Category Archives: Columns


Macedonia’s empty democracy

This article originally and integrally appeared on New Eastern Europe on June 2. Author: Borjan Gjuzelov

Back in 1997 Fareed Zakaria in his famous article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” raised legitimate concerns over the development of democracies established after the fall of communism. He claimed that free and fair elections do not necessarily bring the desired outcome of Western-like liberal democracy. On the contrary, he outlined the possibility that multi-party elections in some of the emerging democracies could legitimise a new generation of autocratic and corrupt politicians who do not respect the essential liberal democratic values of a constitutional division of powers (checks and balances), the rule of law, and respect for human rights, but to name a few.

Today, Macedonia is a model example of a hybrid, illiberal or constrained democracy: First elected in 2006, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski with the reformed party VMRO-DPMNE (The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) offered an enthusiastic program for reforms called “Prerodba”, or “Revival”. However, in the following years the new technocratic approach that was supposed to bring economic revival for Macedonia has created a political leviathan where once again, as in socialism, the state was equated with the party: decisions on public employment and subsidies were directly controlled by party officials, oversight bodies and the judiciary were used against political enemies, while the media were put under strict control by the ruling Party.

Despite this, in the last nine years Gruevski and his party have managed to win several elections with ease and to establish a stable base of public support. Apart from some legitimate democratic reasons which have made Gruevski a likeable politician in the Macedonian public discourse, his support was largely dependent on several authoritarian and illiberal elements.

Since the beginning of Gruevski’s time in power, the micromanagement of public institutions and resources and their abuse for party interests has generated widespread clientelism. Citizens have often been pressured to vote and mobilise other voters to vote in favor of the VMRO-DPMNE as a condition to keep their job or to benefit from public services (to which they are entitled by law). Similarly, businesses that were not affiliated with the party have often faced unfair competition: the public procurement market was largely managed by the party, while inspection checks were hostile for any ‘unfriendly firms’.

Moreover, almost the entire media market came under strict control of the government party because their owners, transition oligarchs, were attracted by the government’s public advertising money and the other business privileges offered by the government. For instance, mainstream media did not report on corruption scandals involving the government, but on the contrary have always been very hostile towards the opposition or anyone who is critical of the government, portraying them as national enemies or foreign mercenaries. Critical media and journalists have faced huge amounts of political pressure that often force them into self-censorship.

Finally, symbolic nationalism has flourished with the redefining of Macedonian history and the controversial project Skopje 2014, which has changed the landscape of the Macedonian capital.

In the meantime, in the nine years that VMRO-DMPNE has been developing its illiberal democracy, the opposition has been weak, providing no real alternative or effective plan for how to win back citizens’ support and how to curb Gruevski’s power. Three months ago the opposition revealed a mass wiretapping scandal in which, according to its leader Zoran Zaev, the intelligence service has illegally wire-tapped conversations of more than 20,000 citizens. Among the many wire-tapped calls of citizens were also conversations of some top government officials and ministers. All of this has given credence to the previous allegations of misuse of public resources and institutions for party interests. So far in the 35 rounds of published material there have been serious allegations of what was already described: Gruevski and his closest allies have frequently abused all branches of executive, parliamentary and judicial power.

Although many expected that the revealed scandal would provoke a huge civic reaction and government’s resignation, neither of the two has happened. However, the scandal has had an important impact on the overall political landscape and has mobilised the opposition and civil society against the government.

As a result of numerous protests and mostly under pressure from the international community, three of Gruevski’s key personnel have resigned: his cousin and director of the state intelligence service, Sasho Mijalkov; the Minister of Internal Affairs, Gordana Jankuloska; and the Minister of Transport and Communications, Mile Janakieski.

Moreover, Gruevski and Zaev have started negotiations which are supported by the international community, and many believe that a solution to the crisis is on the horizon. Although no one really knows what is being discussed behind closed doors, it seems that the only solution that can release the institutions from capture by the ruling party and would enable minimum conditions for free and fair early elections is the establishment of a special interim or technical government.

