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Five Things To Watch In Macedonia's Early Elections

A man rides his bicycle past election posters of former Prime Minister and VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski in Skopje.
A man rides his bicycle past election posters of former Prime Minister and VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski in Skopje.

Macedonian voters, having witnessed nearly two years of political scandal and instability, are anxiously looking to their country's long-delayed early parliamentary elections as a way forward.

The vote is scheduled for December 11. But the decision to hold it was first made in February, a year after a massive wiretapping scheme was revealed, implicating members of the ruling party in vote-rigging, widespread corruption, cronyism, and media manipulation.

The massive antigovernment protests that followed ushered in EU mediation that led to the resignation of the prime minister and the installation of a caretaker government. The early elections, announced shortly after Nikola Gruevski stepped down in January, were twice delayed.

With the arrival of the big date, we take a look at what the vote represents to Macedonian voters, and the implications it could have for their country's future.

Fight Against Corruption

There are fears that if the sidelined ruling party, the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, and its coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), come out on top in the elections, high-ranking officials implicated in the scandal will never be prosecuted.

A Special Public Prosecution office (SJO), run by three women seen as heroines of the street protests, was set up in 2015 on agreement with the four main parties in parliament and the backing of the EU.

Special Public Prosecution office prosecutors Katica Janeva (left to right), Lence Ristevska, and Fatime Fetai hold a press conference.
Special Public Prosecution office prosecutors Katica Janeva (left to right), Lence Ristevska, and Fatime Fetai hold a press conference.

It has been investigating criminal allegations that emerged from the wiretaps, including an orchestrated campaign of illegal telephone surveillance of more than 20,000 civilians, political opponents, activists, and journalists, and the misuse of government funds.

Highest-ranking among those implicated is former Prime Minister and VMRO-DPMNE leader Gruevski, although many other high-ranking officials in the former government stand accused as well.

The SJO claims it has evidence that shows that the country's Intelligence Agency (UBK), run by Gruevski's cousin Saso Mijalkov, was behind the wiretaps.

The SJO's 18-month mandate will end in March, and a government led by the VMRO-DPMNE would be unlikely to extend its term. On the other hand, the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) have promised to eliminate obstacles to the investigation set up by the VMRO-DPMNE, and to speed up the process.

The Democratic Path

The elections stand to have a great impact on the future of the country's judicial independence, rule of law, and free media -- all of which were placed under a microscope amid the scandal.

EU and U.S. envoys have repeatedly pointed out a lack of impartiality in Macedonia's judiciary. A June 2015 report by the European Commission accuses Gruevski of misusing the national security services to control the appointment of judges, public prosecutors, top officials in the public administration, and political opponents.

The government's overt influence on the media has also come under criticism.

Leaked recordings from the wiretapping scandal include a telling example of government pressure. The recordings appear to catch the culture minister in the sidelined government ordering the editor of the national TV station, Sitel, what to air.

International watchdogs have painted a dismal picture of Macedonia's media situation. Freedom House has designated Macedonia as "not free" in its report on press freedom and listed it among the countries that suffered the largest declines in 2015. Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index for 2016 ranked Macedonia 118th, the lowest ranking of all the Balkan states.

EU Membership

A decade ago Macedonia was considered a serious candidate for EU membership, with the main issue being its name dispute with bloc-member Greece, which objects to its northern Balkan neighbor's use of the name.

The EU's list of complaints' has expanded exponentially in the last several years.

As the VMRO-DPMNE tightened its hold and control over the country's institutions while in power, red flags were raised in Brussels. The EU's current list of recommendations has expanded to include issues in the judiciary, freedom of speech, corruption, and crime. The bloc's accession-talks invitation now rests on the precondition that these issues be addressed, notably freedom of expression and the judiciary.

The political crisis following the wiretapping scandal also prompted the EU to demand that Macedonia's political crisis be resolved, and it backed the early elections as a means of realizing that goal.

Russian Influence

The antigovernment protests attracted much attention in Moscow and increased Russian activity in Macedonia. As the country's so-called Colorful Revolution took off in April, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned of destabilization similar to that seen in Ukraine following that country's Euromaidan protests.

A web portal in Macedonia financed by Moscow, Ruska Rec, part of the Russia Beyond The Headlines project, was launched in Macedonia in 2012. Russian capital has also flowed into Macedonia, with much of it appearing to come via Sergei Samsonenko, a Russian business tycoon who was often seen at photo-ops with ruling party head Gruevski and openly supported the ruling party during the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Analysts have noted that pro-government media is often sympathetic toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Interethnic Relations

Relations between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, who make up about one-quarter of the population, have been relatively calm in recent years. But the country's current multiethnic harmony could face discord.

The VMRO-DPMNE has portrayed itself as a protector of Macedonians' "ethnic rights" during campaigning, leading critics to accuse the party of inciting ethnic tensions in order to attract votes under the guise of nationalism.

The main opposition party, the SDSM, meanwhile, is challenging the history of citizens voting along ethnic lines.

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev has been actively pursuing the vote of the country's Albanian minority -- who analysts say are disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of the Albanian political bloc, most notably the ruling party's coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian BDI.

The VMRO-DPMNE has accused the SDSM of seeking to divide Macedonia and make it a bilingual state, the latter of which Zaev says is already guaranteed by the constitution.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service