What’s in a name?: Macedonia’s problems go much deeper

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Deadlines continue to come and go with wearisome rapidity in the ongoing political crisis between the two majority ethnic political parties of Macedonia, writes Richard Howitt.

Richard Howitt is a British Labour party MEP for the East of England.

Serous allegations of illegal mass surveillance, electoral fraud, corruption and deep media bias are well-known to those of us who observe the country, even if each of the major parties points the finger of blame at the other.

But outsiders seem to have little interest, considering conflict to be more of a threat in neighbouring Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina and over-simplifying the country’s troubles as caused only by the long-running name dispute with Greece.

Democracy did reach a crisis point last year when the Government accused the opposition of planning a ‘coup’, while the opposition itself said it was forced to boycott parliament and selectively publish the surveillance tapes leaked to it, known as ‘bombs’ because of what they claimed was evidence of criminality in the government and the shut-down of democratic space in the country.

That’s where the cross-party mediators from the European Parliament came in, helping to negotiate what became known as the ‘Przino Agreement’. This brought both parties in to parliament and in to government, agreed the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate wrong-doing on all sides and heralded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, in order to pave the way for early elections – but through which he very much intended to return.

That agreement was on the verge of breaking down this week, with essential electoral and media reforms unfinished in time for the planned April election date, according to published statements from both the European Union and the United States.

This time even outsiders would acknowledge the enormity of the consequences. The EU and the US publicly warned that they would not recognise the election results, leaving the country with an internationally illegitimate government and forcing the withdrawal of the positive recommendation from the European Commission for EU accession talks even to begin.

History suggested that last minute brinkmanship on all sides would not prevent us being able to negotiate an agreement sufficient at least to temporarily overcome the latest crisis.

But this time it was different.

All attempts at shuttle diplomacy failed to bridge the gap between the parties.

Only under pressure from its minority ethnic Albanian junior coalition partner, DUI, did the governing VMRO party unilaterally agree to delay the elections. But crucially, there was an absence of any agreement with the opposition SDSM and its leader Zoran Zaev to find consensus on completing reforms to enable the new elections to be considered credible – by either party or the outside world.

It is not yet clear if this constitutes a breakdown of the Przino Agreement; in our statement we said that we hoped it did not and both Parliament and diplomatic statements express the hope that the conditions for credible elections could yet be created.

Mr Gruevski himself said it was more likely than not the opposition would return to extra-parliamentary politics, and rejected the call to return to all-party talks at this stage.

In truth, as they were not invited to be part of Tuesday’s (23 February) agreement, there is no formal obligation for the opposition SDSM to respect it. In Parliament, they sat on their hands and refused to vote for the new election date on 5 June, although they had offered to do so as part of a deal on urgent reforms.

Meanwhile, VMRO publicly claimed that their agreement to delay the elections is based on specific assurances given by the EU and US that they will not further assess electoral credibility in advance of the new election date, and that both further media reforms and inter-party talks can now be delayed until after the elections.

But the succinct statement agreed between the EU and US paints a different story: “We take good note of the decision to postpone the elections until 5 June. If everyone works hard and plays by the rules, we see no reason why these cannot be credible elections.”

This still leaves open the international assessment of the credibility of the elections, making that contingent on actions by the parties. Meanwhile, a question agreed in advance for the press conference, led US Ambassador Baily, got the reply that “media reform remains part of the electoral process”.

The claimed ‘specific assurances’ had not been given and certainly the MEPs were not, and would not, have been party to doing so.

The cross-party European Parliament mediators were clear in stating they regretted the missed opportunity to find a consensus between all parties, but they have helped to identify the critical issues that can provide the basis for achieving a final agreement to enable the new elections to be credible.

That united emphasis on the word ‘credibility’ by the international community on both sides of the Atlantic and on all sides of the European Parliament, sends a clear and strong message.

Not just the electoral process but the entire politics of the country are being fundamentally questioned.

In all of this, the people who are suffering most are the population of this small, land-locked but beautiful country, too many of whom live in poverty. At risk too is a return to inter-ethnic strife, which could threaten FYR Macedonia’s very stability.

Each demands democratic progress as a prerequisite, to maintain the country’s European perspective. The new election date meant painstaking diplomacy did at least succeed in averting one catastrophe this week, but only at the expense of potentially generating another, one day very soon.

Sadly, we failed to reverse the spiralling political conflict, which has afflicted the country for too long.

For us in the European Union, there is no alternative to maintaining patient diplomacy with the country and its political parties, in the hope of securing progress. To be successful, we need our friends in Skopje to realise that – for them – there is no alternative to Europe itself.

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