Specifically the lack of information about any legal action against the actors involved shows that despite the obvious allegation for abuse of public office, institutions are unable to act against members of the governing  party. If the judiciary and prosecutors are still controlled by Gruevski and his inner circle, they will remain unable to investigate the allegations. For however long he is in power, institutions will remain part of the problem and will be unable to become a part of the solution.

Consequently, Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are still holding the strings very tight. They organise counter-protests against the opposition in order to officially defend ‘their democracy’ and the electoral will of the majority. At the same time pro-government media are disseminating aggressive propaganda against the opposition, while the opposition leader Zaev is still facing criminal charges for corruption and orchestrating a coup against the government.

This concentration of power in VMRO-DMPNE makes the real solution to the problem far-reaching. Wire-tapped conversations have additionally raised concerns about the minimum level of integrity of public institutions. For instance, even the electoral support and legitimacy of VMRO-DMPNE is now doubtful because the elections were organised by state institutions whose credibility, after the wire-tapped conversations, now appears questionable. Needless to say, any further elections organised in such conditions would have no credibility.

Therefore, even the term illiberal democracy as defined by Zakaria now seems to be questionable because even free and fair elections organised by the current captured institutions are rightly disputed by the opposition. What we have now in Macedonia is democracy without basic democratic values—good and accountable government, checks and balances, the rule of law, and freedom of speech. These values provide the core meaning and the substance of democracy. Without its substance, such a democracy is an empty democracy: although elected, its legitimacy is questionable and unsustainable.


Photo: Radovan Vujovic

photo: Nebojša Gelevski

Macedonia: Anatomy of a crisis

This article originally and integrally appeared on openDemocracy on June 12. Author: Elena B. Stavrevska

From Putin’s Russia, to Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Vučić’s Serbia and Gruevski’s Macedonia, new authoritarian regimes have been faking democracy by organising multi-party elections, mimicking democratic institutions and adopting democratic language. Unlike the old authoritarian regimes, these rulers do not need to resort to violence to hold on to power. Rather, they remain in power through the control of information and the manipulation of beliefs, as well as developing neo-patrimonial and neo-prebendal economic systems. A recent study on such regimes identifies four resilience tactics that are usually employed: co-optation, censorship, propaganda, and repression. Importantly, it shows that the regime only uses repression, or violence against the public when mass beliefs cannot be manipulated through the first three tactics. An indication of such a move was witnessed recently in Macedonia.

A mass wiretapping scandal has been unfolding in the country since early February, when the biggest opposition party started broadcasting tapes that point to complete state capture. On May 5, a new set of wiretapped materials provided evidence about a case of fatal police brutality that sparked a mass anti-police brutality protests in 2011. As the anti-police brutality movement was reignited in response to the revelations, thousands gathered to demand resignations and responsibility in front of the Government building. The peaceful protest eventually turned violent, with a number of protesters detained and injured. In addition to using brute force against the protesters, the police also raided a public library harassing students.

The repressive police response backfired, with the protests growing every consecutive day, and spreading throughout the country and the diaspora. They were only interrupted for a few days during the Kumanovo security crisis. This, however, allowed the protesters to crystallise their demands and to unite their actions around a new informal social movement, known as #Protestiram (#IProtest). The protests continued every day until May 17.

The display of citizen dissatisfaction culminated on May 17, when tens of thousands Macedonian citizens demanded resignations from Gruevski and his closest team. Following the protest, which was organised by the coalition called ‘Citizens for Macedonia’, coordinated by the biggest opposition party and a number of NGOs, the coalition set up a protest camp in front of the Government headquarters. On May 18, on the other hand, a large pro-government rally was organised in Skopje, resulting in a government supporters’ camp set up in front of the Parliament building. In reality, both protests were a way for the biggest party leaders, the Prime Minister Gruevski and the opposition leader Zaev, to legitimise themselves and their demands prior to the forthcoming negotiation process.

