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North Macedonia

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 European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership (by 2008 the criteria for entering NATO were fulfilled) are important tools in uniting Macedonians with Albanian minorities.

However, the long-standing name dispute with Greece had long been stagnating the EU integration process and NATO membership, as Greece had been vetoing the opening of the accession negotiations. In addition, the ruling conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (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. In the context of nationalism, ethnic conflicts are influencing the political landscape.

Each election, the VMRO-DPMNE and Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) end up in a close tie. The VMRO-DPMNE is mainly focused on ethnic Macedonians, while the SDSM is more accommodating towards the country’s ethnic minorities. Following the 2020 elections, the SDSM formed a coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which represents the Albanian minority. DUI demanded an ethnic Albanian Prime Minister. During the strenuous coalition talks, the parties agreed to appoint an ethnic Albanian Prime Minister for the last 100 days of the mandate. The government has been challenged by a struggling economy and Bulgaria’s continuing veto of starting EU accession negotiations. In 2022, Zaev was replaced by Dimitar Kovačevski after a big defeat in local elections of 2021. On 19 July 2022, accession negotiations between the EU and North Macedonia were officially launched after the “French Proposal” brought an end to the Bulgarian veto objecting North Macedonia’s EU accession and the Prespa agreement ended the Greek veto.

Key Info

1 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.

EU accession process

North Macedonia applied for EU membership in March 2004 and obtained this status in December 2005. Accession negotiations did not officially begin until July 2022, due to the Greek blockade demanding name change and Bulgarian concerns about the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, before the country was allowed to begin the accession process. The European Commission is very satisfied with the commitment to reform, it writes in the 2023 enlargement report. Some progress has been made in the judiciary but judicial reform lags behind, leaving institutions without the desired capacity. Reforms in public administration are also not yet getting off the ground despite the framework that has been established. No progress has been made in anti-corruption reforms and there is limited progress in the fight against organised crime. Money laundering and terrorist financing are not effectively tackled by the authorities. Media freedom is almost fully guaranteed, but journalists’ working conditions remain challenging. North Macedonia is making progress in creating a functioning market economy, but structural problems in the economy such as the informal sector complicate the investment climate. In terms of legislation, the country has yet to commit to EU single market standards. Foreign policy is already in line with the EU and northern Macedonia is well placed in the region. North Macedonia has long been seen as a forerunner in the region when it comes to EU accession. The Commission therefore reports that negotiations and the screening process are nevertheless going “smoothly“. The important parliamentary and presidential elections in 2024 in northern Macedonia will have a significant impact on the country’s further progress towards full accession.

The 2019 Zaev “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, Katica Janeva, 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 Janeva was offering leniency to Jovanovski and another businessman in exchange for cash. She was arrested on August 21.

The situation escalated for Zaev’s government, when, in one of the audiotapes, Jovanovski mentioned he met Zaev and suggested 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 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. The EU was concerned too, not unsurprising, as it had asked North Macedonia to implement judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures.

Historic dispute leads to 2018 name change

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 had 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 recently. Because of the dispute, 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 beginning 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 the 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.

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 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 wanted 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 – it had to be supported by a majority of Macedonia’s citizens. On September 30 2018 a non-binding referendum was held, inquiring about public opinion on the name-change deal. The turnout 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 turnout, 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.

French proposal and Bulgaria-North Macedonia relations

Although the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia eventually lifted Greek objections to EU and NATO accession of North Macedonia, EU accession still found itself threatened by a Bulgarian veto, as Sofia demanded that their concerns about the Bulgarian language and history in the country were taken into account. Bulgaria’s position was explained through distributed documents to other member states in which it was stated that Bulgaria cannot “accept that the still ongoing nation-building process in the Republic of North Macedonia is conducted through the revision of our common history, the denial of our common ethnic and linguistic roots or the unfounded claims for the existence of a ‘Macedonian minority’ in Bulgaria.” Both countries signed a “Friendship Treaty” back in 2017 as a resolution to the issue, but Bulgaria expressed its dissatisfaction with the stagnant implementation of the accord.

Under the French EU presidency, an amendment was designed to overcome tensions between Sofia and Skopje. The so-called “French Proposal” was accepted by Macedonia’s Assembly in July 2022, which meets Bulgaria’s demands for constitutional changes to acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, protection of minority rights, and introduction of hate speech against the Bulgarian minority in the criminal code. Simultaneously, the deal would include the removal of an EU block against accession negotiations with Albania. As the leftist coalition with support from ethnic Albanian parties obtained the required two-thirds majority vote and passed the proposal, the opposition abstained from voting and left the assembly. The parliament of Bulgaria approved lifting its veto on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia on 24 June 2022. On 19 July 2022, the start of negotiations between the EU and North Macedonia was officially launched.

The deal is a thorn in the side of some nationalist opposition parties, who claim the government led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia has betrayed the country. After tensions had been growing, the acceptance of the proposal sparked protests in the streets of Skopje. The daily protests were organized by the main opposition party VMRO DPMNE and the smaller opposition party Levica. The protesters’ anger is mainly focused on what they call the “Bulgarisation” of Macedonian society as a condition of entry into the EU. Both the eurosceptic VMRO DPMNE and Levica asked for referenda against the amendments, but unsuccessfully. In the aftermath, a series of attacks on Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia took place, thereby proving that the amendments to the law have not ceased tensions within society.

