elections again, this time to December 2016.

Lead up to Gruevski’s resignation: the wiretapping scandal
In 2015 opposition leader Zaev from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) accused Gruevski and the secret police of wiretapping over 20.000 people including ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, judges, foreign ambassadors and activists. The Special Prosecution Office (SJO) led the investigation into the wiretaps and pressed charges against high ranked government officials, including the prime minister and minister of interior. Nonetheless, President Ivanov pardoned all politicians facing criminal investigations in the wiretapping corruption scandal, leading to a peak in political instability in 2016. The mass street protests that followed this, united Macedonians and Albanians in their call for better living standards, the fight against corruption and end of the Gruevski rule. Pressured by the EU and US, Gruevski agreed to step down and call early elections. The EU mediated Przino Agreement between position and opposition determined that SDSM would take part in the transition government that would prepare free and fair elections. The main conditions were to establish an independent public broadcaster and to clean up the voting register.

The Ministry of Interior knows who are present to vote and can falsify the documents of those who are not present to give their identities to loyalists. The implementation of the Przino Agreement turned out being challenging, pushing the elections even further to 11 December 2016.

Political crisis of 2014-2015
The 2014 parliamentary elections led to a deep political crisis in North Macedonia. In disagreement with the election result, the SDSM party decided to block the parliament. This deadlock-situation exaggerated when the party started releasing wiretapped materials. The opposition accused government officials of electoral fraud, abuse of the legal system and the illegal surveillance of citizens. PM Gruevski and other government officials stated repeatedly that the tapes were "created by foreign secret services" and were attempts of the opposition to destabilize the country. Moreover, Gruevski publicly accused Zaev of “espionage” and “violence towards high-level officials”. Right after this public statement, the public prosecutor charged Zaev with espionage and with making violent threats aimed at the government to undermine the goals of the constitutional order.

The situation escalated in May when audiotapes were published in which Nikola Gruevski, Interior Affairs Minister, Gordana Jankuloska, the Chief of Intelligence, and other officials can be heard discussing how to "cover-up" the killing of a man during protests in 2011 in order to prevent government responsibility. During protests that followed the 2011 general elections, a 22-year old man, Martin Neskovski, was beaten to death by a police officer. According to eyewitnesses, he was killed due to excessive police violence, which stirred huge demonstrations among Macedonians during the following days. Initially, governmental sources denied that the police officer in question was on duty that day, and issued a statement that the government could thus not be held responsible for the murder. Though, according to the wiretapped conversations, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Security, Dejan Mitrevski Urko, contacted the police officer that night, which according to the opposition showed that the government could be held responsible.

These publications were followed by massive demonstrations on the streets of Skopje in May. As a reaction to the anti-government rally, government supporters also started their own pro-government rally. In June, the position and opposition reached an EU-brokered agreement to hold early elections in April 2016. 

Political crisis December 2012 – March 2013
The political crisis started with a disagreement over the draft budget for 2013. On Christmas Eve 2012, during a session of the parliament, the budget was on the agenda, but the main opposition party SDSM stated that instead of following the principles and rules commonly used during such a session, several violations took place. Draft versions were kept away from opposition MPs including the SDSM, which were not able to get voting cards, while media representatives could not work freely in the room. After opposing the constitutional and legal breaches, scuffles broke out between members of the ruling centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party and the SDSM MPs in which opposition members were forcibly evicted from the plenary room. Before this outburst of violence, all journalists had already been removed from the room, either on their own feet or dragged by policemen.

Following this event, the SDSM decided to boycott the parliament sessions, which ultimately lasted for more than two months and threatened to derail local elections that were supposed to be held on 24 March 2013. The SDSM stated that it would renounce the boycott only when the local elections were held together with early parliamentary elections.

These events have triggered a succession of demonstrations in North Macedonia. On 19 February a former leader of the now-disbanded ethnic Albanian separatist armed group was chosen to become the new Minister of Defence. In a reaction to this appointment, clashes took place in Skopje against ethnic Albanians of Macedonians, which was followed days later by a violent demonstration of ethnic Albanians. 

