About a month ago, it looked like the European Union had finally come up with a winning hand in the Western Balkans. The EU’s preferred choice for Macedonian prime minister, Zoran Zaev, managed to come up with the support needed to form a government, despite falling slightly short of victory in Macedonia’s December parliamentary elections.
But more than three months after the election, Macedonia still does not have a government; the country’s two-year-old political crisis is ongoing; and ethnic tension is prompting talk of civil war and the breakup of the country. On top of that, tens of thousands took to the streets of Skopje Tuesday in what amounted to a protest of the EU, the very organization Macedonia aspires to join.
In general, the EU prioritizes stability over political and economic reform in the Western Balkans. Also, the EU has shown patience with Balkan leaders whom some characterize as strongmen, trying to work with them, rather than force them out.
But in Macedonia, the EU, in conjunction with the U.S. and various NGOs, has covertly and now overtly tried to push out former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. When the political crisis was in its early stages a couple of years ago, the EU called for Gruevski to resign and Macedonia to hold snap elections, as well as for a special prosecutor to probe allegations against Gruevski’s government. When it looked like Gruevski would win the early elections, the West called for postponing the vote until Macedonia cleaned up its voter roll and injected some balanced reporting in its media.
Then in recent months, Gruevski narrowly won the election, but lost the battle to woo Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian parties. The EU, as well as the U.S. and NATO are now calling for Zaev’s Social Democrats to assume power along with their ethnic Albanian coalition partners.
There are reasons for the West wanting Gruevski out. Gruevski is under criminal investigation and swirling in corruption and abuse of power allegations. He is accused of overseeing a mass wiretapping system and having established control over many of Macedonia’s institutions, like the media, police and judicial system.
Gruevski is nominally pro-western. His stated position is that he is trying to lead Macedonia into the EU and NATO. But Gruevski refused to join western sanctions on Russia, and he previously gave Moscow permission to build its planned Turkish Stream pipeline through Macedonian territory.
Despite its large Albanian population — about 25 percent of the country — Macedonia, like Russia, is a majority Slavic Orthodox state. Gruevski’s nationalism and populism is also more akin to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of governance than that of most western leaders. Also like Putin, Gruevski is trying to score political points by casting himself as someone battling billionaire George Soros and other forces of western imperialism. Soros has come under fire in Macedonia over the role his Open Society Foundation has played in mobilizing Macedonian civil society against Gruevski.
The EU strategy of backing Zaev has incurred blowback. In order to from a coalition, Zaev agreed to the ethnic Albanian parties’ demand to commit to passing a law that will make Albanian an official language nationwide in Macedonia. The deal triggered the latest phase of Macedonia’s political crisis, sparking daily protests against Zaev and prompting Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov to refuse to hand over the mandate to form a government. Gruevski, Ivanov and other Macedonian nationalists say Zaev and the ethnic Albanians are plotting to destroy the country. Gruevski and his supporters are demanding snap elections.
On Tuesday, EU enlargement chief Johannes Hahn visited Skopje to call for Ivanov to hand the mandate to Zaev and for Zaev’s coalition to quickly form a government. Ivanov refused to meet with Hahn, taking a trip to Hungary instead. Rather than being greeted by the president, the EU envoy was greeted by Macedonian protesters demonstrating against EU meddling in the small Balkan state.
The push from the West could vault Zaev into power. However, it is unlikely that would bring stability to Macedonia. Zaev would be under pressure from his coalition partners to follow through on making Albanian an official language nationwide. Meanwhile, Gruevski would be mobilizing thousands of his supporters to protest.
Additionally, Russia is fanning the flames. Moscow has been giving political backing to Gruevski and using state media to accuse the West of trying to break up Macedonia in order to create Greater Albania. For Moscow, destabilization in Macedonia is an opportunity to halt EU and NATO expansion in the region.
While civil war is not expected in Macedonia, the threat of violence is real. In 2001, following the Yugoslav wars, ethnic Albanian militants fought a months-long insurgency against Macedonian forces. In 2015, violence erupted briefly between ethnic Albanian militants and Macedonian forces in the city of Kumanovo. The Kumanovo incident left about 20 people dead and several homes damaged or destroyed. Some critics accused Gruevski of staging the Kumanovo gun battle to create a distraction from the protest movement threatening his power.`
It is possible the EU could broker a new power-sharing deal that would diffuse the current tension, but Macedonia’s ethnic issues will probably not dissipate in the near future. Many people view the language issue as a stepping stone to the federalization of Macedonia, which would give more power to ethnic Albanians.
Another source of tension is the ongoing criminal probes being conducted by a Macedonia special prosecutor. Gruevski’s supporters view the criminal probes as politically charged and a scheme imposed on Macedonia by outside forces. Others say that rule of law must be established in Macedonia, and Skopje must begin by holding government officials accountable when they break the rules. If Gruevski or former top officials were to be jailed, protests would surely erupt. Conversely, if investigators determine top officials committed crimes, but the offenses go unpunished, that could spark protests and deliver a credibility blow to Macedonia’s government.
Even if Macedonia were to overcome its ethnic tension and political crisis, the country would still be years of reform away from being ready to join the EU. Also, a diplomatic battle with Greece still looms. Greece refuses to let Macedonia join the EU and NATO without changing the name of its country. The northern region of Greece is likewise named Macedonia, and Athens accuses Skopje of staking claim to Greek culture and history.
The EU essentially got what it wanted when Zaev ended up with the best opportunity to form a government. But the EU likely did not envision the blowback that the West’s support for Zaev would cause. Now Macedonia is in the precarious position of being a Balkan state, like Bosnia and Kosovo, where ethnic tension is destabilizing the country and prompting talk of war.