In a parliamentary election full of twists and turns, a Macedonian party led by a former prime minister now under criminal investigation eked out a victory and picked up just enough seats to return to power. The result will likely prolong Macedonia’s political crisis, but it could signal the small Balkan state is climbing out of the European Union’s doghouse and is remaining on the path toward Euro-Atlantic integration.
Former prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE party entered Sunday’s election as the clear frontrunner. Gruevski and VMRO ruled Macedonia for nearly a decade until, in January, the premier resigned under an EU-brokered agreement. Though Gruevski and many of his former government officials are currently being probed by a special prosecutor, VMRO amassed considerable popularity and control over Macedonian institutions during its time in power.
However, during their rule, Gruevski and VMRO ran afoul of the EU and the U.S. In early 2015, opposition leader Zoran Zaev began releasing secretly recorded tapes purporting to show Gruevski’s government engaged in mass surveillance and other abuses of power, including vote rigging and strong-arming the media and judiciary. The allegation that Gruevski oversaw a mass wiretapping scheme is at the heart of the special prosecutor’s probe.
Gruevski’s foreign policy also, at times, diverged from that of the EU. Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Macedonia has been one of just a handful of countries that has chosen not to impose sanctions on Russia. Likewise, around the same time, Gruevski’s government agreed to place Macedonia on the route of Russia’s planned Turkish Stream pipeline, a project intended to divert gas flows away from Ukraine.
When the tapes released by Zaev triggered large street protests, the West lent support to the demonstrators, and the EU then intervened. Brussels brokered an agreement calling for Gruevski to resign, early elections to be held and a special prosecutor to investigate the abuse of power allegations.
Throughout the nearly two-year political crisis, Gruevski and his supporters have accused Zaev of collaborating with unnamed foreign intelligence services. Gruevski and his supporters also say Macedonia’s political crisis was the creation of external forces.
Moscow, which is striving for influence in the Balkans — particularly in Slavic Orthodox states — has backed Gruevski’s government and has accused the West of instigating a color revolution in Macedonia.
In a twist from recent electoral trends, the frontrunner in Macedonia’s parliamentary race, Gruevski, was a populist and a nationalist, while the underdog, Zaev, was a pro-EU social democrat pitching a message of ethnic inclusiveness.
On Sunday, voter turnout exceeded expectations, giving Zaev a boost. When initial results were released Sunday night and the election appeared neck and neck, both Gruevski and Zaev proclaimed victory. Zaev delivered a flamboyant victory speech to his supporters, who reveled outside the Macedonian government building in Skopje.
Then on Monday night, Macedonia’s electoral commission announced Gruevski’s VMRO received the most votes. VMRO captured 38.12 percent of the vote. Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia received 36.66 percent of the vote. VMRO and the Social Democrats are currently separated by fewer than 18,000 votes.
Some allegations of electoral irregularities have surfaced and both sides have accused one another of fraud, but there is no indication the result will be overturned. The OSCE, which monitored the election, said Macedonia has yet to resolve its underlying electoral issues, such as the voter register and media coverage. But, the OSCE issued a preliminary conclusion saying election day was generally well administered and no major incidents occurred.
If the current tally stands, VMRO will have 51 of the 120 seats in the Macedonian parliament. The Social Democrats will have 49 seats.
VMRO’s most recent coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), an ethnic Albanian party, is slated to have 10 seats. Thus, VMRO could again form a coalition with DUI. VMRO and DUI have a combined 61 seats, the exact minimum needed to form a parliamentary majority.
If VMRO returns to power with DUI as its coalition partner, it is unlikely Macedonia will have a stable government. Zaev’s Social Democrats, which have built significant momentum, would likely launch a new round of protests, bringing Macedonia back to where it was early on in the crisis.
VMRO could appease Macedonia’s apparernt overlords in Brussels by embarking on judicial reforms and other measures for which the EU is calling. Still, it is doubtful that would resolve the political crisis. Also, if VMRO pressures the special prosecution to wrap up its work, as the party has indicated it would, that is likely to trigger angry reactions from the EU and the Social Democrats.
More protests, followed by early elections — a common phenomenon in Macedonia — is a very plausible outcome for a new VMRO-led government.
An alternative possibility is that the EU would pressure Gruevski into accepting a coalition government that includes the Social Democrats. That could also mean someone other than Gruevski would become prime minister.
While VMRO surely does not want to concede any power to its archrival, when faced with more instability, party leaders could conclude it is the best option they have. Even though Gruevski and VMRO still appear to enjoy the support of a plurality of voters, the chips are becoming stacked against them — Brussels is being oppositional, the Social Democrats are gaining momentum and party leaders are under criminal probes.
One bargaining chip VMRO may have is its role in the European migrant crisis. Earlier this year, Macedonia came to the aid of the EU by sealing its border with Greece. That move effectively shut down the Balkan migrant route by which more than 1 million people recently made their way to western and northern Europe. It also enabled VMRO to garner support from Austria’s government, as well as other anti-immigration forces within the EU.
Still, Skopje is unlikely to have much, if any, leverage over Brussels. Macedonia is ill-equipped to handle a new migrant influx, especially when other borders in the region are shut. Also, VMRO casts itself as the protector of Macedonians.
In recent years, Macedonia has been the only aspiring EU state in the Balkans that has failed to advance its bid to join the bloc. Macedonia became an official EU candidate country in 2005, and in 2009, the European Commission recommended that the EU open membership negotiations with Skopje. However, at the end of 2016, membership talks still have yet to begin.
Considering that the West has implicitly backed Zaev, the EU is likely to be relatively pleased with the way Macedonians voted Sunday. If Gruevski and VMRO are forced to make concessions on policy matters and/or the composition of the new government, Skopje could go from regressing to progressing, albeit slowly, in its EU membership bid.
Meanwhile, Russia, which has some business and cultural ties to Macedonia, is attempting to thwart EU and particularly NATO expansion in the Western Balkans. In recent months, Moscow has proved particularly keen on trying to stop nearby Montenegro’s NATO accession. Montenegro, too is a Slavic Orthodox country. Currently, Serbian nationalists are implicated in an alleged Russian-hatched plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government in Montenegro.
Russia’s meddling in the Balkans is prompting some western officials to call for expediting NATO expansion in the region.
But, as is the case with its EU accession process, Macedonia’s NATO membership bid is currently stalled. That has much to do with Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece, an issue that also affects Skopje’s EU aspirations. Greece refuses to recognize its northern neighbor by the name Macedonia, which is the name of an adjacent Greek region. As a result, in diplomatic circles, Macedonia is still referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
One more obstacle Macedonia, at times, grapples with is internal ethnic division. Ethnic Albanians make up roughly one quarter of Macedonia’s population. In 2001, ethnic Albanian militants launched an insurgency in Macedonia, and last year, a deadly gun battle erupted in the northern city of Kumanovo between Macedonian police and a purported ethnic Albanian terror squad.
During the current election cycle, Gruevski accused Zaev of pandering to the Albanian population and planning to federalize the country, giving more powers to Albanians. Zaev denied the allegations, but an increasing number of Albanians voted for Zaev’s Social Democrats.
Major changes to the composition of the Macedonian state and the status of its Albanian population are unlikely, at least in the near future.
Although Macedonia’s topsy turvy election failed to produce a very conclusive result, it appears Macedonia is inching its way toward membership in the Euro-Atlantic community.