The political crisis was resolved at the beginning of March, after a mediation effort by EU Enlargement Commissioner at that time, Štefan Füle, and European Parliament Rapporteur for North Macedonia, Richard Howitt (S&D Group in the EP). The SDSM agreed on 1 March to return to parliament and to run in the local elections. These elections were held on 25 March and 7 April. The victory was declared by North Macedonia’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE, under the lead of Nikola Gruevski.

Ethnic rivalries
The country, which had been relatively spared from inter-ethnic violence after the break-up of Yugoslavia, underwent great tensions from 2001 onwards when the Albanian minority started demanding more rights. The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo forced thousands of Albanians to flee to North Macedonia. Since then, the Ohrid Agreement, signed with the support of the European Union and NATO, had guaranteed a unitary Macedonian state, reinforced by its EU candidate status since 2005. Nonetheless, violence keeps on sparking regularly. In March 2013, riots started from the Macedonian side after Talat Xhaferi, a former Albanian guerrilla commander, was appointed as defence minister. In April that same year, Johan Tarculovski, the only Macedonian convicted of war crimes against Albanians by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, was granted a hero’s welcome as he came back to Skopje, raising disagreement from the Albanian community. Winter 2013 saw the opposition of the two ethnic groups over the building of a new Orthodox Christian Church in a Muslim-dominated village.

Women and minority representation
The first real changes in women representation in parliament were reached after the 2002 elections. The percentage of female deputies rose from 7.5 per cent (1998) to 17.5 per cent. After the 2008 parliamentary elections, this share went further up to 32.5 per cent. The rise in women participation was facilitated by the successful lobbying campaign of different women rights NGO's to secure a constitutional amendment obligating parties to include at least 30 per cent women candidates in their election lists. 

After the reforms necessitated by the Ohrid Agreement, minority representation has increased. From 2006 until the 2008 parliamentary elections, the DPA was the main vehicle for Albanian representation in government, despite being the smaller of the two ethnic Albanian parties. This led to resentment with the DUI and considerable tensions between supporters of the two parties. After the 2008 elections, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski announced that the ruling 'For a better Macedonia' coalition would from now on govern in a coalition with the biggest ethnic Albanian party, which is the DUI with 18 seats. Several minority lists of smaller minorities were also part of the 'For a better Macedonia' coalition, including lists of North Macedonian Serbs and Turks.

Despite their increasing representation, Albanians still claim unequal involvement in government ministries and public enterprises. The US Department of State’s 2013 Country Report on Human Rights Practices underlined that out of the 123 seats in parliament, only 23 were obtained by Albanians, while other ethnic minorities accounted for 13 seats. These figures contradict the Ohrid Agreement principles, which stated that “the multi-ethnic character of Macedonia’s society must be preserved and reflected in public life”, notably in the public administration. Rural inhabitants, for their part, nourish resentment towards the State, blamed for hiding issues of corruption and absence of integration policies through destabilising the country. 

During the elections of 2016, 41 per cent of the candidates were women, although only 4 topped the 58 lists. This high percentage is also due to the enhanced quota on women’s participation. Eventually, 33 per cent of parliament is female. 

Elections

 

 


Parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections of 2020

The 2020 parliamentary elections had a turnout rate of only 51% and was marked by many new smaller parties running against the established factions. However, despite this development, the outcome was to be expected. Just like the previous election results in 2016, the SDSM and the VMROO-DPMNE had an extremely close tie. The SDSM in coalition with the Besa Movement obtained 46 seats, while the runner-up won 44. The DUI won 11.8% of the votes this year, which gives them 16 seats. This is a good recovery for the party, since last elections they went from 19 to 10 seats. Alliance for Albanians in coalition with Alternative received 8.9% of the votes, equaling to 12 seats. Left got 4% (1 seat) of the votes, and Democratic Party of Albanians with 1.6% of the votes won 1 seat in the parliament. In order to have a majority, parties need 61 seats.

