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Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev now has his work cut out for him.

Macedonia's Social Democrats won an unexpectedly large share of the vote in municipal elections that essentially became a referendum on the country's future. That future, at least based on expectations recorded at the local level on October 15, is a European one.

The ruling Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party headed by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev staved off a late run by its biggest rival, Nikola Gruevski's nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which seemed on the eve of the vote to be poised for a strong showing.

Gruevski was countering the Brussels-leaning vision of the SDSM by offering a return to a supposedly better past. But in the end it was Zaev who won the day, in large part due to the support of urban voters who endorsed the sitting government's pro-Western agenda.

It marked another setback for the VMRO-DPMNE, which in December 2016's parliamentary elections failed to win enough seats to form the government for the first time in a decade.

During the campaign, Zaev promised that Macedonia would become the 30th member of NATO, and would push for negotiations to join the European Union. It has been a candidate for accession to the EU since 2005, but the goal is to enter accession negotiations despite the bloc's vow not to expand in the near future.

The Social Democrats won a majority in almost 50 of a total of 81 municipalities, including the capital, Skopje. Their coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), won in 12 municipalities. By contrast, Gruevski's party -- which dominated all levels of government for more than a decade and is still the biggest party in parliament -- triumphed in only nine municipalities.

Zaev sent a message to the newly elected mayors that the era of "local sheriffs" running their own show had ended, and that the government would expect them to act with integrity.

"I appeal for honesty, dedication, and responsibility. I demand a responsible local and central government," Zaev said. "I feel great joy, but the weight of responsibility is equally great."

Shifting Landscape

Andrea Stojkovski tweeted that the election results would put the wind back in the sail of democratic reforms -- which, along with hammering out a solution with Greece on its long-contentious name issue, are required of Macedonia if it hopes to move forward on its road to NATO membership -- but also brought a mountain of obligations.

Marko Trosanovski of the Macedonian Institute for Democracy tries to explain the significance of the Social Democrats winning at the local level. "In the parliamentary elections people calculated that it was safer to vote for those already in power, fearing revenge and some kind of sanction from the then-ruling VMRO-DPMNE."

However, the narrow and against-all-odds win by Zaev's Social Democrats in December changed the playing field. "Our research in the institute shows that voters not only in Macedonia but in other Balkan countries have the tendency to side with winners," Troshanovski told RFE/RL in Skopje.

Political analyst Alaydin Demiri believes the message of the local elections is clear, and that the Social Democrats will feel emboldened enough to call new parliamentary elections in the spring.

"It should not be forgotten that the real winner of last year's parliamentary elections was VMRO-DPMNE [as the largest single party, despite being unable to form a government], and that the ruling SDSM's hold on power is precarious and requires a more resounding electoral victory," Demiri says.

Troshanovski agrees that early parliamentary elections are now more likely.

Jailed Whistle-Blower

The VMRO-DPMNE, meanwhile, has questioned the validity of the local elections, which saw it lose control of a host of municipalities. Party leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the October 15 vote "took place in an undemocratic atmosphere and in unfair conditions."

It has been said that failure is always an orphan, while victory has many fathers.

One of the "fathers" in this case is surely former Macedonian security official Gjorgi Lazarevski, one of three agents who leaked information about the illegal wiretapping of ordinary citizens carried out without warrants at the order of Gruevski when he was prime minister.

Macedonia entered a full-blown crisis in 2015 after opposition parties accused Gruevski and his counterintelligence chief of masterminding the wiretapping of more than 20,000 people. It dissipated only after the European Union mediated a deal that called for early elections and the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the content of the wiretaps.

Lazarevski, who was arrested in January 2015, described how difficult it had been to give his testimony in the presence of a former colleague, with a prosecutor in the next room.

"I told the truth to two institutions, but instead of giving me the status of a whistle-blower, I was charged with espionage," he told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), recounting the dramatic events that had upended the life of his family, and the whole country as a whole.

Lazarevski and his colleagues spent 11 months in prison before the Special Prosecutor's Office dropped the charges against them. At the same time, prosecutors opened a new investigation into the former interior minister under the Zaev government, as well as the intelligence chief and his closest associates.

Zaev took office in May, nearly six months after the December elections, ending a two-year political crisis over a wiretapping scandal that brought down the previous government. The delay was caused by obstacles created by President Gjorge Ivanov, who supported Gruevski even when he did not have legal means to form a government.

The Macedonian columnist Zvezdan Georgievski predicts the start of a new era, and sees the outcome of the local elections as an unequivocal repudiation of the criminality and corruption that plagued former Prime Minister Gruevski's government.

Now, as the initial euphoria over the unexpectedly decisive victory wanes, Zaev and his party face the difficult task of delivering on the European promise, which will require securing an independent judiciary, nurturing a free press, and perhaps the hardest of all -- negotiations with Greece over the country's disputed name.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
U2 emerges from a giant capsule at their performance in Sarajevo on September 23, 1997.

