2011-06-09 06:31:59 UTC
More of the same in Macedonia?
Jun 8th 2011, 10:02 by T.J.
LATER this year Macedonia is expected to top a plinth it has built in
the centre of Skopje, the capital, with a giant equestrian statue of
Alexander the Great. The Greeks, who think the Macedonians are
stealing their cultural heritage, will fume (although it will at least
give George Papandreou's government in Athens a chance to distract
attention from the dire state of the economy). Everyone else will
assume this is just more Balkan-flavoured craziness.
Until then, it looks like more of the same in Macedonia. Sunday’s
general election was won by Nikola Gruevski, the prime minister, and
his awkwardly named Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation—
Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party,
with 39% of the vote. Unlike the last poll, in 2008, the campaign was
not marred by violence (although there was a demonstration in Skopje
after the mysterious death of a young man, allegedly at the hands of
the police, at a VMRO-DPMNE victory celebration) and the results have
been accepted by all the main parties.
The opposition Social Democrats (SDSM), led by Branko Crvenkovski,
clearly lost, but nonetheless will see its representation in
parliament more than double after voters abandoned smaller parties,
boosting SDSM's vote share to 33%.
A Macedonian general election is really two polls in one. The
country's Albanian minority, around 25% of the population, mostly vote
for their own parties. On Sunday the Democratic Union for Integration
(DUI) held its own against its main rival, the Democratic Party of
Albanians (DPA). Theoretically the SDSM could form a government with
support from both the Albanian parties, but since they loathe one
another even more than they do the main Macedonian parties, this is
unlikely to happen. So the outgoing coalition of VMRO-DPMNE with DUI
looks set to take the reins once again.
The opposition campaigned on claims that the government had failed
significantly to dent unemployment—officially 30.9%—curtailed media
freedom and flopped on the country’s agenda of joining NATO and the
The media freedom issue focuses on A1, a television channel run by
Velija Ramkovski, a well-known tycoon. A1, a pioneer of independent
media in Macedonia, had in recent years become a trenchant critic of
Mr Gruevski. That, say officials, does not mean it (and Mr Ramkovski)
should not pay their taxes. Yet opposition figures see charges of tax
evasion as a way of closing down a critical voice. Pro-government
media, they say, have not been threatened with closure, as A1 has.
As for accession to NATO and the EU, both remain stymied by
Macedonia's long-running row with Greece, which says that the ex-
Yugoslav state's name implies territorial ambitions over that part of
historic Macedonia that lies in Greece. More recently Greece has said
it would accept a qualified form of the name, such as "Northern
Macedonia" or "Vardar Macedonia" (after the river that runs through
One of the biggest losers of Sunday's election was Ljube Boskvoski. A
veteran of Macedonian politics, he was tried, and acquitted, in 2008
by the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In this
election he sought to draw away supporters from Mr Gruevski's party.
But not only did his own party fail to win any seats, on Monday he was
arrested on suspicion of illegal party financing. (You can see scenes
from his arrest here.)
Mr Gruevski's re-election means, according to one diplomatic source,
“no hope of a breakthrough” on the name issue with Greece. EU and NATO
accession will remain stalled, and foreign direct investment
negligible. More, then, of the same.
Yet the sudden arrest of Ratko Mladic in Serbia on May 26th shows how
quickly things can change in the Balkans. Do not rule out a similar
turnaround on the name issue. The Greek government is distracted by
its economic problems and Mr Gruevski has a fresh, clear mandate. He
may yet be able to strike a deal.
That is not to say that forcing Macedonia to adjust its name against
the wishes of its citizens would be just. But the issue has now held
the country back for 20 years. EU officials like to talk of the
"regatta principle", by which each country of the western Balkans
achieves membership when its individual yacht gracefully sails over
the finish line. Macedonia’s problem is that its anchor is dragging on
the sea bed.