Between a fading hegemon and radical democracy

Macedonia's two crises

How to restore legitimacy, once the state has been captured? Elena B. Stavrevska reports on developments in Macedonia during the past year, concluding that rather than looking westward for a sustainable solution, citizens should continue with their own efforts to determine the country’s future.

There is a joke that everyone in Macedonia knows. It goes like this: during World War II, the Partisans fought the German troops over a forest. The first day the Partisans took over the forest. The second day, the Germans retaliated and took control. The third day the Partisans regained control of the forest again. On the fourth day, the Germans got it back. On the fifth day, the forester lost his patience, chased them away and took control over the forest. Whenever there is a political crisis in the country, with the government and the opposition being unable to reach an agreement, the joke is retold and citizens’ eyes turn westward, normally to the European Union, to look for the forester. Given the international community’s involvement in the country, most notably the EU, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The declining hegemon

If there is one thing that all Macedonian governments since the country’s independence in 1991 have in common, even if only on a declarative level, it is EU membership as a strategic goal. That, together with the EU’s hegemonic position in the Balkans, has given the EU unique influence over the domestic political scene.

Both aspects are worth analysing. Starting with the latter, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ambiguous institutional setups in some of the successor countries created the necessary vacuum for the then European Community to emerge as a hegemon in the region. In Macedonia’s case, the brief inter-ethnic conflict in the summer of 2001 ceased with the signing of what came to be known as the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA). The Agreement, signed by the leaders of the four largest political parties in Macedonia at the time, has the EU as one of its guarantors. As well as employing various instruments to help the country stabilize and reform after the conflict, the EU was called on to co-ordinate the efforts of the international community in facilitating, monitoring and assisting the implementation of OFA. At the same time, the EU became heavily engaged in managing Macedonia’s domestic politics: it was no longer seen as a mediator, but as a key decision-maker. In fact, given the asymmetries of power, the Union is now positioned atop a hierarchical governing order. The ideological appeal and prestige attached to the power or entity that is the hegemon is important in making the hierarchical order a stable one.1

This appeal also relates to EU membership being one of Macedonia’s primary strategic goals. Support for the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations has always been strong among the population, with a recent opinion poll showing above 80 per cent support. However, in the last seven years, this support has been aggressively juxtaposed in the public discourse to the country’s right to use its constitutional name internationally. This follows the Greek veto of Macedonia’s NATO membership bid at the Bucharest summit in April 2008. Since then, the ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE or VMRO for short), headed by prime minister Nikola Gruevski, has actively shaped a narrative in which “national dignity” is at stake when it comes to Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Greek veto marks a turning point in the government’s policy and rhetoric, with a new focus on redefining collective identity, as well as external and internal enemies. This hinges on the image of “a true Macedonian”, and attempts to relate this image to the ancient Macedonians and myths of Alexander the Great. In many of the historical myths that have since been brought to the fore, the Macedonian people are portrayed as victims, which is not uncommon in the Balkans. These myths and the myths of the “ancestors’ unyieldingness” are invoked as and when required in the context of the name dispute, when the EU’s tune departs from that of the ruling elite. At the same time, many of the reforms, as well as prospects for a better future, are publicly presented under the banner of EU integration. With most of the major national media controlled by the VMRO, this two-tier approach not only makes “European integration” an empty signifier, but also significantly weakens any “sticks” the EU might have.

“Uncapturing” the state?

This contextualisation is important in trying to understand the lack of aces that the Union has up its sleeve in handling the most recent political crisis, and the biggest since independence. The beginning of the crisis could probably be traced back to 24 December 2012, when in the ruling party’s attempt to rapidly pass the 2013 budget in parliament, opposition MPs and journalists were physically removed from the parliament building. The opposition bloc, led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), did not return to parliament until an EU-brokered agreement was reached in March 2013. The agreement was only partially respected by the VMRO, whose failure to implement the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations regarding electoral law and voter registration led to the SDSM refusing to recognize the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in April 2014, and boycotting parliament ever since. That has not stopped the VMRO and its MPs, along with other representatives of the ruling coalition, from continuing to dominate essential aspects of public and private life, and implementing a number of problematic laws to further strengthen their rule by law, rather than the rule of law.

In early February 2015, SDSM leader Zoran Zaev accused Gruevski and his closest ally, his cousin Saso Mijalkov, then head of security and counterintelligence, for illegally wiretapping more than 20,000 citizens during the course of at least four years. Consequently, Zaev started publicly broadcasting leaked wiretapped materials as part of “The truth for Macedonia” project, which revealed massive abuse of power by the circle closest to the prime minister. The state had been completely captured. Over the course of several months, the materials were released in sets known as “bombs”, each of which focused on a different issue.

