Why the political crisis in Macedonia proves to be a tough nut to crack?

Many of us who follow the development of the political crisis in Macedonia had our eyes set on the round of talks between incumbent PM Gruevski and opposition leader Zaev which took place in Brussels this Wednesday (10 June). After 12 hours of discussions under the mediation of Commissioner Hahn, no tentative agreement was reached and the talks largely failed.

This turn of events, though disappointing, should have been expected. After a visit to Skopje on 2 June, Commissioner Hahn raised the spirits of optimism with a press release informing of a preliminary agreement for a snap election in April 2016 and a call for parties to take on political responsibility and cooperate. The next step would be the 10 June round table in Brussels with the aim to bring the crisis closer to a solution.

The actual talks, however, just proved that the deadlock might be more serious than had been previously expected. It seems that the interests of the incumbent PM and the opposition leader are largely diverging on some of the most important points.

What are the cores of the disagreement?

Ironically, the apple of discord is exactly the early general election, which is supposed to be the democratic resolution of the crisis. Gruevski and Zaev could not agree on some focal points regarding when the elections would be hosted and who will head the care-taking government. The general spirit of communication between the two parties since the onset of the crisis has been marked by mutual distrust and exchange of blames of whose fault it is. The Brussels Talks have hardly been an exception.

Gruevski still insists and behaves as the legitimate leader of Macedonia, elected by a popular vote. From his point of view, the crisis was started by the actions of Zaev and his “bombs”, which works against state and public interests. Being in the incumbent position, Gruevski has all the legal weight to agree or disagree on early elections or not. So, he uses this “position of strength”  in the negotiation process.

Zaev, on the other hand, claims that Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE government has already lost legitimacy in view of the released records and valid allegations of extreme corruption that has captured the state.

So far Gruevski accepts the idea for a snap election (largely under EU pressure). However, what is important for him is the structure of the care-taking government and the exact time-frame for the new vote.

His main concern at this point is how to retain power for as much as possible and, if needed, how to secure “safe exit”. Having in mind the severe allegations of corruption and even criminal miss-practices during his tenure, Gruevski has full grounds to fear prosecution once he loses control over the state institutions and the judiciary.

Therefore, he envisions no other possibility than staying in the PM position even as head of a non-partisan or multi-party interim government. The goal is to have the snap elections organized under his supervision. This is exactly the point which meets vigorous opposition from Zaev as there are serious allegations that Gruevski and his party have rigged votes in the past through scheming and illicit practices. The SDSM leader’s main condition is for Gruevski to step down as soon as possible. Here clearly, the interests of the two parties diverge immensely.

A second option for Gruevski is to call the elections as early as possible. The idea behind this is to legitimize his rule by mobilizing his electorate and winning a snap vote before Zaev releases more “bombs”.  This tactic of calling up early elections served him well in the past. Under this scenario, Gruevski would still retain the PM post and organize the elections. Naturally, Zaev opposes this move with the same argumentation explained above.

A game of time and nerves

Yielding no agreement in Brussels, the parties are now in a limbo situation. Commissioner Hahn expressed his disappointment in a press release but still gave no concrete road-map for the future.

Clearly, now the crisis will extend into the summer period which is normally quite devoid of political activity. The main question is who of the two camps will extract benefits from the prolongation?

Gruevski if not allowed to head an interim government will definitely postpone any resolution. Time may be on his side for three main reasons. Firstly, a prolonged period of fruitless political bargaining during the vacation season combined with pro-government media propaganda may demoralize the protesters’ camp. Secondly, he is the incumbent elected by popular vote and with decreasing social pressure, there would be less and less reasons to step down. Thirdly, the longer he remains in power, the more evidence of corruption leading to his person may be erased thus creating the possibility for “safe exit” in the future.

There are, nevertheless, some risks involved in this strategy. To Gruevski’s dismay, Zaev claims to still hold a considerable number of recordings which he could release in a renewed effort to force a resignation. Also, it is not clear how long VMRO’s coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian party DUI, will agree to stand by its side. The situation will aggravate especially if Zaev remains true to his words and releases a recording concerning the affair around the murder of five Slav-Macedonian fishermen in 2012 for which six ethnic Macedonian Albanians were jailed for life.

As for the interest of the counrty and Macedonian society, prolongation of the crisis is the worst option. Continued political instability, international and regional isolation, as well as social instability will hardly help improve the conditions of the stricken Macedonian economy.

We should recall that the protests against Gruevski which started in May represented a civil society opposed to corruption and nepotism. The real threat comes in the moment when this civil energy will be depleted and the political vacuum may be filled in by more radical energies. An ethnic conflict is still very unlikely and far from realistic, but certainly more instability and poverty will be a step in the wrong direction. Moreover, such a tense situation can easily fall victim to external state or non-state actors who may have an interest to ignite a more serious confrontation.

We have to be also aware that the EU cannot solve all the problems that Macedonia has. Commissioner Hahn took on a role of a mediator which does not even fully coincide with his prerogatives. But the EU cannot interfere in the republic’s internal affairs or force solutions of any kind.

At the same time, the stakes are high for the EU policy in the Western Balkans and its authority may suffer hugely if it fails to mitigate a crisis in a candidate country as small as Macedonia. The key remains in the mediation role but possibly a more permanent focus may be needed.

Photo source: Wikipedia Commons