Macedonia facing an uncertain future
April 19, 2016
A new wave of politically-motivated protests broke out on April 12th in Skopje. President Gjorge Ivanov’s decision to suspend legal proceedings against politicians investigating in a wire-tapping scandal sparked the demonstrations.
On the second night of the protests, rallies mainly organised by the Social Democratic Party (SDSM) turned violent, as participants attempted to storm government buildings.
Current tensions in Skopje highlight an ongoing political crisis marring the stability of the country. The challenge is two-fold; on one hand, a power struggle between the ruling Christian democratic VMRO DPMNE party and the SDSM strains Macedonia. On the other, the Europe-wide migrant crisis is taking its toll.
Macedonia mired in a deep-rooted political crisis
Turning to the first of the challenges, the political crisis began following the April 2014 general elections when the SDSM did not recognise VMRO DPMNE’s victory and claimed that its adversary had committed wrongdoings.
Tensions surged in May 2015 following the SDSM release of information alleging former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s involvement in a nationwide wire-tapping scandal. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators rallied in Skopje calling on the Prime Minister to resign.
The crisis came to an end by an EU-brokered solution, the Przino agreement, in which both parties agreed to a power-sharing scheme as well as early elections in April 2016.
In accordance with the agreement, Prime Minister Gruevski resigned in January 2016. However, President Ivanov and the VMRO DPMNE pushed back the elections to June 2016. The SDSM already threatened to boycott the polls over fears that the election will be held in an unlawful way.
Ivanov’s decision to suspend legal proceedings against high-ranking officials involved in the wire-tapping scandal adds fuel to the crisis. The SDSM already called for a parliamentary procedure to impeach the President, as well as for additional anti-government street protests.
The current situation heightens the risk of protracted political instability, since both parties may pull away from the Przino agreement.
It also leads to an enhanced risk of violent unrest in the capital. April’s fresh round of demonstrations indicates that opposition activists may try to storm public institutions, leading to clashes with security forces.
Protecting the border is another source of instability
The deteriorating political situation comes against the backdrop of ongoing unrest along the border between Macedonia and Greece. The EU is implementing its agreement with Turkey to expel illegal migrants currently located in Greece, in exchange of accepting an equal number of legal Syrian refugees.
This creates a sense of urgency among the thousands of migrants massed in the Idomeni camp and leads to increased attempts at crossing the border.
Migrant men help a fellow migrant man holding a boy as they are stuck between Macedonian riot police officers and migrants during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic) (Darko Vojinovic)
Macedonia took measures to close its border with Greece in late 2015 and by February 2016 a security fence was in place. Police forces are deployed along the border to prevent illegal infiltrations, especially in the Gevgelija region.
Since early April, large numbers of migrants on the Greek side of the border have tried to rush to Macedonia. This led to several episodes of violent unrest in which Macedonian security forces had to fire rubber bullets and tear gas to prevent crossings.
The border crisis is unlikely to spiral into a wider national issue. However, it may well lead to further clashes between migrants and police forces in the affected areas.
Rocky relations to the EU adds to trouble
The political situation in Macedonia puts the country at odds with the EU and the United States. Macedonia started its process to be a member of the union in 2004. However, since then little progress has been made.
President Ivanov’s move to suspend investigations prompted EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn to issuea stern statement condemning the decision. Hahn claimed that the direction of the Macedonian government was at odds with EU principles and hindered the potential for a resolution of the political crisis. A similar statement was issued by the United States’ ambassador to Skopje.
As the SDSM and the VMRO DPMNE fight for political power, Macedonia’s EU aspirations as well as the country’s wider economic growth are likely to suffer from a situation of internal instability. The two rival parties will probably continue on their collision course, leading to additional anti-government protests in the capital. Meanwhile, the country’s southern border will remain a frontline of the continent-wide migrant crisis, which is not expected to diminish anytime soon.