Less than two years following the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in September 1997, the Irish rock band U2 staged a mega-concert in Sarajevo. For many residents of the Bosnian capital it was the first real sign that peace had come. Although Sarajevo airport was still closed on weekends for major repairs, it reopened briefly on the Sunday before the concert to accommodate the plane carrying U2's equipment. The railways were not fully functional yet, but as a result of popular pressure a train from the divided city of Mostar made it to Sarajevo packed with young people -- Muslims and Croats who had been facing off against one another in violent internecine conflict for three years (1992-95). At least six busloads of U2 fans came from Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb Republic, crossing another divide.

Ticket prices, at about $12, were significantly lower than for U2's other tour dates to account for the beleaguered state of the country.

Around 45,000 packed the Kosevo Olympic Stadium for the Tuesday show -- at least 5,000 of whom were NATO peacekeeping troops. Asked whether they were concerned that fighting would break out while the peacekeepers were reveling, a group of British soldiers cheerfully reassured an AP reporter: "This is the safest place in Bosnia tonight."

During the concert, as Bono's voice faltered at one point, the audience joined in with so much force that the loudspeakers were overwhelmed. Bono urged them on in their own language: "Sing in Sarajevo," he told the crowd -- "It's a present from you to us."

"It was one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life, that's for sure," Bono later told Bosnian Television.

He added that if rock and roll could be summed up in one word, it would be "liberation."

"Music doesn't know political divides and music has a joy that ignores borders and even defies borders," he said. "This is what we've always stood for as a group."

Twenty years later, memories of U2's legendary concert are still powerful.

While the Bosnian war was still going on, Bono raised the spirits of besieged Sarajevo residents with the song Miss Sarajevo, dedicated to them. On the 20th anniversary of the September 23 concert, he renamed it Miss Syria -- keeping up the band's commitment to global peace and human rights.

U2 lead singer Bono (file photo)
U2 lead singer Bono (file photo)

For one magical evening in 1997, the Sarajevo concert brought together a bitterly divided country, with youth from all corners of Bosnia and every ethnic group mingling inside a stadium that had itself been damaged by shelling -- 450 workers performed the necessary repairs on the eve of the concert.

"[U2 did in one night] what international organizations couldn't do in years," one of the concert's local promoters, student Asja Hafner, told reporters at the time. She was part of the Bosnian PR team for U2's PopMart Tour -- Obala Art Centar was in charge of organizing the concert.

Twenty years later, Asja is far less optimistic.

"Looking back and compared to today, Sarajevo has both betrayed its own legacy and failed its citizens -- which is not only our misfortune but also a loss for Europe and the world at large," Asja said in a recent interview. "The city no longer carries that symbolism that brought U2 here two decades ago. That's not an easy admission to make for someone who was a part of the team that worked so hard for two, three months to make the U2 concert happen. Sarajevo endured war and a siege, but it could not deal with the aftermath, and has succumbed to stifling conformism and to nationalism."

Ferida Durakovic, a prominent Bosnian writer, also feels a sense of defeat, but has not given up hope.

"My friends, all those who shared my political views, believed that Bosnia would live that beautiful dream of a multiethnic society," she explained to RFE/RL's Sarajevo bureau. "Of course, we have been defeated, but I think that it's better to admit defeat with dignity and continue to have faith in the possibility of a better future than to join those [political] forces that are shredding the delicate multiethnic fabric."

In another sign of the erosion of the spirit of tolerance and multiculturalism that pulsated from U2's stage 20 years ago, officials of a Sarajevo municipality have rejected a proposal to name a sports arena after Goran Cengic.

Cengic was a celebrated team handball player who had played for clubs in both Bosnia and Serbia, as well as representing Yugoslavia on numerous occasions. The part of the city he lived in, Grbavica, was under Serb occupation during the war, and in 1992 he tried to intervene when armed men came for his Muslim neighbor, Husnija Cerimagic. They were both killed by "Batko," a notorious war criminal who was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2013.

The refusal to honor Cengic, while at the same time schools are being named after a World War II Nazi sympathizer such as Mustafa Busuladzic, only makes the disappointment felt by Ajla Demiragic, a literature professor at the University of Sarajevo, and those like her, more profound.

"In the hallway in front of the lecture hall we're discussing one more lamentable decision by the local authorities, about the naming of the newly built sports arena," Demiragic wrote in her online diary for RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "If [the local officials] cannot agree about paying tribute to Goran Cengic, then it is clear what sort of city they want to build [a mono-national one]. The hardest part to bear is the official explanation that many sportsmen took part in the defense of the municipality where the arena in located, and that [the decision about the name] was the wish of the majority."

Social media has been inundated with citizens in uproar over the perceived injustice -- the local authorities' decision to ignore popular demands for the naming of the new arena. Among those who tweeted their reaction was Bosnia's only Oscar-winning director, Danis Tanovic. He wrote a "message" for the late Cengic, assuring him that this "new Sarajevo no longer deserves your name. Thank you for being a human being until your last breath."

The sports facility will bear the name "New Sarajevo Arena," unintentionally encapsulating the sense of betrayed tradition and values felt by many. Compared to the city that hosted Bono and U2 in 1997, this indeed feels like a "new" Sarajevo -- one that fails to recognize the heroes who helped heal ethnic divides, leaving it vulnerable to relapse.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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.