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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Balkan Wikileaks

Nestled north of Greece and south of what was once the heart of socialist Yugoslavia lies the tiny country of Macedonia.

Macedonia, home of a infamously absurd naming issue, is known by Greeks as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because "Macedonia" is also the name of a large northern Greek province where the city of Thessaloniki is located. The two countries still argue over naming rights, but Macedonians still refer to their country as the "Republic of Macedonia".

Macedonians are cousins of the nearby Serbians in that they both practice Orthodox Christianity and speak a Slavic language similar to the other languages that were spoken in Yugoslavia.

Macedonia is ruled by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who belongs to the right-wing Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity. This is the largest party in the Macedonian Parliament, of which the rest of the seats are occupied by the social democratic party Social Democratic Union, the Albanian minority interest parties Democratic Union for Integration and National Democratic Interest, and the Albanian nationalist party Democratic Party of Albanians. 

In 2002, Albanians made up 25.2% of the population of Macedonia. Macedonia also has Serbian, Roma, and Turkish minorities to complement the Macedonian majority. 

This tiny country has been rocked by recent crisis. Recently, supporters of the Social Democratic Union broke news through leaked conversations, apparently obtained from Macedonia's Security Service that the government of Macedonia is wiretapping its citizens and covering up its own misdeeds, blaming its own ineffectiveness on tensions fanned by ethnic Albanians. Macedonia is a poor, corrupt, dysfunctional country that under Gruevski has moved away from its previous ambitions of joining the EU and NATO to cozy up to the Kremlin. 

Here to comment on the conflict in his country is Aleksej. 

What were in those leaked tapes? 

Although this seems like a simple requires an elaborate response. Beginning in February of this year the main opposition political party in Macedonia, the SDSM led by Zoran Zaev, began presenting leaked wiretappings to the public dubbed “political bombs”. The SDSM, which has been boycotting parliament since the April 2014 elections due to allegations of election rigging against the government and ruling party, claims to have received these wiretappings from whistleblowers in the government’s secret police administration. The government, led by ruling party VMRO and Prime Minister Gruevski, accuses the opposition of acquiring the wiretappings from an unnamed foreign spy agency and committing treason. Regardless of which story you buy, that of the opposition or that of the ruling party, no one has yet denied the authenticity of the wiretappings. In order to understand their significance it is crucial to see (1) who was wiretapped, (2) the content of the wiretappings, and (3) the manner in which those being wiretapped discuss political, economic, and criminal activities. 

First, the opposition claims that over 20,000 people have been wiretapped ranging from opposition politicians and journalists critical of the government to activists, NGO’s, foreign embassies, and most notably government ministers and members of the ruling VMRO party itself. 

Second, to date the opposition has presented thirty-five wiretappings to the public at weekly press conferences. The tapes predominantly include discussions between various government ministers, PM Gruevski, his cousin and former secret police chief Saso Mijalkov, and members of the parliament and ruling party. All of these individuals can be heard discussing criminal activities and violations of the constitution which prove previous allegations of the blending of party and state in Macedonia. These discussions included the appointment of judges loyal to the ruling party, the jailing of critical journalists, the rigging of local and national elections, the cover-up of murders, money-laundering, illegal purchases of property, tax evasion… the list goes on and on. Some have even jokingly compared the incriminating material as evidence that Macedonian politics had become a real life House of Cards…if not worse. 

Third, what is most surprising about the wiretappings is that they depict the unbelievably casual manner in which politicians discussed and conducted these heinous crimes. They make jokes about having people raped in prison, they discuss stealing massive amounts of money like it is an everyday occurrence, they use derogatory terms for ethnic minorities, and they even talk about possibly starting “a little war” for their personal benefit. There are moments when some of the ministers question their actions and note the absurdity of the requests of PM Gruevski and the secret police chief, but they decide to go along with it all anyway. 

Finally, it is important to note that there are still things missing, things that we haven’t heard. The opposition has stated they will continue to present wiretappings of inappropriate government actions and that’s important. The public deserves to know, we have the right to know. But, as a citizen I also want to hear what is in the recordings about the misconduct and crime of the opposition itself or of the two main ethnic Albanian parties, one of which is a coalition partner to the ruling VMRO party. It isn’t just VMRO that committed such violations upon coming to power in 2006. The VMRO party simply perfected the undemocratic political and criminal tactics which their predecessors, the current opposition SDSM, had done when they were power. In order for the truth to prevail in Macedonia, myself and many others, are hoping for an independent investigation into the wiretappings so that ALL those who committed crimes are held accountable and take political and legal responsibility for their actions. Justice must be served equally and without discrimination.

So what do the Macedonian people want out of this crisis? Do the problems facing Macedonia warrant the resignation of the Prime Minister? 

