Macedonia's leading opposition party has accused the European Union of overlooking threats to democracy in the country, as anti-government protests continued yesterday (3 January) for the 11th day.
Macedonia first appeared as a country at international level in 1991 after declaring independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In official EU documents, Macedonia is referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" due to a dispute over the country's name, which is identical to that of a Greek province.
Macedonia is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the second biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.
Ever since the country's independence, integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war.
The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the Kosovar-Albanian communities in northern Macedonia (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.
Nikola Gruevski, born in 1970, has been prime minister of Macedonia since 27 August 2006 and was re-elected in June 2011. Since 2003, he has been leader of VMRO-DPMNE, historically a nationalist party, now an associated member to the centre-right European People's Party.
Protests broke out in the capital Skopje on December 24, when opposition MPs tried to block the parliamentary debate on the 2013 budget and were expelled from the chamber.
After the incident, Branko Crvenkovski - leader of the largest opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) - announced that his party would participate in local elections scheduled for March only if electoral rolls were revised. He also said the elections must be held according to the standards of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The opposition would also likely boycott the local elections unless they are carried out by an interim government, Serbia's B92 news site reported.
SDSM claims that on 24 December, “democracy was suspended” in Macedonia, accusing the police of forcefully removing opposition MPs and some journalists from Parliament.
SDSM, an associate member of the Party of European Socialists, also claims that the budget was adopted in an “unlawful and illegal procedure”.
Opposition leaders also denounced what they call the authoritarian drift of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the arrest of some political opponents and crackdowns on independent news outlets. They say the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party has also influenced civil society groups - charges the government denies.
In his New Year address, Gruevski called on the opposition to return to Parliament and take part in the local elections.
Belarus in the Balkans?
Meanwhile, SDSM accused the international community of overlooking what it sees as a democratic reversal in recent months.
This year will be a “year to make or break democracy in Macedonia”, says an opposition statement, obtained by EurActiv. “Democracy, constitutionality and rule of law will be restored, or the country will look more like Belarus than an EU candidate country,” the statement reads.
SDSM blames the government for spending public money in a non-transparent manner for populist projects, such as media campaigns and building of monuments for the Skopje 2014 urban renewal project. The construction of a huge statue of a ‘Warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great has recently infuriated Greece.
Representatives of several print and electronic media outlets expressed their outrage on 27 December by loudly booing Parliament President Trakjo Veljanovski as he attempted to open a parliamentary session. The heckling protest is believed to be the first of its kind by the media in the 20-year history of the state, the website Southeast European Times reported.
Asked by EurActiv to comment the political situation in Macedonia, Commission spokesperson Sebastien Brabant said:
'”We have observed with concern the politically driven clashes in and around the Parliament building, and call on all sides to immediately halt any and all aggressive and provocative actions.
“While the peaceful expression of different opinions is the foundation of a strong and democratic nation, the use of violence by any parties involved undermines that system and damages its ability to govern responsibly.
“The EU urges the leaders of all political parties and their supporters to put an end to these confrontations without delay. We call upon them to behave in a manner that is in accordance with the law, the constitution, and agreed upon Parliamentary procedures, and that takes into account the best interests of the citizens they have been chosen to represent.”