SKOPJE, Macedonia — Even by regional standards, Macedonia’s new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has a daunting to-do list.
Like most of its Balkan neighbors, the country of around 2 million people is among Europe’s poorest and suffers from deeply entrenched organized crime, widespread corruption and weak rule of law.
“Politicians in the past have shown that they abuse the system,” Zaev told POLITICO in his office in the capital, Skopje, sitting in front of a floor-to-ceiling pastoral painting of four maidens at a water fountain — a leftover from his predecessor’s neoclassical makeover of the building.
“I am hoping we will organize society in a different way, with more democracy, more freedom, and more justice.”
Zaev, who served three terms as mayor of the eastern city of Strumica, will need a lot more than hope to make progress. But he has already shown considerable perseverance to get this far. He came to power after a protracted political crisisculminated in April with supporters of the old nationalist-led government storming the parliament and attacking lawmakers, including Zaev, who was left with blood streaming down his face from a head wound.
The violence prompted a change of course by President Gjorge Ivanov, who had refused for months to appoint Zaev prime minister even though he had put together a majority coalition after a parliamentary election. Ivanov had cited fears that Zaev would make too many concessions to Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority but he finally let the Social Democrat leader form a government in May.
Zaev himself triggered the crisis — the worst since Macedonia narrowly avoided all-out civil war in 2001 — when he released wiretapped recordings in 2015 that he said were made by state intelligence officials. The wiretaps contained apparent evidence of high-level officials discussing election tampering, corruption, and even a murder cover-up. Thousands of people staged street protests, outraged by the revelations and by the fact the government had been tapping more than 20,000 phone lines.
“The political crisis showed the disastrous state of our society,” Zaev said.
“There are no more secrets in our society. Everybody knows the weaknesses in the judiciary, in state institutions, in the security system, in media … all these checks and balances — every normal country has it. We don’t really have it.”
Zaev, an economist by training, has put forward a series of reforms to strengthen Macedonia’s democratic institutions, which international organizations, including the EU, say were severely undermined during the decade-long rule of the previous prime minister, Nikola Gruevski.
The reforms are also meant to allow Macedonia to open EU accession negotiations after nine months.
Western powers clearly wish Zaev well. One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the new premier “the best chance this country has ever had.”
To achieve his goals, however, Zaev will need to solve a problem that has dogged Macedonia ever since it broke away from collapsing communist Yugoslavia in 1991 — Greece’s objection to the country’s name.
As a region of northern Greece is called Macedonia, Athens argues that Skopje’s use of the name implies a claim on its territory. Greeks are also angry that Skopje lays claim to figures such as Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, historically considered part of Greek culture.
Gruevski’s government chose to defy Athens by ordering a huge makeover of Skopje with neoclassical facades and naming chunks of infrastructure such as the main airport and a highway after Alexander the Great.
Zaev says he is ready to make concessions if Athens is ready to drop its opposition to Macedonia’s membership of the EU and NATO.
“If the Greek side is really prepared to help us, we are prepared to think about everything that will be helpful,” he said. “I am not fixed on any issue so everything is possible.”
Zaev also wants to improve relations with Bulgaria by signing a “friendship agreement” when Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visits early next month.
Macedonia and Bulgaria share linguistic and cultural similarities but also hold differing views of their history and language. Bulgaria does not recognize the Macedonian language, viewing it as a dialect of Bulgarian, and the countries’ historical records differ over whether ancient leaders were ethnically Bulgarian or Macedonian.
The government has presented a draft of the accord to a closed session of parliament, but not yet to the public — an illustration of the tension between Zaev’s desire to make quick progress and his pledge to make politics more transparent.
Zaev said the agreement would not damage the country in any way but make Bulgaria “more dedicated” to friendship. This would make Sofia a staunch advocate for Macedonia when Bulgaria assumes the presidency of the Council of the EU in January 2018, he argued.
“Accepting common history in the agreement is no danger for any country and no danger for us,” he said.
Hurdles at home
Things are hardly more straightforward on the domestic front.
Zaev said that, upon assuming office, his government found almost a billion euros in previously unreported debt and many of his staff’s offices had been stripped of computers, tables and chairs.
In parliament, VMRO-DPMNE, the former governing party, has split its 51 MPs into 10 parliamentary groups in order to obstruct debate over reforms such as a new budget and the appointment of a chief prosecutor.
The fate of a special prosecutor’s office, set up to investigate the wiretap revelations as part of an EU-brokered effort to end the political crisis back in 2015, also hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, Zaev is facing pressure from coalition partners who represent the ethnic Albanian minority — estimated to make up around a quarter of the population — to fulfill a pledge increase the official use of the Albanian language.
The new prime minister must also try to free state institutions from the control of officials who got their jobs thanks to their close links to VMRO-DPMNE, while at the same time resisting the temptation to replace them with his own party cronies.
“The new government has the task of reforming, or separating the party from the state in both the judiciary and the administration, which is not easy considering that the public sector is the biggest employer in the country,” said Simonida Kacarska, director of the Skopje-based European Policy Institute think tank.
Nikola Poposki, a VMRO-DPMNE MP who served previously as foreign minister, cautioned that Zaev had “overpromised” and faced a big challenge to “adjust the expectations of voters” in a highly polarized political environment.
But for now, Zaev is choosing to look on the bright side. He hailed the fact that Macedonia managed to reach an agreement with Bulgaria on its own, without mediation from outsiders, which has been the norm in recent decades in the Balkans.
“We are very proud … that we will send a message to the world,” he said. “There is a capacity of politicians, when they want to, to find a solution for those kinds of sensitive problems.”
See the original: http://www.politico.eu/article/zoran-zaev-macedonia-the-man-who-runs-most-disastrous-state-in-balkans/