This crisis isn’t about the wiretappings nor did it even start with them. This crisis is about the separation of party and state, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democratization in Macedonia. The wiretappings are just a confirmation that the battle which activists and citizens have been waging against the mafia-style kleptocratic rule of PM Gruevski for years is just. In recent years there has been an increase in protests by activists and citizen’s movements against the regime’s neglect for democratic values. These protests relate to media freedom, taxes, workers’ rights, women’s abortion rights, LGBT rights, and plenty of other issues. However, they were relatively small and didn’t threaten or bother the regime enough. Finally in October of 2014, five months before the opposition even dropped its first “political bomb”, a newly formed citizen’s movement was able to get the attention of not just the Macedonian kleptocracy, but Macedonian citizens and people worldwide. 

This movement, the Student’s Plenum, was formed as an informal citizen’s movement of university students to protest against the government’s planned law to impose additional external exams. They saw this as government meddling in the autonomy of the university and sought to protest against it and in turn call for reform of the entire education system so as to address actual problems. The students first protested with a few hundred and then a few thousand people marching in the streets of Skopje. They garnered the attention of their professors, activists, parents, high school students, and concerned citizens at home and even abroad. In early December they organized a mass protest of more than ten thousand people—university students, professors, journalists, teachers, high school students, contract workers, and other citizen’s movements. This became the largest demonstration in Macedonia’s twenty-four year independent history, but the government didn’t care and they passed the external exam law anyway. This prompted the Student’s Plenum to occupy universities across the country…something that had never been done before in Macedonia and this empowered citizen’s from all sectors, classes, ages, and ethnicities to voice their dissatisfaction with the regime’s bad governance. 

So when the opposition finally began presenting the wiretappings in February, Macedonia was newly emboldened with an activist spirit sparked by the young university students. This has all culminated into the civic movement we see now demanding for the resignation of the entire cabinet, not just the Prime Minister, and calling for some form of transitional government that will bring legitimacy back to state institutions and ultimately prepare the country for new elections. As I mentioned before, citizens are also hoping for an independent investigation into the wiretappings in order to prosecute all those who committed crimes. Through the resignation of the government and some form of transitional government the country’s civic movement hopes to see the emergence of democratic values and institutions that provide for and respect the rule of law, freedom, peace, stability, and economic opportunity in Macedonia. My hope is that the civic movement, even after a transitional government and elections, will continue to operate because it has such a critical role in society. In Macedonia, and the Balkans broadly, we as citizens lack the kind of governmental oversight that exists in the United States and many European states. The civic movement, activists and concerned citizens, can work to ensure that people in Macedonia understand their role in being active and checking the power of the government and institutions in turn beginning to realize democratic ideals. 

Does Gruevski command support among the people? 

Yes and no. The propaganda machine of PM Gruevski and his party which has targeted citizens for nine years has clearly led to support for the regime. This support generally comes from citizens who identify with the ethno-nationalist arguments of the ruling party, those who are employed in the state apparatus for being loyal to the party, those who reap economic benefits through illegal business deals with the party, and pensioners that receive benefits from the government. The PM and his party however don’t really command support among the urban population, those with higher education , young people that are emigrating in search of better opportunities, and minorities whether ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other that are discriminated against by the regime. This is why we have seen both anti-government protests and pro-government/party protests in Macedonia. One led by those disaffected by the regime and the other led by those who believe the story the regime sells and benefit from it.  

Do Macedonians who believe the Prime Minister must resign see the country's direction changing for the positive if he is replaced by the Social Democratic party? 

No, in fact it’s quite the contrary. Most citizens don’t want to see the SDSM return to power because many believe they would seek revenge on VMRO and continue the mafia-style, clientelist, and kleptocratic model of rule that has kept us from progressing for the past twenty-four years. Citizens that want the entire cabinet and PM to resign hope that some kind of transitional government will be formed. What kind of transitional government is unknown and there isn’t consensus on it. Some want a technocratic government led by experts and others want a non-majoritarian unity government between all the parties. What there is agreement on is this—citizens hope for a transitional government that will return legitimacy to state institutions, depoliticize and departify society, and ultimately prepare for new free and fair elections. Most people believe this transitional government will need to be in power at least one year, but my hope is it will last longer so that there is time for all this to happen, for new parties to form, and to allow Macedonia the opportunity to really sow the seeds of democracy.  

Which, if any, countries do Macedonians hope their country emulates? 

Interesting question…this really varies based on the individual. Some look up to the United States, others to Western European states like Germany, France, the UK, and even others look to the Scandinavian states. A majority of citizens are generally in favor of the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions such as the European Union and NATO. We see the country’s future in that direction, specifically which model depends on an individual’s political views. I don’t think many, other than maybe nationalists and some who support the current regime, see Macedonia’s future in something like Russia with its hybrid or authoritarian model. We have dealt with that enough and even gone beyond it with our mafia-style kleptocracy and I don’t think anyone truly hopes we head back in that direction other than the kleptocrats that have benefitted from it. 

All these years on after Ohrid, how is the relationship between Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia? Are there visible tensions or is ethnic tension used as a propaganda tool of the government? 

