Macedonia has a chance now to recapture the promise of a centrist, Western-style democracy that it had when it became independent in 1991. The tiny Balkan country, which has been an EU candidate country since 2005 and has been waiting to be granted NATO membership since 2008, has been in political crisis for the last few years. Just as a wildfire can clear out underbrush and leave fertile ground for new seeds to flourish, Macedonia’s political crisis has created an opportunity for the conservative VMRO-DPMNE to reclaim its position on the democratic center-right and reject the authoritarianism that has taken root in parts of Eastern Europe.
The conservative VMRO-DPMNE coalition’s rule, which began in 2006, became increasingly authoritarian over the last few years, leading to Macedonia’s isolation from the rest of Europe. The country that once looked forward to EU and NATO membership became frustrated over its inability to advance the integration process. Under VMRO-DPMNE and its leader, ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia fell into a state of perpetual corruption, crime, authoritarianism and politicization of the society.
Since 2008 and the stalled attempt to join NATO, democratic freedoms in Macedonia gradually deteriorated while Gruevski’s hold on both the party and the state increased. According to a Freedom House 2016 report, Macedonia is a partly free country sliding toward “not free” and ranks 120th, while a Reporters Without Borders report showed that Macedonia ranked 118th in 2016 for freedom of information. Gruevski’s government threatened to become a full-scale autocratic regime with no free press and civil society organizations that depended on foreign funding to survive.
However, after almost 10 years in office and under immense pressure from the international community, Gruevski resigned in January 2016. His resignation followed a wiretapping scandal that brought to light VMRO-DPMNE’s involvement in the corruption that had engulfed the country. A new government was formed with the task of organizing early election, thanks to mediation by the EU.
Soon after the December 2016 election, Gruevski announced that his party would no longer take part in political meetings in the presence of diplomats or other foreign representatives. VMRO-DPMNE had won the most votes of any party, but was unable to form a government. Gruevski had called for the “desorosization” of civil society in Macedonia, blaming the opposition and its leader, Zoran Zaev, and the Soros organizations for “trying to destroy the civil sector and independent journalism.” Gruevski waged an all-out war on all he perceived as a threat to VMRO-DPMNE’s rule, and issued a manifesto in which VMRO-DPMNE committed “to put an end to foreign meddling in the country” If elected.
“We have information that foreign representatives were involved in the work of the State Electoral Commission (SEC) with the goal to influence one of its members to conduct post-election engineering and falsifying the will of the citizens. Some ambassadors are meddling far too much in our internal politics. That must stop,” Gruevski said back in December 2016, stating that he “won’t tolerate foreign meddling anymore.”
Ironically, VMRO-DPMNE historically has been a pro-Western party and oriented towards EU and NATO. Furthermore, during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, it rose as the first party to advocate the independence of Macedonia. Amid the chaos and scandals that affected the party during the last couple of years, a group of young political leaders within VMRO-DPMNE emerged. Known as “The Reformists,” they say that their focus is on making substantial reforms inside the party and put the country back on the path to EU and NATO integration. One of them is Aleksandar Mihajloski, who says that during Gruevski’s rule, VMRO-DPMNE became the main obstacle to Macedonia’s ambitions for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
“In the last 14 years under Nikola Gruevski’s leadership, with constant changes in the statutory provisions, the party gradually transformed from democratic to autocratic. It became a place where all of the decisions were made by a close circle of people around the party leader. This led to the breaking of the will of the majority of VMRO-DPMNE members and frequent changes in the party’s strategic policies, which were influenced by narrow interests that caused great damage to the image of the party not only inside the country, but internationally as well,” Mihajloski says.
According to Mihajloski, the members inside the party were controlled by fear.
“We strive for reforms to democratize and modernize VMRO-DPMNE, through which there will be a rejection of the negative policies and individuals that have been viewed so negatively by the public. We will bring the energy that the party needs in order to return to the political stage as a constructive opposition that will work to achieve the strategic goals of integrating into EU and NATO.”
During the political crisis in the country, and for years before, the pro-government media backed Gruevski’s efforts to make an enemy out of the international community, regularly blaming Western countries and billionaire George Soros in particular for trying to “destroy the country.” At the height of his power, Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE reportedly paid large amounts of money for lobbying in the EU countries and in the U.S., hiring various officials, journalists and columnists to keep its propaganda machine running.
Nevertheless, the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015 saw several protests and anti-government social movements organized exclusively by students, professors, teachers and journalists, with each of these groups showing solidarity with the causes of the others.
The international community remained relatively silent for much of Gruevski’s reign, but expressed concern over Gruevski’s inflammatory rhetoric. After the April 2017 protests— allegedly backed by VMRO-DPMNE— turned violent in the Macedonian Parliament, the EU and U.S. supported the new government formed by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and two smaller parties based in the minority Albanian community, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) the Alliance for Albanians.
Gruevski and his allies, continued to attack the West both during and after the political crisis, as was seen at the meetings that VMRO-DPMNE’s minor ally GROM had with representatives from Russia’s ruling party, United Russia.
These events again demonstrated Gruevski’s contempt for the EU and the U.S., whose support had been crucial for the country since its declaration of independence in 1991 and especially in 2001, when the country was on the brink of a civil war between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.
With a new, center-left government in power, Mihajloski’s efforts to reform VMRO-DPMNE take on greater significance. A permanent democracy needs basic consensus among its principal political movements on the meaning of its democracy and on standards for freedom, expression, government accountability, and the nation’s position in the world. There can be disagreements within that framework, but there must be a commitment to basic democratic norms. When Mihajloski makes that happen, Macedonia’s membership in the EU and NATO should be assured.