Macedonia’s new government: First signs are promising but there is a long way to go!

On Monday (5 June 2017), the newly elected Macedonian government, led by the new PM Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia Party (SDSM), held its first session. This was the first opportunity, ever, for the media to have a look at the excessive luxurious interior of the renovated government building which had been completely hidden from the public by the previous VMRO-DPMNE (The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization- Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) led government. This refurbished Government building forms part of the megalomaniac and publically contested project Skopje 2014 – a trademark of the previous 11 years of populist but non-transparent rule of the VMRO-DPMNE and their leader Nikola Gruevski. During his decade in power, Gruevski, who came to power in 2006 as a  promising technocratic PM with ambitious reform agenda, finished his prime ministerial career as a corrupt nationalist who captured state institutions, abused public resources and stalled Macedonia’s integration towards EU and NATO membership.

The new Macedonia Government. 

The new Macedonian government comes into power after more than a two year long political and institutional crisis that fully polarized the country and threatened its fragile inter-ethnic relations. The crisis involved illegally wiretapped materials, allegations of mass corruption, blank pardoning attempt by the President Ivanov, mass protests and an internationally sponsored political agreement that offered a political and institutional solution to the crisis and an opportunity to hold early elections. Following the early elections on 11 December 2016, a new parliamentary majority without VMRO-DPMNE was formed, which backed by the President, obstructed the peaceful transfer of power. The obstruction of the transfer of power culminated in the brutal attack on the Members of Parliament of the new parliamentary majority by a violent mob which gained access to the parliament’s premises with the help of VMRO-DPMNE MPs and police forces loyal to Gruevski.

Now as the new government is finally in place, the new PM and SDSM have to prove they are substantially different not only from Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE, but all other political predecessors. Namely, as a young, post-socialist democracy, with limited democratic tradition and weak institutions, Macedonia even before Gruevski was plagued with flagrant abuses of power and resources for private or partisan means. After a decade of state capture, this has to now come to an end: state institutions, especially those responsible for the rule of law (judiciary, police, anticorruption agency) have to be let free from political interference: corruption and clientelism must no longer be the rules of the game.

Moreover, SDSM’s pre-election moto ‘One society for all’ now needs to be implemented in practice to ensure inclusiveness and economic and social cohesion. The new government should dramatically shift from an ethnic based discourse characteristic for VMRO-DPMNE to a discourse and policy agenda based on improved social services, healthcare and education for all citizens. The same goes even more for their junior coalition partner DUI, the long-term VMRO-DPMNE partner, who is now part of the new government coalition.

Additionally, the new government will have to provide new prospects for Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership aspirations previously stalled primarily because of the name dispute with Greece and the EU’s enlargement fatigue. The new Macedonian leadership should contribute towards fostering good neighbourhood relations and the establishment of new international allies that could prove crucial for Euro-Atlantic progress.

Last but not least, Macedonian international partners should learn important lesson from the past decade – that if a fragile Balkan democracy like Macedonia is kept too long without any tangible EU and NATO membership prospect, the emergency of populist state capture will likely ensue. Therefore, they must also open the door and facilitate relations with Macedonia’s new leadership and offer their strong support to Macedonian democratic reforms. This should involve NATO membership and the opening of EU accession negotiations as well as strong international mediation over the name dispute with Greece.

Taking into consideration the complexity of the domestic and regional context, these ambitions, specifically at first glance, look difficult to obtain. However, Zaev’s programme and his selection of key cabinet members looks promising and offers reasonable reasons for optimism that meaningful reforms are possible. On the other hand, Macedonia inevitably needs new opposition leadership to keep the new government to account: VMRO-DPMNE has to be deeply reformed in order to regain domestic and international legitimacy and that change has to start with the departure of Gruevski and his closest allies. Lastly, the new government members should keep their feet on the ground and not forget that in the last couple of years while fighting the old regime, Macedonian bottom up civic activism evolved significantly and is now ready to mobilize against any form of populism and state capture, regardless of party affiliation! The formation of the new government may have broken the decade-long pattern of crisis, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that past government actions remain firmly in the past!

Borjan Gjuzelov is PhD candidate at Queen Marry University of London. His main academic and professional interests are related to democratization of the post-socialist societies, good governance and informality. In the past three years, he has been part of the Macedonian opposition protests.

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