Let me be perfectly clear…in no time since Macedonia’s independence in 1991 have interethnic relations been more favorable. This crisis has brought together Macedonians, Albanians, and many other minorities with the goal of ending the rule of a regime that has manipulated and played them against each other for their own advantage. The incident that occurred a few weeks ago in the town of Kumanovo between Macedonian security forces and supposed “ethnic-Albanian terrorists” from Kosovo is horrific and tragic…but some speculate it was a propaganda tool that the regime orchestrated in order to stir tensions and deflect from the real problem—bad governance, violations of the constitution, and criminal activity. This isn’t anything new, especially not in the Balkans…the “ethnic card” gets thrown around a lot and people are learning its real purpose. 

My warning to outside followers of the crisis is this—the media loves violence and ethnic tensions tend to be violent. Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that ethnic tensions are high and visible, especially in a region where they have been manipulated by greedy rulers for far too long. The media missed that during the break-up of Yugoslavia and it should be cautious when reporting in the future. 

From watching on TV I've noticed many Serbian flags in the crowds of protests. Is that Macedonia's Serbian minority or is it more a symbolic coincidence? 

Many flags have been raised in the protests, not just Serbian flags. The flags represent the minorities in Macedonia and if you watch the protests, especially the ones against the government you will notice Serbian, Albanian, Turkish, Roma, Bosnian, and other flags standing together or even tied together. This is evidence that the civic movement against the regime has moved beyond ethnic lines. All ethnicities together are demanding the same thing and in my opinion this is truly beautiful. These are signs that the vision of a multiethnic Macedonia is possible and that is an example to be followed by others in the Balkans.  My hope is that this attitude remains persistent and doesn’t get manipulated. 

How are Macedonia's neighbors reacting to these protests-namely, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia? 

There are two groups in these states and other states that have reacted to the crisis and ensuing protests in Macedonia. First, the reaction of ordinary citizens in Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and other states of the former Yugoslavia has been generally positive toward the protests. Many Macedonian citizens and their friends in these states have supported the protests via social media and even organized their own protests in front of Macedonian embassies in cities such as Belgrade, Sarajevo, Ljubljana, and Tirana.

Second, the reaction of the political elite in neighboring countries is rather different than that of their citizens. In light of the purported ethnic violence in Kumanovo, leaders in Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and other Balkan states immediately began talking about national security, fighting extremism, ensuring Macedonia’s territorial integrity, and not letting violence spill over into their countries. However, in my opinion that is a rouse to cover their real concerns. Jasmin Mujanovic, a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute and Editor at the Balkanist Magazine, explained it best on Twitter: “In Skopje they don't just want Gruevski resignation but jail time too. If they succeed, they'll change politics in Balkans as a whole…Every oligarch in Balkans has their eyes on Macedonia these days. If Gruevski falls, no govt in region will be safe. Paradigmatic change.” The political elite in neighboring states don’t fear the spread of ethnic violence and terrorism…they fear the spread of citizens urging democratization and the end of their corrupt oligarchic rule! 

Why did Gruevski get elected in the first place? What about him was appealing to Macedonians? 

Between 1998 and 2002 Gruevski served as Finance Minister and the public perceived him as being different than the rest of the political elite. Although not terribly popular, in the election in 2006 a vote for Gruevski was more a vote against SDSM than it was in favor of Gruevski’s political savvy. During his first term he created a political program which was concrete and specific and different than the general political rhetoric used before him. Then all of this was mixed with his nationalist rhetoric giving him the ability to sway many voters to his side.  

Serbia is often considered a brotherly nation to Russia because of a similar language, alphabet, and shared religion, especially among nationalists who distrust the EU. Is there a parallel between Serbian nationalists' ideas on Russia and Macedonia's? 

There is a connection with religion, alphabet, language, but it isn’t nearly as strong as the one that exists between Russia and Serbia. Many of the supporters of VMRO and PM Gruevski talk about Russia and Vladimir Putin as a powerful or strong state that has defended the Slavs and Macedonian interests, but in my opinion it is just nationalist rhetoric and nothing else. It helps with anti-Western or anti-EU statements as well…even though the PM has repeatedly stated that Macedonia’s future is in Euro-Atlantic institutions. This rhetoric serves the purpose of boosting domestic popularity and it isn’t really a policy the regime pursues. Russia has increased commentary in the media and by its government on the crisis in Macedonia as to how it relates to the Turkish Stream pipeline going through the region and their anti-Western attitude. However, this is more of a geopolitical game on the part of Russia than it is actual interest in internal Macedonian politics. 

Are Macedonians hoping for international aid or intervention? 

Macedonia currently receives the most aid from programs funded by both the United States and European Union. I think that we would all like to see the continuation of these programs and the flow of funds into the Balkans, not just Macedonia, because there’s still a lot of unfinished business. In light of the political crisis there are Macedonians that believe we need an individual or even a taskforce formed by the United States, EU, or even the United Nations that will assist in independently and objectively investigating the wiretappings so that all are held politically and legally accountable for their actions. Other than the continuation of funds and programs as well as the role of being an independent investigator into the recordings, I don’t see the international community having another role. I don’t think many Macedonians see another role for the international community either. 

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