Macedonia’s Empty Democracy

shutterstock 279261470Back 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.

 

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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 shutterstock 242369038 1government’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.

 

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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 the 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.

 

Borjan Gjuzelov holds a MA degree in European Studies at the University of Flensburg, Germany and BA degree in Political Science at the Ss Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje Macedonia. His main professional and academic interests are related with the democratisation of the post-socialist societies and good governance.

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