The negotiations, unfolding mainly in Skopje and Brussels, involve the leaders of the four biggest political parties (two seen as predominantly ethnically Macedonian and the other two as predominantly ethnically Albanian) and is mediated by EU representatives. With the negotiations completely hidden from the public eye and with very little information available to the citizens, the political has been hollowed out of the public domain. Consequently, the protest movement appears to have lost its raison d’être and the camps are on the verge of becoming mere theatrics.

What seems clear is that the negotiations will result in a lose/lose outcome both for the government and the opposition. The opposition has raised the expectations, whereby any outcome that allows Gruevski and his team to keep their offices during the transitional government will be considered unacceptable by those critical of the government. The part of the public that still supports Gruevski, however, would see his leaving as a removing of a legitimately elected country leader.

The EU’s involvement in the process is very important. Beyond any delusional perception of the Union as the Good Samaritan, in this case, it is also EU’s foreign policy actorness that is at stake. The Balkans has always been not only the birthplace of EU’s foreign policy, but also the testing ground for all its instruments in this domain. Many remember the infamous 1991 claim by Jacques Poos, then Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister speaking on behalf of the European Community, that “the hour of Europe has dawn”, shortly before the Yugoslav wars fiasco. The EU foreign policy has come a long way since then, among other things, by contributing to the efforts which prevented an escalation of the 2001 ethnic conflict in Macedonia. In the following years, the EU was a key actor in the process of Macedonian state-building. That said, getting their ‘success story’ in the Balkans back on track to EU membership is paramount for EU’s actorness in foreign matters not being destroyed to ashes. At the same time, wary of opening a can of worms in an unstable neighbourhood and setting precedents, the EU appears mindful of the extent to which it intervenes.

All of this leaves the Union once again giving priority to stabilisation over democratisation, as if the two were not intimately interrelated and could successfully take place in succession. This is an approach of which one can find countless examples in the Balkans. In Macedonia in particular the international community has long been perceiving Gruevski as the ‘stabiliser’, thus turning a blind eye to the democratic backsliding that the country has been experiencing in the last several years. To that end, there are at least three problems with the way the negotiations are carried out at present.

First, there is hardly any transparency in the process. The brief non-informative, often contradictory statements of those involved, including EU representatives, are the only pieces of information the public has. In a society that has been living in a nearly total media blackout for years, the lack of information makes the negotiations and relatedly, the fate of the country, even more distant from the citizens. Needless to say, it also contributes to the perpetuation of the feeling of uncertainty.

Second, there appears to be an assumption that the current authoritarian tendencies, even if never called so explicitly by international representatives, are in a direct opposition to democracy. As if the two constituted a dichotomy and when the current illiberal system collapses, democracy would somehow naturally arise. Like putting a plaster on a wound that has not been cleaned, a deal is being negotiated without much guarantee of its implementation. The failure of the EU-mediated March 2014 agreement, for instance, to bring about any substantial changes or even fully resolve the crisis ought to be a stark reminder of the limits of this approach.

Final and foremost is the problem of representation. The negotiation process postulates the current political crisis as a conflict between political parties rather than a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions. What Macedonia is experiencing is a conflict between the citizenry and the power-holders. There are three important things that the leaders of the political parties perhaps conveniently forget, but the EU representatives must not. First is the fact that the May outburst of public dissatisfaction did not happen in a vacuum and it was not solely a result of the leaked materials. In actuality, the most recent protests come at the heels of months of large protests, starting with the protests of the students at the end of 2014, the contract workers, the media employees, the protests against the Minister of Health following the tragic death of a young girl, the high school students and their parents, etc. The second important fact is that the average election turnout in Macedonia is 57.49%, with a large portion of the country qualified voters deciding not to vote, thereby not being represented by any political party, much less the four biggest. Both of these relate to the third important reality and that is the existence of the genuine grassroots, autonomous, self-organised local agency that the #Protestiram movement is. Up until May 17, the daily protests of #Protestiram had managed to engage a part of the population that is dissatisfied not just with the current government, but with the way politics is done in the country altogether. Believing that the citizens ought to be able to act politically even beyond the political parties, the protesters have demanded accountability to the citizens, not solely to the party members. Through marches and plenums, this local agency, even if unsustainable and with uncertain future, has managed to give a platform for the unrepresented citizens to voice their opinions. Thus, the capacity thereof is something that must be recognised and utilised in the democratisation of the country.

