The Macedonian conflict between left and right

Tue 15 Aug 2017

The Macedonian conflict between left and right

A little over two months after Zoran Zaev’s Social Democratic government was installed, the opposition has launched no-confidence motions against three of its ministers, with possibly more to come. Opposition party VMRO DPMNE wants to gain back power, after a wiretapping scandal tainted their image in 2015. VMRO DPMNE’s differing views regarding the EU, NATO and Macedonia’s internal policies have been accentuated by the agreement with Bulgaria, and Zaev’s fight against corruption stems from the previous VMRO DPMNE-led administration.

No-confidence motions
VMRO DPMNE, which was in power for 11 years until May this year, launched three no-confidence notions, the latest of which was aimed at Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. The party claims the recently-signed friendship agreement with neighboring Bulgaria is harmful to Macedonia’s national interests. The agreement was highly praised by Brussels and Washington as a positive breakthrough and an example of successful problem-solving in the Balkans.

However, VMRO DPMNE say they fear the agreement endorses a hidden Bulgarian agenda, which is to revoke the existence of the Macedonian language and prohibit Macedonia from demanding greater rights for the Macedonian minority there.VMRO DPMNE admitted that they might file more motions against the new ministers in the near future.

The Social Democrats-led government responded by saying that the no-confidence motions were "unfounded" and that they were just a publicity stunt ahead of local elections slated for October. "Through these unfounded non-confidence motions, the VMRO DPMNE is trying to keep Macedonia in isolation and stall the reforms that will benefit the people," the Social Democrats said in a statement.

Agreement with Bulgaria
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov signed a friendship treaty on 1 August, in a move designed to end years of diplomatic infighting and to boost Macedonia's European integration. In the document, Bulgaria pledged to support Macedonia's NATO and EU integration. The two countries said they would also improve economic ties, renounce territorial claims and improve human and minority rights.

Macedonia’s difficult relations with Bulgaria, even though the two share close religious, historic and linguistic ties, have hampered Macedonia’s efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Bulgaria belongs to both organizations.

Bulgaria still does not recognize the Macedonian language, which it views as a dialect of Bulgarian. In this regard, VMRO DPMNE did not support parts of the document that address national issues. However, both Macedonia and Bulgaria hope that the agreement allows them to see past such differences in order to enhance cooperation. "This is a joint contribution to political stabilization between the two countries and in the region," Zaev told reporters after the signing.

Zaev and his government
Zoran Zaev, whose SDSM party has formed a coalition with parties representing the country's ethnic Albanians, won the support of 62 out of 120 MPs, in a vote that came nearly six months after parliamentary elections. Zaev has stated that his government will focus on three key goals: for economic prosperity, EU and NATO integration, and a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption by enabling justice and the rule of law.

Of the 25 ministers in Zaev's government, seven are ethnic Albanians, who make up one-third of the country's population. The majority of the ministers comes from his own party (SDSM), the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), and the Alliance for Albanians.

Soon after the elections, Zaev had already put together a coalition. However in March, President Gjorge Ivanov refused to give Zaev permission to form a government, saying the coalition would grant too many rights to the country’s Albanian minority, endangering Macedonia's unity and sovereignty. The President expressed concern over the controversial demand of Albanian parties that Albanian be made the second official language across Macedonia.

Storming of parliament
In April, around 200 protesters affiliated with VMRO DPMNE stormed parliament, attacking Social Democratic and ethnic Albanian MPs after they had elected an ethnic Albanian speaker of parliament. Xhaferi is the first ethnic Albanian parliament speaker in Macedonia since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The protesters angrily threw chairs while shouting “traitors” and eventually hurt many including Zaev, who was bleeding from the forehead. Police fired grenades to disperse protesters and to enable MPs to exit the parliament. Afterwards, 102 people were treated in hospital, including 10 MPs and police officers.

European officials condemned the attack, and NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg said “all parties should respect democratic process and engage in dialogue, not violence.”

Special Prosecutor’s Office
President Gjorge Ivanov has been accused of protecting the outgoing VMRO DPMNE from criminal prosecution, after a wiretapping scandal highlighted the widespread corruption in its government. As the head of the new government, Zaev aims to set up a special court wing in order to process high level corruption cases instigated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO), and plans thorough reforms in the judiciary in order to remove party influence.

As part of an EU-sponsored crisis agreement, the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO) has so far pressed charges in 20 cases but is also working on more than 120 investigations and pre-investigation procedures. This includes the case of VMRO DPMNE party leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is accused of electoral fraud together with other party officials.

Changes in VMRO DPMNE leadership
In a bid to improve its damaged image, VMRO DPMNE has rearranged a number of notorious figures within its executive committee. However, since Gruevski is still in charge, the reorganization appears to be a façade. "They want to show they are making changes but there can be no real change without the removal of the party leader. I see this as more of a cosmetic change than a substantial one," political analyst and Skopje university professor Nenad Markovic said.

Former head of the secret police, Gruevski’s cousin Saso Mijalkov, announced that he was withdrawing from the party committee until his name was cleared regarding several charges, particularly his involvement in the massive illegal wiretapping scheme.

In June, several party veterans launched a move to "democratize" the party, demanding structural changes and alterations to the party’s statute. They claimed it gave party leader Gruevski total control over all aspects. The party insists that the shifts are not related to the SJO indictments but to the need to strengthen the party ahead of the local elections this autumn.

Sources: Balkan Insight, Radio Free Europe, Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Guardian, BBC, Financial Times

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons