Politico: Macedonia’s ‘nastier than ever’ election

HUNGARY-MACEDONIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACYBrussels hopes ballot will end years of political turbulence in Balkan country.

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia’s elections on Sunday could depose a long-time nationalist leader and turn a page in relations with the EU.

If Nikola Gruevski wins, it will embolden a leader the EU says has succeeded in engineering “state capture” and endanger hopes of further progress on the country’s EU accession. The election also serves as a bellwether of Brussels’ leverage in southeastern Europe and on its attempts to damp down on creeping authoritarian tendencies in the region.

Brussels has criticized the right-wing Gruevski for years but it needs Skopje’s cooperation as the country has been on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis, sitting as it does on the so-called Balkan Route, amid fears that Turkey will renege on the migrant deal it signed with the EU.

The latest polls by the Institute for Democracy put the ruling VMRO party four points ahead. But the number of undecided voters is believed to be as high as 40 percent in what has been a particularly unpleasant campaign involving accusations of fake voter lists, with candidate names and parties all mixed up, and allegations of bogus electoral rolls.

On Monday, Gruevski went as far as saying his main rival — Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev — should be assassinated. He told a rally that if turn-of-the-20th-century freedom fighters were still around, they would turn their weapons on Zaev.

“The campaign is nastier than ever, we’ve seen the worst rhetoric on both sides — hyperbolized, sentimental, addressing the lowest possible instincts and primordial themes,” said Nenad Markovikj, a political analyst from the Institute for Democracy.

Macedonia has been mired in a political crisis since 2014 when the opposition Social Democrats refused to recognize an election won by Gruevski, who has ruled the former Yugoslav republic for nearly a decade. Zaev led a boycott of parliament, claiming the 2014 vote was tainted by fraud. Monitors from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights found that the election process had serious shortcomings with insufficient separation between state activities and those of the ruling party.

The crisis deepened in January 2015, when Gruevski accused Zaev of plotting a coup. Zaev responded by releasing scores of audio recordings, said to be ordered by Gruevski and his cousin, Saso Mijalkov, the former head of counter-intelligence, covertly taken from 20,000 phone numbers, including key allies as well as opposition figures and journalists.

Macedonia became a candidate for EU accession in 2005 but talks remained stalled because of the ongoing dispute with Greece, which believes the name “Macedonia” implies territorial ambitions.

An investigation into the tapes by the European Commission found that Gruevski ordered the wiretapping and that the tapes contained evidence of  “apparent direct involvement of senior government and party officials in electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion and criminal damage.”

Brussels dispatched a team of experts to help mediate between the two sides and in January this year, Gruevski stepped down to make way for a caretaker government that included members of the opposition and sought to pass a number of reforms paving the way for free and fair elections. Elections were postponed twice because the conditions were not met. If he wins, Gruevski has vowed to dismantle the work of a special prosecution unit set up by EU officials to investigate the allegations of corruption and crime revealed in the wiretaps.

All eyes on Skopje

Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, said politicians across the region will be watching the result of the Macedonian elections closely.

“If it gets re-elected, why shouldn’t other governments in the region pursue the same policies?” Bieber said. “It undermines the idea of rule of law and democracy in the region if a party gets away with it and gets elected.”

Jasmin Mujanovic, a political analyst, said high unemployment and economic problems in Macedonia and other former Yugoslav countries are turning voters away from democracy and toward authoritarian leaders.

“People believed that democracy was the same thing as socio-economic recovery and, when the socio-economic recovery never came, they believed that was a result of what they thought was democracy,” said Mujanovic, adding that many voters are turning to the past in the mistaken belief that Yugoslavia’s anti-democratic leadership brought prosperity.

Macedonia became a candidate for EU accession in 2005 but talks remained stalled because of the ongoing dispute with Greece, which believes the name “Macedonia” implies territorial ambitions — Macedonia must represent itself before the EU and other diplomatic bodies as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

A further blow came when in 2008 when Macedonia was not invited to join NATO for the same reason. Critics say without the prospect of these memberships, Gruevski and VMRO chose to pursue the path of authoritarianism.

Mujanovic worries that the EU, beleaguered by internal challenges and facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, will accept “proto-authoritarians and actual authoritarians” in Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia — countries along the migrant route that Brussels needs to stem the flow of refugees.

“The most alarming tendency is that it seems Europe has given up on the democratic project in the Balkans,” Mujanovic said, adding that he fears the region will become an authoritarian extension of “Fortress Europe.”

Malinka Jordanova, director of the European Policy Institute, said regardless of the outcome, the EU’s role will be diminished until it can provide a credible path to membership for countries in the region.

For voters, what’s at stake isn’t just which party will win but the system of governance itself. And whoever is victorious will inherit a deeply polarized country.

“The story 10 years ago was that EU integration would keep Macedonia together and solve the problems of the Balkans. Now expectations are more modest because it is obvious that the EU cannot at this stage, without any will for enlargement, have an impact for reforms,” she said, referring to Brussels’ ability to coax legislative and financial reforms in exchange for cash and the promise of accession.

The most recent EU country progress report, published in November, found that state capture — systemic political corruption in which private and party interests control the work of state institutions to their own advantage — was present in “key areas of society.”

The economy is also an area of concern. Macedonia has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the world at 54 percent. The IMF is concerned that public debt has reached 50 percent of GDP.

Critics of Gruevski complain that he oversaw Skopje 2014, a project to give the capital a neoclassical look, which has so far cost €669 million when the entire state budget is about €3 billion.

For voters, what’s at stake isn’t just which party will win but the system of governance itself. And whoever is victorious will inherit a deeply polarized country.

“I don’t think that any stable government could be formed after this,” said Markovikj of the Institute for Democracy, who predicted that, whatever happens, new elections will have to be held in 2017.

http://www.politico.eu/article/macedonias-nasty-election-nikola-gruesvski-nationalist-right-wing-brussels/

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