Overall, this is a rare occasion for a ‘restart’ of the system. It is an occasion to rewrite the social contract between the institutions, the government and the citizens. It is an occasion that only occurs after tectonic ruptures, such as wars or massive crises. In Macedonia, this is an opportunity to finally set the foundations of a democratic society and accountable institutions, which will inevitably be a lengthy and laborious process, but it is a process that will help the country move forward at last.

Photo: Nebojša Gelevski

Why is the premise that the conflict in Macedonia was initiated to prevent the construction of the Turkish Stream wrong?

This premise is completely wrong, and I see the propaganda is trying to place, and impose it as relevant, so it can serve as an excuse to transfer the guilt to somebody else for the conflict that is taking place in our country. While working at the Center for Resource Economy at the Russian Presidential Academy, my colleagues and I did the calculations for the economic profitability of the Turkish Stream project.

The Turkish Stream is a very unprofitable project. The NPV (Net Present Value) of the project is measured in negative of billion dollars, and by no economic logic should such a project take place. The only thing that keeps this project alive is the potential political gain, since Gazprom is not managed as a corporation, but it rather serves as a political tool of Russia.

Turkey does not want to participate with the percent that Gazprom requires for it from it, i.e. Turkey does not want to pay as much money as Gazprom requires, whereas in the case of Greece, even if the country wanted to take part, at the moment they do not have the money. The West knows this, and they are aware that the prospects for a failure of this project are quite high. An additional burden to the project implementation is the fact that Gazprom diversified its export towards China. Europe, as well, wants to become less dependent on the Russian gas, and each year they buy less Russian gas.

Due to this, Russia has no real need to construct new infrastructure for gas transmission towards Europe. Even the existing capacities of the North/Nord Stream Gas Pipeline are not fully utilised. The EU regulation of gas transportation is another difficult issue that the EU and Russia need to resolve, and a compromise is not likely in the near future. All efforts are directed to the Power of Siberia project, through which China will be purchasing gas from Russia. This project, for the most part is financed by China, so the country can buy cheaper gas from Russia in the future. With this project Russia enters the market of the biggest gas consumer in the world, which reduces its need to sell gas to Europe.

Additional reason that reduces Russia’s interest to invest in a foreign project, especially projects which are economically unprofitable, is the decline of the Russian Ruble. The conclusion is that the story of the Turkish Stream is very uncertain, and it is only a matter of time when will this be officially announced.


Nikola Kjurchiski

Center for Resource Economy
Russian Presidential Academy for National Economy and Public Administration



  1. Stern, Jonathan, Simon Pirani, and Katja Yafimava, Does the Cancellation of South Stream Signal a Fundamental Reorientation of Russian Gas Export Policy?, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (2015).
  2. Russia’s New Turkish Stream Gas Strategy More Bark Than Bite. The Moscow Times (2015)
  3. EU energy chief voices concern over Russia’s Turkish pipeline plan. Reuters (2015)

Casino Macedonia: of spies, traitors, and patriots

This article originally and integrally appeared in openDemocracy. Author: Elena B. Stavrevska

There are two topics that Macedonia never lacks ‘experts’ and opinions on: football and politics. Even if the latter is considered a power game beyond the influence of ordinary people, most of them engage in discussions on current political developments, albeit mainly in closed circles in recent years. There has been plenty of material for such discussions in the last two weeks regarding the alleged coup d’état and what colloquially came to be known as ‘The Bomb’. The whole scandal has set the Macedonian public in a frenzy, with the imagination and conspiracy theories running wild. Many things about the whole operation remain unclear. The questions discussed are overall centred around two issues: the origin of the recordings and the content.