Ethnic rivalries and minority representation

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.

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 of 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. This contradicts the Ohrid Agreement principle, which states that “the multi-ethnic character of Macedonia’s society must be preserved and reflected in public life”, notably in the public administration. The recent agreement between SDSM’s coalition with DUI, to install an ethnic Albanian as Prime Minister for the last 100 days of the mandate, is an important breakthrough. DUI also gained two important ministries, namely Foreign Affairs and Finance & Economy.

The Roma population of North Macedonia still faces severe discrimination in the country. Inadequate access to healthcare and failure to investigate racially motivated violence against Roma in the country are some of the acts of marginalization addressed by international organizations. Despite being considered one of the region’s leaders in respecting rights of the Roma, being the first country with a minister of Romani descent, and Romani being represented in some high government positions, the ethnic minority remains marginalized,  underrepresented, and lacks educational access and integration tools.

Women’s rights and female representation

The first real changes in women’s representation in parliament were reached after the 2002 elections. The percentage of female deputies rose from 7.5 percent (1998) to 17.5 percent. After the 2008 parliamentary elections, this share went further up to 32.5 percent. The rise in women’s participation was facilitated by the successful lobbying campaign of different women’s rights NGOs to secure a constitutional amendment obligating parties to include at least 30 percent of women candidates in their election lists. After the 2020 elections, 39% of representatives in parliament were female.

Women’s rights organisations, such as Kvinna till Kvinna, have not stopped there. The country has implemented several laws on gender equality, but it does not allocate any funds to implement them. Gender-based violence remains one of the most pressing issues. An OSCE survey in 2018 concluded that 45% of women in North Macedonia responded by saying that they had experienced psychological, physical, and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. As in many other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic and following lockdown measures have disproportionately negatively affected women. There were few measures to support working parents, often causing women to cut back on working. The country also saw an increase in domestic violence against women and misogynistic hate speech.

LGBTI rights

Homosexuality has been legal in North Macedonia since 1996, but same-sex couples still do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as opposite-sex couples. North Macedonia decriminalized homosexuality in order to join the Council of Europe, as this was a precondition. In 2015, a constitutional law was adopted in parliament, which defined marriage was defined solely as a union between a man and a woman. As such, no same-sex is not legally recognized. Sexual orientation was also scrapped from the list of anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, in 2010. More recently, however, minor steps have been taken to improve the situation for LGBTI people.

In 2019 a new anti-discrimination law was adopted that did include sexual orientation and gender identity. Throughout 2020 parliament struck down the anti-discrimination law though. Another positive sign was the first Pride that was organised in Skopje in 2019, with an estimated 1,000 participants. Some state officials also joined the march, but there were also some violent incidents. Most North Macedonian citizens, especially in the rural parts, remain conservative in their opinion of homosexuality. North Macedonia’s EU candidacy will have had quite an impact on the country’s LGBTI legislation already. During 2020, however, the LGBTI community was disproportionately affected by COVID-19 measures.

In 2021, proposed amendments to the Civil Status Registration Act enabled transgender people to register their chosen gender. In 2022, Skopje organised its third-ever Pride parade, albeit with fierce resistance from some parts of society. Helsinki Committee already reported an increase in homophobic hate speech in the run-up to the second Pride event in 2021 of 31%.

2 Elections

Parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections of 2020

Originally, 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 being reelected, all parties agreed that postponement would be the best option. On 15 July 2020, the elections were held at last. New parliamentary elections are expected in 2024.

The 2020 parliamentary elections had a turnout rate of only 51% and were 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 the last elections they went from 19 to 10 seats. Alliance for Albanians in coalition with Alternative received 8.9% of the votes, equaling 12 seats. The Left got 4% (1 seat) of the votes, and the 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 of the election

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 an 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, a member of the DUI, will remain the speaker of the parliament. The coalition now has 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 filed 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 inconsistencies between the casted votes and the data that was entered into the software. However, none of these complaints were actually taken care of.


Presidential elections

Presidential elections of 2019

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 turnout 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.

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% of the votes, surpassing Siljanovska who received 44.7%. The remaining 3.61% were void. The victory of Steveo Pendarovski is expected to fortify the Social Democrats’ agenda and raises hopes to enter EU accession talks end of 2019 and to become the 30th NATO member state by 2020.

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 adoption of the “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 to appeal to the Albanian ethnic minority that voted for Reka in the first round, hoping that it would give them the decisive advantage. New presidential elections are expected in 2024.

3 Political Parties


Social Democratic Parties

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Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)
Party Leader: Dimitar Kovačevski
Number of seats: 31


Other Parties

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Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity - Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO-DPMNE)
Party Leader: Hristijan Mickoski
Number of seats: 37
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Democratic Union for Integration (DUI)
Party Leader: Ali Ahmeti
Number of seats: 15
alliance_for_albanians
Alliance for Albanians and Alternative
Party Leader: Ziadin Sela
Number of seats: 12
besa
Besa
Party Leader: Bilall Kasami
Number of seats: 1
left
Left
Party Leader: Dimitar Apasiev
Number of seats: 2
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Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA)
Party Leader: Menduh Thaci
Number of seats: 1

4 Biographies

dimitar_kovachevski_official_portrait_2020
Dimitar Kovačevski
Prime Minister
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Stevo Pendarovski
President
gjorge_ivanov_1
Gjorge Ivanov
Former President
zaev
Zoran Zaev
Former Prime Minister
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