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Macedonia And Its Neighbors -- Who's Afraid Of Zoran Zaev?

  • Gordana Knezevic

There is hope that the installation of Zoran Zaev as Macedonian prime minister will bring an end to the political turmoil that has engulfed the country for months.

Macedonia's incoming prime minister, Zoran Zaev, pledged to uphold the rule of law, fight corruption, and serve the people. In many countries, that would amount to simply stating the obvious: Surely any prime minister's basic obligation should be to support the institutions of government and the rule of law.

But, in today's Balkans, the Social Democrat Zaev's vow to break with the authoritarian style of government borders on revolutionary. Zaev faces a potentially monumental task -- restoring confidence in a state that at times over the past three years has appeared threatened with paralysis or, worse, authoritarianism.

The new government that appeared headed for confirmation in the Sobranie, Macedonia's unicameral parliament, on May 31 could encounter strong opposition from legislative allies of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and a nationalist agenda.

They are expected to demand new elections before any of the ongoing investigations into possible corruption during Gruevski's decade-long administration reaches the courts.

There is hope, however, that Zaev's new government will bring to a close the political turmoil that has engulfed the country.

Following the April 2014 general elections, the opposition left the Macedonian parliament in protest, claiming that the vote was neither fair nor democratic. This was followed by a wiretapping scandal, broken by Zaev's then-opposition Social Democrats (SDSM). It emerged that around 20,000 Macedonian citizens had been wiretapped. A number of cases of corruption and obstruction of justice by government officials were subsequently uncovered, as well as attempts to control the media.

Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index this year ranked Macedonia 111th; in 2005, when the European Commission granted it candidate status, it was 43rd.

Oligarchs Play Ethnic Card

Macedonian oligarchs and others who enriched themselves during Gruevski's rule seemingly responded after December's elections by attempting to turn a confrontation between competing ideas of government -- authoritarian or democratic -- into an ethnic conflict.

Possibly as a result, Zaev's mandate to form a government was presented by some media outlets as a victory for "federalization" and a threat to Macedonia's integrity.

Russia's state-funded Sputnik news network has been running stories in Serbian about an alleged "Macedonian scenario" under which Macedonia's territorial unity and sovereignty are endangered by concessions that Zaev will make to ethnic Albanians, his coalition partners. (Ethnic Albanians make up around one-quarter of Macedonia's population and some of them previously partnered with Gruevski in government.)

Sputnik headlines have warned against Macedonians going in the direction of "color revolutions" and sought to remind them whom they should trust (Sputnik's answer: It's Time To Trust Russia, Not Trump, on Macedonia).

Yet Zaev does not seem to be looking for sponsors in Moscow or Washington, and appears above all to want good relations with his Balkan neighbors. Macedonia's closest neighbors -- Greece and Bulgaria -- stood neutral during this long cycle of political crises.

Even starting with a clean slate will prove to be a challenge. There is already a "spying affair" involving Macedonia's northern neighbor, Serbia. During a fracas when nationalists reportedly stormed the Macedonian parliament in April -- in which Zaev himself was bloodied by a blow to the head -- one of those present was an officer in the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).

WATCH: Macedonian Protesters Storm Parliament

He turned out to be Goran Zivaljevic, an employee of the Serbian Embassy in Skopje. The Serbian ambassador was subsequently interviewed by Macedonian authorities, and an angry statement was issued by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic asking why they had not questioned other diplomats and members of other secret services who also happened to be in the Macedonian parliament during the session interrupted by the violence.

Meanwhile, Zivaljevic's name has arisen in connection with another scandal. Belgrade-based investigative-reporting unit Krik is said to have obtained recordings of a conversation between Zivaljevic and a prominent Serbian journalist who is also a member of the Serbian parliament. The purported transcript of their telephone conversation hints at a conspiracy to manipulate media coverage in ways that suited ex-Prime Minister Gruevski.

Strained Ties With Belgrade

Unlike with Macedonia's other neighbors, relations with Serbia have been strained since the transition of power in Skopje. Incoming Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has pointed to the political unrest in Macedonia as a disaster that Serbia would be spared thanks to him. Zaev responded simply that the comments were "inconvenient" and unhelpful.

In an interview with N1 regional television, Zaev insisted that the primary dispute in Macedonia is not ethnic but political, and that the country's future lies in multiculturalism.

When it was put to him that he might be unwittingly aiding the cause of a "Greater Albania," Zaev said that few people were interested in such a cause and that, in any case, the future of the Western Balkans should be "open borders and the mobility of citizens."

Within his government, Zaev said that he would strive for Macedonian unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and his government would work for the benefit of all its citizens.

Zaev's approach might be welcomed by many, and Macedonia could serve as a positive example for other states in the region that democratic change is possible despite the obstacles. But it is important to remember that those who base their power on identity politics and populism remain strong in the Balkans.

Zaev has a tough row to hoe.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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