A scene from the protests in Skopje, Macedonia of June 2011, against police brutality. Photo: Mite Kuzevski. Photo: Bkmzde. Source:Flickr

Public dissatisfaction was highest on 5 May, as evidence was released showing that top government officials, including Gruevski himself, knew of and contributed to concealing a fatal case of police brutality that had sparked massive civic protests in 2011. The 5 May protest was large in size and even though initially peaceful, ended with violence and the police using brute force against the protesters, which contributed to the protests continuing in the days that followed. The biggest protest, albeit organized by the SDSM and a coalition of other opposition parties and civil society organizations called “Citizens for Macedonia” (GM for short), took place on 17 May in Skopje. The VMRO and its supporters, on the other hand, had a large rally organized on 18 May. Following these two large gatherings, GM and VMRO supporters set up protest camps in front of the government and parliament buildings respectively, just as negotiations among four political party leaders begun and the public sphere was emptied out of the political. For as long as new evidence was released, the camps assembled and negotiations continued, the state of crisis remained the new norm, the new reality in Macedonia.

EU-mediated negotiations, supported by the United States, with hurdles along the way, had proceeded up until 14 July. The negotiations, by and large sealed off from the public, involved the leaders of only the four biggest political parties, two of which are predominantly ethnically Macedonian and two predominantly ethnically Albanian. An initial agreement on certain issues was reached on 2 June and the agreement was finalized with a protocol agreed in the early morning of 15 July. In the meantime, a senior experts’ group appointed by the EU has issued a report with recommendations on rule of law issues. It could be argued that the findings of the report made the involvement in the negotiations of Gruevski, as someone contributing to the issues identified in the same report, problematic. Moreover, the EU’s hands were tied in terms of its ability to use any sticks, making for an agreement structured around the lowest common denominator.

Thus the agreement merely attempts to address state capture by proposing the appointment of a special prosecutor to deal with the leaked materials. Further proposals deal with the return of the opposition to parliament and the formation of a transitional government to be headed by Gruevski until January 2016, with the prospect of new parliamentary elections in April 2016. This is merely a move in the direction of “uncapturing” the state, and whether it is sufficient is a moot point at this moment in time. For the current crisis is both a systemic crisis and one of legitimacy, and the agreement only addresses the first crisis, and not necessarily the second.

The systemic crisis is essentially a state capture involving a “substantial, institutionalized, particularistic, self-interested influence or control of unrepresentative actors over public finances or state policy formation and implementation.” State capture does not refer to the consequences, that is the corruption, but the problem itself, that is the failure of the system which does not incorporate functioning checks and balances into its design. These deficiencies are integrated into institutions and law frameworks, facilitating rule by law while mimicking democratic processes and institutions. Therefore, an agreement zeroing in on the country’s systemic crisis alone may have an impact on certain quantitative aspects of democracy, but not qualitative ones.

The revolution is on hold, long live the revolutionaries!

The crisis of legitimacy, on the other hand, is a political problem and cannot be resolved with technical solutions alone, such as the ones proposed in the agreement. As David Chandler rightly argues in his seminal analysis of statebuilding in Bosnia, the problems of politics can only be resolved within the realm of the political. Solutions for political problems are unlikely to be found in the realms of law, administration and/or social policy.2

In the political realm, legitimacy broadly refers to the right to govern, which in democracies depends both on the support of the majority and the ability to prevent tyranny over minorities. Here, the heuristic device of distinguishing between input and output legitimacy is helpful, or, as Seymour Martin Lipset suggests, between legitimacy and effectiveness, whereby the former relates to “the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society”, and the latter relates to “the actual performance of a political system, the extent to which it satisfies the basic functions of government as defined by the expectations of most members of a society, and the expectations of powerful groups within it which might threaten the system”.3 The stream of protests and plenums that were held during the past year point to a crisis of legitimacy on both fronts.

Perhaps the most accurate indicator of citizens’ dissatisfaction is the growing size and frequency of civic activism, in all of its various forms during the last few years. Since the student protests in the fall and winter of 2014, the frequency of protest has exponentially increased. They are now at least a monthly, if not weekly, occurrence. The leaked materials about the fatal case of police brutality may have been the immediate catalyst, but not the sole cause of citizens’ dissatisfaction. In the crowd on 5 May there were also media workers protesting restrictive media laws and the media blackout that has resulted from current government practices. There were contract workers dissatisfied with their current legal status following laws passed a few months earlier. There were students protesting against higher education reforms that threatened universities’ autonomy with obliteration. There were LGBTQI activists dissatisfied with the judiciary for mishandling cases relating to physical attacks against some of them. There were workers whose labour rights have been significantly and constantly eroded, while the unions have become government pawns. There were architects who have witnessed Skopje being turned into Europe’s capital of kitsch. There were women who have been the subject of several restrictive laws. There were youths who see little prospects for any kind of employment without becoming a party member. There were parents of young people who have left the country in thousands. There were citizens who have experienced injustice under the current government in one form or another.

