EU envoys warn that Macedonia ‘can explode’

Nikola Gruevski in Brussels in 2013 [Commission]

EU envoys to Macedonia blamed the Gruevski government for leading the country towards catastrophe, urging those in power, and the opposition, to agree on a roadmap that would prevent the Balkan state from exploding. However, they recognise that such a dialogue is hardly possible.

Two high-level personalities who regularly contribute to EU decision-making regarding Macedonia made statements Thursday (2 April) in front of a small audience. They asked not to be identified, so that they could express themselves freely.

‘Incredible mistrust’

One of the officials described as “incredible” the level of mistrust in the small Balkan country since leaked wiretapped conversations revealed gross cronyism, corruption, vote rigging and autocratic practices.

>> Read: Macedonian opposition releases new wiretaps exposing the government

Macedonian political parties will probably not find a way to engage in constructive dialogue, or in any kind of dialogue, he said, referring to the ruling VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Grievski, and the Socialist opposition, led by Zoran Zaev.

The EU should be engaged in facilitation of such dialogue, he added, explaining that an attempt would be made in two weeks’ time to see if the parties are ready to shape “their contribution to the compromise”.

It is unacceptable to delay further the start of negotiations. It is not moral. It is extremely stupid, he said.

The differences are very deep, the distrust is incredible, the animosity is very strong and there are all kinds of threats, the speaker added, hinting that the EU role in trying to find a political solution was not going to be easy.

Macedonia has already been through a very dramatic period, he said, referring to armed conflict between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army and Macedonian security forces, which was stopped by the Western-brokered Ohrid Agreement of 2001.

He warned that in a certain situation, when there would be no tangible European prospect, this interethnic relation could explode in a very serious manner.

The official also said that it was likely that this time the European Commission would not propose the start of accession negotiations. In its ‘Progress Reports’ in 2013 and 2014, the Commission recommended that such negotiations be opened, but this recommendation was not followed by the Council, where member states sit, because of the ‘name dispute’ with Greece (see background).

The official said that the country’s political elite should be aware that Macedonia could suffer such setback. Reports are normally due in the autumn.

Gruevski government under fire

A second official was even blunter and more critical towards the ruling party, which in his words “ignores the importance of political dialogue”.

He blamed the Gruevski government for the crackdown on media freedom, stating that according to the Media Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders, Macedonia has gone down from 34th place to 134th place, just above Angola.

Similarly, he deplored the violence in the country on 24 December 2012, when all the opposition MPs were expelled from the Parliament, together with journalists.

>> Read: Macedonian opposition: EU ignores democratic backslide

For many in the EU, this had been a red line in terms of the democratic process, he said, adding that a mission by the then-Enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle was dispatched and produced a report, which he said had been completely ignored by the governing party.

>>Read: Füle heads to Macedonia ‘at critical juncture’

The official said he didn’t hold up much hope for this mediation, but said it was worth giving it a try.

Lack of political culture

The official spoke of a “lack of political culture” and “lack of maturity” which he said was extremely serious given the interethnic dimension. He referred to a very recent Macedonian law authorising police to use rubber bullets against protestors, which even Northern Ireland excluded during the so-called “Troubles” between 1968 and 1998.

A new draft law was directly directed against the Albanian minority, he said, calling it “another knife in the back of interethnic relations”. He explained that it had not been passed because the junior coalition partner had refused to accept it.

“But this is another example of the lack of sensitivity of the ruling party towards the interethnic issues and toward the broader situation,” the official said.

Regarding the wiretapping scandal, the official said that in any normal society, the government would have resigned. “But this is not a normal democratic society,” he added.

He said that Gruevski’s government continues to deny the revelations of the wiretaps, saying that this was the work of foreign intelligence services.

>> Read: Macedonia opposition leader says PM ordered ‘massive wiretapping’

The official said that nobody in the international community believed one word of that assertion, and explaining that it was standard practice for Gruevski to invoke foreign intelligence, including when he arrested over 15 people, including the head of cabinet of the Parliament’s speaker, for alleged espionage.

He explained that this was the way for the government to divert attention from the content, before turning to the content of the leaked wiretaps.

He called the wiretaps, translations of which already exist, “absolutely appalling”. He said that the language that was used, the “racist tone”, the “bigoted tone”, whether talking about Roma voters, the way the Minister of Interior refers to Roma voters talking to the head of security who is the cousin of the Prime Minister, “is nothing short of racist”.

Among the other examples he provided were the “dirty tricks of vote rigging that wouldn’t be out of place in Chicago in the 1930s”, as well as the revelations of kickbacks from tendering, the most blatant being with Chinese companies, referred to by Gruevski as “the yellow people”.

“He [Gruevski] talks about 15 million kickbacks for each of the contracts, and now the latest revelations refer to the kickbacks the head of the security received from the Israeli intelligence,” he said, referring to the wiretapping equipment which was sold to Macedonia by Israel.

The official said there were also references of judicial appointments. “You name it – it’s all in there,” he said, adding that all voices were highly identifiable and that none of those wiretapped had refuted their authenticity.

Diplomats told EURACTIV that what the EU would try to press upon Gruevski is that he accepts a one-year transitional government to be put in place, to prepare for fair elections.

British Ambassdor Charles Garrett was even quoted on record saying something similar. Another idea is that an EU special envoy is appointed until a new democratically elected government takes over.

>> Read: Macedonia opposition leader says PM ordered wiretapping of journalists

Macedonia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.

The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

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 ethnic-Albanian communities (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.

Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called "name dispute" with Greece appears to be the biggest. Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece pledged to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.

Greece also believes that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. Similarly, Bulgaria contends that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its medieval history and the 19th- and early-20th century struggle against Ottoman rule.

Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje. Both nations claim Alexander as a native son.

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