Macedonia’s political impasse continues as summer steps in

Bad news came from the Macedonian capital Skopje yesterday July 8th. The opposition party leader Zoran Zaev declared that the snap election deal from June 2nd was now “dead” due to incumbent prime minister Gruevski’s reluctance to step down to a care-taker government which was to supervise the early vote. The announcement coincided with the publication of an opinion poll carried out by the International Republican Institute (IRI) which shows that ruling VMRO’s support (23%) is still higher than opposition SDSM’s (11%). Gruevski was quick to attack his adversaries in the media and blame their decision on fear from actually losing the snap election.

The situation is looking increasingly messy. As I already wrote a few weeks ago, Gruevski has no real incentive to be in a hurry. He would like to stay in power for as much as possible to cover up his wrong-doings and supervise the snap election and possibly twist the results in his favor through illicit voting practices or outright propaganda.

What is the opposition attempting to do?

It may seem that the IRI poll shows a rather discouraging political picture. However, I would question the validity and relevance of its results since it has only been carried out among 1105 respondents between June 6-15.

Nevertheless, SDSM may be indeed feeling the decreasing force of social mobilization against the government. The summer season traditionally brings people out of the big cities away from politics and into the spirit of vacation and relaxation. The low percentage outcomes for both ruling VMRO and opposition SDSM show how tired people are of this political establishment and their squabbles. It was expected that one of Gruevski’s options was to prolong the negotiation over the summer period exactly with this goal in view.

One option is that SDSM is bluffing in an attempt to re-escalate the stand-off and attract a more intensive involvement from the EU and the USA. Commissioner Hahn was last involved directly in the mediation on June 10th exactly a month ago. On the other hand, Greece’s woes are consuming a lot of EU attention recently and small Macedonia and its crisis have remained on the sidelines. Also, on July 13 Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, is scheduled to be in Skopje and a renewed crisis may force her closer attention.

A second possibility, as indicated today by Zaev, is the aim at resuming the protests with a new intensity in autumn. If negotiations do not work, it may take force to do the job. SDSM may see the remaining two months as an opportunity to regroup and re-plan its actions while releasing more of its “bombs” against Gruevski. This is a somewhat risky strategy as they may lose the momentum and give an opportunity to Gruevski to entrench himself as well. It all depends on what kind of gruesome recordings Zaev may be in possession of.

What are the implications?

A month ago I wrote “As for the interest of the country and Macedonian society, prolongation of the crisis is the worst option.” Certainly, this statement remains equally valid today. The events have taken the path of prolongation which can gradually lead to more escalation and destabilization.

Obviously, SDSM and VMRO left alone are unable to resolve this stalemate. In this situation, the key cards are held by the Albanian minority parties and their patience and willingness to cooperate with either side is very important. The Albanians are the keystone of the Macedonian political structure since the Ohrid accords.

Negotiating or not, Zaev will certainly in time release new recordings. He may aim those at the alliance between Gruevski and Ahmeti. In response to new discrediting dangers, Gruevski will need to show some positive results in autumn to offset lost positions either in the economic or political field. He may opt for a foreign policy success like resumption of NATO integration as it was recently reported. This can also be designed as a move to show to the West just before Nuland’s visit that he can also be a reliable partner amidst speculation of VMRO’s pro-Russian alignment.

Predicting the possible path of events is difficult. However, one thing is certain – stagnating economy, international isolation, a political crisis, ethnic fragmentation, all taken together create an explosive mix which should not be miss-managed or lightly dismissed. If Commissioner Hahn managed once to force the parties to the negotiation table, all eyes are now looking in the same direction. Time is of the essence and it seems to be an important tool for all parties in Skopje. The deadlock will hardly be broken by itself.

LATEST UPDATE: Commissioner Hahn is going early next week to Skopje in an attempt to save the situation.