Tuesday, May 21, 2024
 
 

North Macedonia: Sliding back towards the political dark side?

Election results and attacks on the Prespes Agreement do not point towards potential progress on EU accession
Biepag.EU
Balloting in North Macedonia

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As most analysts predicted after the strong showing of the nationalist presidential candidate in the first-round presidential elections on April 24, VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity) candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova and her party completed its victory sweep on May 8, in combined parliamentary elections and a presidential runoff vote. The winning party is touting the combined results as a “double victory.”  It did not take long for the winners to begin spreading their message. 

Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a 70-year-old law professor, was declared the victor after receiving nearly 65 percent support with most of the vote counted in the presidential runoff election, making her the country’s first female president, an important but largely ceremonial post.

The 22-party coalition called “Your Macedonia,” led by nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, surged ahead with nearly 43 percent in the parliamentary election, while the Social Democrat (SDSM) party that has held power for the last seven years fell to third place with 15.3 percent – coming in just below of a group of parties led by the ethnic Albanian minority party DUI. 

Election results showed that VMRO-DPMNE by itself won 58 of 120 seats in the country’s parliament placing a durable coalition under its control within easy reach. The Social Democrats, who obtained a mere 18 seats, quickly conceded defeat on election night.

Although clearly disappointed, both U.S. and EU representatives issued calm and generally positive statements about the country’s democratic trajectory after the election results were announced. 

Competitive and fair elections

Aleksandar Dashtevski, chief of the State Election Commission, told a news conference late on May 8 that “we have had successful, fair, and democratic elections.”  With turnout at around 46 percent, participation was adequate in all elections to remove lingering questions about reaching the legally required minimum participation levels.

The OSCE observer team’s statement on preliminary conclusions found no major issues, but of course a number of small things to improve. It said: “The parliamentary and presidential elections were competitive, and fundamental freedoms were respected, although the process remains insufficiently regulated. The election legislation provides a suitable framework for holding democratic elections, but persisting inconsistencies, gaps, and ambiguities compromised legal certainty and merit revision. The extensive and pluralistic campaign coverage in the media gave voters the opportunity to make an informed choice, but negative rhetoric, and nationalistic slogans marred an otherwise stable pre-election period.”

Many loose ends need to be tied up

In 2001 NATO managed to stabilize North Macedonia which was then tottering on the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency, and western powers promised faster integration into the EU and NATO, but largely failed to deliver progress. Shortly thereafter, the country fell under the control of an ultra-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE government led by exiled former PM Nikola Gruevski (2006 – 2017), now granted political asylum and resident in Hungary under the protection of senior leaders there. His potential return to Skopje under the new government, in spite of outstanding arrest warrants, is now a subject of intense speculation and could have major political repercussions.

After a long series of negotiations, a 2018 agreement to change the country’s name from Macedonia to North Macedonia (the so-called “Prespes Agreement”) largely ended the decades long dispute with Greece, but Bulgaria then lodged a veto against North Macedonia’s EU accession in 2020 over history and language issues, which many North Macedonians believe effectively challenges their national identity. North Macedonia was able, however, to join NATO in 2020, becoming the alliance’s 30th member.

The EU accession issue remains frozen, a matter which cost the previous government much electoral support, along with widespread accusations of corruption for which some in the country have been formally targeted for U.S. travel and banking sanctions.

Under the terms of a rushed agreement to launch the EU accession mechanism made in 2022 under French auspices, without the necessary inclusion of a reference to the Bulgarian minority in the preamble of North Macedonia’s constitution, it is doubtful Sofia’s final approval for North Macedonia’s full EU membership will be forthcoming.  That required constitutional amendment would need a two-thirds majority in the North Macedonian parliament, and up to now, that has been seen as “mission impossible.” 

Few if any now believe a new VMRO-DPMNE led government would attempt to pass such an amendment, although it is likely to try and renegotiate this requirement.  And increasingly vocal doomsayers believe that the continuing impasse regarding EU accession will translate into opportunities for Moscow or Beijing to make new inroads into this sensitive part of the Western Balkans. 

Back to the future over the name issue

At the new President’s official swearing in ceremony May 12th, President Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova referred to her country as “Macedonia,” not the constitutional name of North Macedonia as agreed by the 2018 Prespes Agreement and formally changed in all official documents.  Accordingly, some legal experts in the country believe the swearing in is therefore invalid, but not apparently the President herself. 

 

President Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova voting in second round presidential elections on May 8

As could be expected, the Greek Ambassador to North Macedonia quickly left the ceremony in protest.  That same day both the Greek Foreign Ministry and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von Der Leyen issued public warnings with the Greek side highlighting the fact that North Macedonia’s EU accession could be in danger.  This would put Greece in the same situation it is in regarding Albania, where another bilateral issue (the case of incarcerated Fredi Beleri, mayor elect of Himara)  has generated strong Greek objections to Albania’s accession. 

Not a good sign for EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans, to say the least, where many have already lost patience with the general consensus in most EU member states that both candidate countries should not join the EU before 2030. 

Tracking the actions of the new President, current VMRO-DPMNE Party leader Hristijan Mickoski has loudly insisted on using the term “Macedonia” in personal comments, instead of the country’s constitutional name, although this is not actually a new departure for him.  Seen as the top candidate for the country’s next Prime Minister, Mickoski praised the new President’s stance as “dignified” in referring to the country as “Macedonia.”

Within Greece, the North Macedonian President’s action has reopened old wounds, with the former leftist government’s political party Syriza on the defensive for signing the flawed Prespes deal in 2018 and for using every political tool at its disposal, including ditching and cannibalizing its right wing coalition government partner, to push its ratification through in a cliffhanger parliamentary vote in early 2019. 

And after all that, Greece has been left with an agreement that apparently can be ignored when the other side opts to do so, with no penalty applied by the countries that pressed both Athens and Skopje to sign the agreement in the first place.   

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reiterated on May 18 the obligation of North Macedonian officials to use the country’s constitutional name in every use, as dictated in the 2018 Prespes Agreement between the two countries.

Several small Greek opposition parties have now called for the annulment of the Prespes Agreement, while a public discussion has been started regarding the current government’s policy of not bringing three memoranda of cooperation on bilateral issues to parliament for ratification. 

These memoranda were meant to be approved in the framework of the 2018 Prespes Agreement but the Mitsotakis government has kept them firmly on hold since coming to power in 2019, citing myriad small violations of North Macedonia’s Prespes Agreement obligations.  In the current atmosphere, no new action on the ratification procedure can be expected.

 

 

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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