As the protests continued to grow in size, a violent clash between the Macedonian police forces and an armed group, with a total of 22 casualties, occurred in Kumanovo, an ethnically heterogeneous city in the northeast of the country, between 9 and 10 May. Many first assumed the incident to be an inter-ethnic clash, no doubt looking at the country through something akin to what Rogers Brubaker calls the prism of groupism.4 But then the media blackout and the lack of official information, along with the many inconsistencies in the narrative that the government eventually presented, prompted people to question the government’s effectiveness. The popularity of a video of an ethnic Albanian, joined by an ethnic Macedonian, calling for officials to take responsibility is but one example of how the Kumanovo incident in fact contributed to citizens’ dissatisfaction and the crisis of legitimacy.

As regards so-called input legitimacy, most public opinion polls show distrust of political institutions. Distrust of democracy is alarmingly high among young people. One study from 2013, for instance, shows only 6 per cent of Macedonia’s youth to be satisfied with the state of democracy, with the least trusted institutions being the political parties themselves.5 Most youths do not feel represented in politics at present. The distrust is not solely of the VMRO, but of most active political parties, particularly the larger ones, whether perceived as mainly ethnic Macedonian or mainly ethnic Albanian.

Indeed, while the VMRO’s support has declined with the release of the “bombs”, the SDSM’s support has not grown either. There are several reasons for this. One is the legacy of the party, which governed the country during the privatization process. Another is the selective and calculated release of the leaked materials. Many citizens, and ethnic Albanians in particular, have drawn attention to how the leaked evidence points only to a low level of involvement among Albanian politicians. These commentators have complained that instead of “The truth for Macedonia”, the project had turned into the “truth selected for a part of Macedonia, as narrated by the opposition party”. The opposition party’s approach to the civic protests has also come in for criticism. The way in which the SDSM formed the GM coalition led many of the protesters who joined the street protests every day to feel as if they had become part of a calculated movement and started to distrust the opposition party. Given that turnout in the elections had fallen to below 60 per cent among regular voters, a large part of the country’s population went unrepresented at the negotiations among the four biggest parties that reached the recent agreement. That said, in addition to the current government’s input legitimacy being debatable due to election fraud, it is also the transitional government’s input legitimacy that is thrown into question.

The plenums served as a particularly direct response to the crisis of legitimacy. Indeed, they served not only as a platform to give voice to the unrepresented, but also as a form of radical democracy. To speak with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, rather than reducing politics to a simple registering in a vote of already existing interests, the plenums were intended to (re)constitute political identities and preferences through debate in the public sphere. It is politics itself, they argue, that actually plays a pivotal role in shaping political subjects. And the plenums were precisely that. They allowed for a plurality of voices to be heard and positions and views to be formed through discussion. The support and the number of plenums that have emerged in the last year is yet another example of citizens’ needs to be heard beyond elections and the system as it currently stands.

Considering all of the above, it becomes clear that the solution proposed in the agreement addresses only certain aspects of the systemic crisis or the captured state, but nothing of the crisis of legitimacy. While the legality that the agreement might restore could pave the way for addressing some issues that relate to the crisis of legitimacy, legality does not guarantee legitimacy. With that in mind, it will be no surprise if citizens’ dissatisfaction persists until a more sustainable solution is reached and the crisis of legitimacy is overcome. It seems that instead of looking westward for a sustainable solution, the people of Macedonia should be looking inward for the forester.

Cf. G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, Princeton University Press, 2001

David Chandler, Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building, Pluto, 2006

Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some social requisites of democracy: Economic development and political legitimacy", The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (March 1959)

Groupism, whereby groups, such as ethnic groups, are portrayed as the primary societal actors with ascribed interests and agency. See Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups, Harvard University Press, 2006.

Marija Topuzovska Latkovic, Mirjana Borota Popovska, Eleonora Serafimovska and Aneta Cekic, Youth Study Macedonia 2013, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2013

Published 20 October 2015
Original in English
First published by Razpotja 20 (2015, Slovenian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Razpotja © Elena B. Stavrevska / Razpotja / Eurozine

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