Election results

Party % Seats
Social Democratic Union Macedonia (SDSM) and Besa Movement - "We Can"  35.8 %  46
Internal macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE)  34.5 %  44
Democratic Union for Integration (DUI)   11.8 %   16 
Alliance for Albanians and Alternative  8.9 %   12
Left  4 %   1
Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA)  1.6 %  1

 

Aftermath

Even though the “We can” coalition of the SDSM and the Besa Movement won the elections, they needed to form a coalition with DUI to have a majority in parliament. The coalition talks between these parties were difficult. “We can” stated during their campaign that they would not let and Albanian become Prime Minister if they secured the win. However, the DUI demanded during the talks that if they were to form a coalition with “We can”, an Albanian should fill this position. Eventually, the different factions agreed that Zoran Zaev, leader of the SDSM would become Prime Minister until the last 100 days before the next elections, when an Albanian will be appointed. In addition, it was agreed that Talat Xhaferi, member of the DUI, will remain speaker of the parliament. The coalition has now 62 of the 120 seats in parliament.

The new government will mainly tackle the country’s corruption and crime, improve its justice system and make sure that North Macedonia is ready for EU integration. The latter is an important matter since the EU accession talks are expected to start at the end of 2020. Furthermore, creating more job opportunities, increasing salaries, helping low-income families and environmental improvement are part of the agenda.

After the elections, the Left Party filled around two thousand complaints regarding issues during the electoral process. The faction did not completely trust the results because the State Election Commission had been hacked, which they stated caused for inconsistencies between the casted votes and the data that was entered into the software. However, none of these complaints were actually taken care of.

Name dispute

There has been a dispute going on over the country’s use of the Republic of Macedonia as its official name. A region in Northern Greece shares the same name and is also closely connected to Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon. Greece holds the opinion that by using ‘Macedonia’, the country implies claims on Greek territories. As a result, it has been using the label Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) since joining the United Nations in 1993. Originally planned as a temporary solution, it remains in use until now. Because of the dispute, the accessions to the EU and NATO have been blocked by Greece.

To solve the issue, North Macedonia agreed to change its flag by removing the Vergina Sun and proceeded to add a passage to its constitution, which is supposed to make clear that the country does not claim any Greek territories. Furthermore, the main airport and a highway to Greece were renamed begin 2018 to disconnect it from Alexander the Great. The historical figure has been declared exclusively Greek concerning the country’s Hellenic heritage. The Greek side accepted the use of ‘FYROM’ as an official name and agreed on a possibility of continuing EU accession talks. In January 2018, the two Prime Ministers Zohav Zaev and Alexis Tsipras met and announced faster negotiations to resolve the years-long dispute.  This is a clear break with the former conservative government that used the name dispute to raise nationalism, for example by engaging in nation-building projects such as the “Skopje 2014” project.     


Presidential elections

Presidential elections of 2014
As mentioned above, general elections were held in 2014 to elect a new president as well as a new parliament. The first round of the presidential elections was held on 13 April, in which incumbent president Gjorge Ivanov took the lead with 51.69 per cent of the votes. However, a second round was held on 27 April as Ivanov did not receive the support of 50 per cent of all the registered voters. Ivanov gained 55.27 per cent of the votes in this second round and therefore won the elections.

Presidential elections of 2019 

First Round of elections

On April 21st, the voting polls for the first round of presidential elections opened in North Macedonia. Stevo Pendarovski, supported by the ruling Social Democratic coalition (SDSM), won this round with a small margin of a few thousand votes ahead of his rival Gordana Siljanovska, who is backed by the right-wing opposition party VMRO-DPMNE. It was a close call: as Pendarovski seized 42.8% of the votes and Siljanovska 42.2%. The third presidential candidate, Blerim Reka, obtained 10.6% of the votes. He’s supported by two ethnic Albanian parties.

The voting turn-out was the lowest since the country’s independence. Only 41% of the people cast their vote, just slightly above the required 40% threshold for a legitimate result.

Run-off elections

Although it was feared that the turn-out would be below 40% in the second round on May 5th, in the end, 46% of the eligible voters cast their vote. Pendarovski won the presidency with 51.7 per cent of the votes, surpassing Siljanovska who received 44.7%. The remaining 3.61% were void.

