As we wrote only a few weeks ago, there is a flurry of post-COVID elections across Eastern Europe and now it is the turn of North Macedonia, a country with a chequered history of international relations. The result of today’s vote could well determine the next chapter for the Western Balkans EU candidate.
The parliamentary election, originally due in April but postponed due to the coronavirus, is taking place today (15 July), pitting the Social Democrats, whose leader Zoran Zaev resigned as prime minister in February, against the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE.
But there is a deeper narrative here: the EU said in March it was finally ready to open accession talks but did not set a date. And although no one will say it aloud, when exactly this will happen might well depend on the outcome of today’s election.
Polls suggest – wait for it – that it will be a tight race between the two parties and that whoever wins will have to work hard to find coalition partners and form a government.
In one corner is Zaev, a reformer we previously described as the “Macron of the Balkans‘. Zaev engineered a landmark deal with Greece whereby his country became North Macedonia (as opposed to ‘Macedonia’, or the horrific ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, FYROM), much to the displeasure of nationalist forces in his country and the delight of copy-editors everywhere.
In the other is VMRO, now led by Hristijan Mickoski, who accused Zaev of having sold the country, its people and history. Mickoski’s predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, was sentenced to prison for graft and fled to Hungary, whose courts refuse to extradite him.
Gruevski, who ruled the country from 2006 to 2016, says he is a victim of a political setup and is afraid for his life should he go back to Skopje.
During his decade in power, the country made no progress in talks with Greece and its EU bid was effectively frozen. Under Zaev, it joined NATO in March.
For analysts, it’s a choice between stability and progress on the long road towards EU membership (Zaev) or the rekindled nationalist sentiment which may risk creating new obstacles (Mickoski, who tweeted this week that the election is “the last chance to save Macedonia”).
But analysts do not get to decide the winner.
Everyone knows that the Western Balkans could do with more stability and progress, just like we know that the volatile region does not often take its cue from the West.
Interestingly, the election was barely mentioned in neighbouring Greece, even though the name row with Skopje generated headlines for years.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ ruling New Democracy belongs to the same political family as the VMRO – the European People’s Party – and Mitsotakis himself had openly opposed the name deal, signed by his leftist predecessor Alexis Tsipras.
But his right-wing government has now accepted the deal and domestically, it would be political suicide for Mitsotakis to support Zaev, even though he is clearly the EU’s unnamed favourite.
Thankfully, all eyes in Greece are now on perennial nemesis Turkey and on crucial EU budget talks, so he can afford to stay silent, for now.
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Views are the author’s