In general, there are two narratives emerging in regards to the origin of the materials. One is that of the wire-tapping being organised by foreign intelligence services, in which scenario the Prime Minister Gruevski is portrayed as a patriot defending the state and the opposition leader Zaev as a traitor for working with foreign services on undermining the state sovereignty and stability. The other narrative is based on the assumption that it was the Macedonian intelligence services who conducted the eavesdropping, and in that narrative Gruevski is the traitor for illegally spying on the citizens and Zaev emerges as the patriot claiming to be publishing the materials with democracy and freedom in Macedonia as the ultimate goals. Both hypotheses ought to be unpacked in order to understand what is at stake.

The first hypothesis is based on the PM’s statement at a press conference, claiming that Zaev himself confirmed during their meetings to have been obtained the materials through foreign services. He is heard claiming the same on a leaked video secretly taped during their meeting in the PM’s cabinet. Importantly, this hypothesis assumes that either one of the countries having access to satellite equipment needed for such an operation has an interest in spying on more than 1% of the population of the country, or that another country is aided by elements inside the Macedonian intelligence service in the operation. Regardless of the implausibility of first one of these assumptions, the truthfulness of any of these two would mean a grave breach of the country’s intelligence services for a long period of time, for which the governing structures ought to be held accountable. Moreover, it is curious that no diplomatic note or letter of protest has been issued by the government in relation to the scandal.

The second hypothesis is based on Zaev’s statement that the materials were received through ‘patriotic’ whisleblowers within the country’s intelligence system which did the eavesdropping through the mobile phone networks. The wire-tapping can legally last only four months, with the possibility of that being extended for another four. It also requires a court order issued at the request of the public prosecutor and is only possible in cases when there is a reason to believe that a crime is to be or has been committed. Without such court orders, this hypothesis would mean that those ordering the wire-tapping were acting illegally and unconstitutionally. This, too, would require for the governing structures to be held accountable.

However, the outlined consequences of each of these two scenarios assume a country that adheres to the rule of law in practice, a clear separation of powers, and no blurring of the line between state and political parties in government. This, as many reports including the latest European Commission progress report have noted, has not been the case in Macedonia lately. What is at stake then relates to the actual content of the materials.

In order to fully grasp the impact, one has to contextualise this in a totally polarised and depoliticised society, where two parallel societies seem to be existing side by side and with any form of political deliberation being completely removed from the public sphere. Moreover, this is a country where the freedom of media in 2014 has been ranked the lowest in the region, with Reporters Without Borders noting that Macedonia has never ranked this low. It is also a country where the last census was held in 2002 and the unemployment rate according to the International Monetary Fund in 2012 was projected at more than 31%. It is a society of fear with no trust in the impartiality of the judical system and with an extended control of the government in all spheres of people’s lives. Finally, the scandal comes at a time of public discontent resulting in frequent protests and strikes of students and professors, contract workers, teachers, and journalists.

To that end, with the tremendously limited media space available, keeping in mind that very few of the mainstream media, almost all of which have close ties to the governing elite, have even reported on the materials, the impact so far is rather contained. However, what the materials published to-date have managed to achieve is a certain demystification of the core of the ruling elite and the PM’s closest allies. Previously believed to be a well-oiled machine, the published conversation between the two ministers and the fact that even the leaders of the government propaganda machine have been wire-tapped points to incoherence, disrespect, and paranoia within that core. The second and more important aspect of the content of the materials is that, if what has been said of them thus far is true, they point to a small group of people getting incredibly rich through shady activities. While the wire-tapping itself, especially given the country’s communist legacy, might not come as a surprise to most ordinary people, revealing that those in the country’s leadership whose public image has been carefully crafted as hard-working and honest people have in actuality been involved in grave financial crimes might hit a nerve at a time of general economic hardship.

It is yet to be seen whether the opposition will manage to frame the overall narrative in a manner that would bring together the ordinary citizens and reach across the societal polarisation. Nonetheless, what is for certain is that, unlike the state of the Macedonian football, in terms of politics we are witnessing one of, if not the most interesting period in the country’s history since its independence.


Photo credit: Ceci n’est pas un site web