The elections were dominated by a deep division over the name-change agreement with Greece and reflected a split between the pro-Western and the nationalist camp. Pro-European voters supported Pendarovski and the adaption of “Republic of North Macedonia” as the new name of the state. Pendarovski is in favour of the name-change deal with Greece, as it removes the biggest impediment to EU and NATO integration. Nationalists, on the other side, oppose the agreement and support Siljansovska, who promised to never use the new name. Despite being pro-European, she is opposed to the name-change, arguing that North Macedonia makes too many concessions and that the country will lose parts of its identity. In the run-off elections, both candidates aimed at appealing to the Albanian ethnic minority that voted for Reka in the first round, hoping that it would give them the decisive advantage.

The victory of Steveo Pendarovski is expected to fortify the Social Democrats’ agenda and raises hopes to enter EU accession talks end 2019, and to become the 30th NATO member state by 2020.

 

Political parties

Social Democratic Parties

Logo of Social Democratic Union of Macedonia

Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)

Party Leader: Zoran Zaev

Number of seats: 41

http://www.sdsm.org.mk

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Other Parties

Logo of Democratic Party for Macedonian national unity - Internal Macedonian revolutionary organisation

Democratic Party for Macedonian national unity - Internal Macedonian revolutionary organisation (VMRO-DPMNE)

Party Leader: Hristijan Mickoskii

Number of seats: 44

http://www.vmro-dpmne.org.mk

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Logo of Democratic Union for Integration

Democratic Union for Integration (DUI)

Party Leader: Ali Ahmeti

Number of seats: 16

http://www.bdi.org.mk

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Logo of Alliance for Albanians and Alternative  (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alliance_for_Albanians.png)

Alliance for Albanians and Alternative

Party Leader: Ziadin Sela

Number of seats: 12

https://www.aleanca.eu

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Besa

Party Leader: Bilall Kasami

Number of seats: 5

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Logo of Left (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_(North_Macedonia))

Left

Party Leader: Dimitar Apasiev

Number of seats: 1

https://levica.mk

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Logo of Democratic Party of Albanians

Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA)

Party Leader: Menduh Thaci

Number of seats: 1

http://www.pdsh.org

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Biographies

Image of Stevo Pendarovski

Stevo Pendarovski

President

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Image of Zoran Zaev

Zoran Zaev

Prime Minister

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Image of Gjorge Ivanov

Gjorge Ivanov

Former President

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Sources

NGO – Research Organisations

  • British Helsinki Human Rights Group
  • Freedom House
  • Foundation Robert Schuman
  • Hans Boeckler Stiftung
  • Heinrich Boell Stiftung
  • International Crisis Group (IGC)
  • International IDEA
  • New York University Law School: East European Constitutional Review
  • OneWorld.net
  • Transparency International

Economic Research

  • Economist Intelligence Unit

News Agencies

  • BBC.co.uk
  • Balkanalysis.com
  • CNN.com International
  • Euractiv.com (Inc. article from the Centre for European Policy Studies)
  • Institute for War Peace Reporting
  • MIA news agency
  • Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • Transitions Online
  • SETimes

Public Sources

  • CIA World Factbook
  • Republic of Macedonia Agency of Information
  • Macedonian State Election Commission
  • UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Country Profiles
  • greco.coe.int

European Union

  • European Commission: The EU’s relations with South East Europe

OSCE/ODHIR

  • Election Reports

Literature

  • Crook, Nick and Michael Dauderstädt, André Gerrits: “Social Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” (Amsterdam:2002)
  • Development Strategies, Italy, and Institutional Development Consultancy, France
  • “Evaluation of the EC’s Country Strategy in FYR Macedonia for the years 1996-2001”
  • Lampe, John, R., Yugoslavia as History: Twice there was a Country, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000
  • Institute for Sociological, Political and Juridical Research “Political Parties Development in the Republic of Macedonia” –, Skopje (issue 6, September 2002)