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North Macedonia's New President Prefers The Country's Old Name

Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova coasted to an easy victory in the presidential election.
Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova coasted to an easy victory in the presidential election.

SKOPJE -- Longtime university professor Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova is preparing for the transition from teaching politics to practicing it following her landslide victory to unseat incumbent North Macedonia President Stevo Pendarovski.

Her triumph, more than doubling Pendarovski's support alongside a win in parliament for her nationalist allies, is likely to fuel a more confrontational approach toward the European Union by the Balkan country of around 2.4 million people, who have endured a bumpy Westward path.

North Macedonia is a member of NATO and an EU candidate country, although its accession to the latter has been hobbled by ethnic and cultural disputes with its neighbors.

"My paths lead first to the Balkans, and, of course, Brussels is not excluded either," Siljanovska-Davkova, 70, said on election night.

She coasted to a 35-percentage-point win over Pendarovski, who is aligned with the country's previous center-left, pro-EU leadership, and quickly pledged to represent "all citizens, all ethnic groups, [all] party members" in a country where ethnic Macedonians dominate with a sizable Albanian minority and other, smaller ethnic groups.

First Female President

Siljanovska-Davkova is the first female president in the history of North Macedonia, which seceded from the former Yugoslavia following a referendum in 1991. She has previously called herself a champion of justice in everyday life, particularly in the area of women's rights, and an "emancipated woman with traditional family values."

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While she is an independent, each of her two presidential bids has been supported by the right-wing nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), which has been in opposition for the past seven years and won a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections. And Siljanovska-Davkova has publicly embraced the nationalist current that has filled the gap left by an erosion of public faith in Brussels' promise of EU enlargement.

Pointedly, she refuses to use the word "North" before the country's name in public speeches, a snub directed at the divisive Prespa Agreement made with Greece in 2019 that resolved the countries' name dispute. The agreement, which mandated that Macedonia become North Macedonia, initially cleared the path for North Macedonia's further Western integration.

The Prespa issue, according to Siljanovska-Davkova, is still "legally and politically open." In her electoral program, she said the agreement was "adopted in violation of national law" and was a "serious violation of the collective and individual human rights of the citizens of Macedonia."

But that needn't prove a hindrance in regional relations, according to Aleksandar Krzalovski, the executive director at the nongovernmental Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCMS). He predicted to RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Siljanovska-Davkova would acquit herself well in relations with other countries in the region.

"Maybe she lacks diplomatic experience at that level," he said, "but I believe she will do well in that domain and will initiate and maintain good relations with her neighbors herself."

Constitutional Law Expert

A law graduate, Siljanovska-Davkova has taught law and politics at universities since the late 1980s. Since 2004, she has been a full-time professor of constitutional law, modern political systems, and local self-government at the Justinian I Law Faculty in Skopje, authoring more than 200 academic papers on constitutional law.

A member of the Macedonian legislative constitutional commission that effectively paved a path to independence from Yugoslavia, Siljanovska-Davkova's political career began almost immediately after the then-former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's bloodless secession following a referendum in 1991. At the suggestion of the Liberal Party, she became a minister without portfolio in the SDSM-led government of Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, which governed from 1992-94.

She became a parliamentary deputy again in 2020 and has sat on the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body of experts on issues of constitutional law.

This is her second attempt to become the country's president. In 2019, she lost the presidential runoff to Pendarovski by about 58,000 votes, a deficit of around 8 percentage points.

Fight Over The Constitution

After ruling for the past seven years, analysts said that Pendarovski's Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) was punished by voters for its perceived failure to tackle corruption and economic woes but also for its support of a constitutional amendment demanded by EU member Bulgaria.

Sofia has requested that North Macedonia change the preamble to its constitution to include Bulgarians among North Macedonia's constitutive peoples and has linked the issue to Skopje's EU accession process. In July 2023, North Macedonia's SDSM-led government adopted the text of a possible constitutional amendment that included the mention of several peoples, including Bulgarians, but VMRO-DPMNE and other opposition parties prevented its passage.

The incumbent, Stevo Pendarovski, won a presidential runoff against Siljanovska-Davkova in 2019.
The incumbent, Stevo Pendarovski, won a presidential runoff against Siljanovska-Davkova in 2019.

MCMS executive director Krzalovski said the constitution issue will be "the most pressing problem" for North Macedonia in the near future. On the campaign trail, the victorious VMRO-DPMNE repeatedly told voters that the EU negotiation framework can be changed.

"I expect that in these six months there will be intensive work on the [issue] and overcoming it and possibly adoption of the constitutional amendments with some modifications," Krzalovski said. "Will VMRO-DPMNE succeed in that or not? And what will they accept in the end as a final solution? But I expect movement by the end of the year."

Although North Macedonia's presidency is primarily ceremonial, Siljanovska-Davkova has pledged to build a consensus with the government but also with the opposition.

"The point of European integration is Europeanization according to the Copenhagen criteria," reads her election program, before citing the agreement that was reached with French diplomatic help in 2022 as a road map to lifting Sofia's veto on North Macedonia's path toward the EU. "In the [2017] Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation, there is not a single part [regarding] changing the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia."

In public appearances, Siljanovska-Davkova has mostly tended to stick to legalistic, noncontroversial responses. However, in an interview last month with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, she said that the head of state doesn't decide whether or not to amend the constitution. But if lawmakers in the new parliament passed such changes, she said, "Of course, I will respect that, because the parliament is the constitutional body. I don't have a problem."

'A Huge Responsibility'

With a five-year term and a two-term limit under the constitution, Siljanovska-Davkova will become North Macedonia's sixth president since independence.

"Is there a bigger change than that, that for the first time in this country, a woman becomes president?" she said on election night. "Is there a greater inspiration for smart women? There is none…. When I surround myself with women similar to me, women in the model of [the late Czech dissident and President] Vaclav Havel…[women] who can express a position and defend it, that is a reforming step for me."

North Macedonia's president is constitutionally responsible, among other duties, for granting mandates for the composition of governments, appointing and dismissing ambassadors, and signing international agreements on behalf of the country. They can also veto laws by returning them to parliament for reconsideration.

The head of state is also the supreme commander of the Macedonian armed forces and president of the country's security council, appointing and dismissing the director of the national Intelligence Agency.

Siljanovska-Davkova will turn 71 on May 11, one day before Pendarovski's current mandate expires.

"The prize [of the presidency] is priceless to me," she said in Skopje on May 8, as early returns showed her and the VMRO-DPMNE coasting to victory, "but [it] is also a huge responsibility."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Sunchica Stojanovska Zoksimovska in Skopje
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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