Macedonia is embroiled in a deep political crisis. Since February of this year, over 500 wiretapped recordings of alleged conversations of various officials, including the sitting Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and some of his cabinet members, have been released in 36 installments by Zoran Zaev, the leader of the main opposition party, who is claiming that he obtained them from a whistleblower within Macedonia’s secret police. The recordings include more than half a million conversations that took place between 2007 and 2013. If authentic, these information “bombs,” as Zaev calls them, portray shocking abuse by the ruling party in Macedonia.
For starters, they reveal control, or attempts to control, the judiciary and other branches of the government by the prime minister’s close circle. In one conversation, Filimena Manevska (wife of former justice minister Mihajlo Manevski) and Vlatko Mijalkov (cousin of the prime minister) discuss whether Ljupka Arsenievska, the president of the court of appeals is “theirs,” and can be relied on for some unspecified case. Manevska says, “She is fully ours…Go to her without hesitation. Tell her, Filimena sends me. No problem.” In another recording, Gordana Jankulovska (Minister of Internal Affairs) tells Martin Protuger (Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff) that “We can’t pay salaries to those [employed] in the institutions who were giving us a hard time during the campaign…We need a thorough analysis, to clean [the institutions] before the new government takes office.” Protuger goes on to agree, “…they need to be taught a lesson...they need to be expelled.”
The wiretaps also suggest serious voter fraud. In one conversation about creating false registrations, an unidentified speaker advises the minister of internal affairs, “We have to be careful because we are under observation…and I fear that OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] would be activated again, would start barking…” Jankulovska says in response, “I mean, you can’t have 40 new people in a village with a population of five.”
Some of the taped conversations point to financial malfeasance, as well. In one instance, the prime minister is heard allegedly discussing with Minister of Transport and Communications Mile Janakieski multimillion dollar kickbacks involving Chinese construction companies. Janakieski says, “5 [percent] on the thing will pass. It depends on the offer, but it would be between 15 and 18 [million Euros], based on some projections of what they would offer.” Government documents show that the stretch of the highway that this conversation is referring to cost around 375 million euros, and a 5 percent kickback would amount to almost 19 million euros.
And the list goes on—from exchanges about controlling the media to using public funds to buy a luxury car and even murder cover-ups.
Gruevski has condemned the leaks, claiming that the wiretaps were illegally recorded and then cut, edited, or otherwise manipulated to show him in an unfavorable light. But it seems that few believe this story, including Western officials. A recent joint statement by several ambassadors to Macedonia, including those from France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, noted: “We have specifically reiterated our concerns to the prime minister that his government has not made progress towards accounting for the many allegations of government wrongdoing arising from the disclosures. This continued inaction casts serious doubt on the Government of Macedonia’s commitment to the democratic principles and values of the Euro-Atlantic community.” The officials also expressed that the information in the leaks put Macedonia’s application for EU and NATO membership on the line.
Rather than discipline Skopje, however, the West’s warning may instead be pushing Macedonia closer to Russia. Since the crisis began, Macedonia has been distancing itself further from the EU and the West—President Gjorge Ivanov’s travel to Moscow for Victory in Europe Day is one indication of this trend. This comes after Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki expressed reservations about EU’s sanctions against Russia last September. Russia is wooing Macedonia for strategic reasons, as well, since Moscow is attempting to build natural gas pipelines to Western Europe that bypass Ukrainian territory. Russia is also employing soft power to court Skopje: it has recently established new scholarships for Macedonian students to study in Russia. All this indicates Russia’s keen interest in influencing the Balkans. Consequently, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already warned, Macedonia may find itself “in the firing line” of the intensifying conflict between Russia and the West.
However, there is little popular support in Macedonia for a reorientation toward Moscow. Unlike in Serbia, where many blame the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign for the loss of Kosovo, the majority of ethnic Macedonians regard the West favorably, believing that the United States was instrumental in keeping the country together during the 2001 armed conflict with ethnic Albanians and seeing membership in the EU as the top foreign policy objective of the country.
But for Gruevski, EU membership is a low priority. With his political and personal fortunes at stake, Russia’s friendship might prove irresistible to him as he frantically searches for ways to cling to power. This clash—between political and public wills—may pose a grave risk for the stability of the country.
In fact, the dream of joining a borderless Europe is what has kept a brittle peace between the country’s Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians over the last 14 years. If the current government somehow survives the ongoing scandal and stays in power, its continued pivot toward Russia would anger ethnic Albanians, who are already convinced that the nationalist policies of the current government brought disaster to Macedonia. They will see little reason to remain loyal to a country veering away from Europe and toward authoritarianism. Separatists from within the ethnic Albanian group, which composes about a quarter of Macedonia’s population, would receive a new lease on life, thus risking a full-blown rebellion by the Albanians who have already grown impatient with the stalled Euro-Atlantic integration process. The prospects of another violent conflict in Europe’s courtyard, and its potential to drag in neighboring Balkan countries and send waves of asylum-seekers to Western Europe, would become frighteningly real.
The current crisis could still end in a more positive way, however. If the current government were to fall and Zaev, or anyone from his party, were elected to form the next government, the chances of joining the EU would solidify. Unlike Gruevski, Zaev’s center-left party has not built its popular support on nationalism and provocation of Greece. (Greece has stalled Macedonia’s bid for EU and NATO membership for years because it says the country’s name makes an implicit claim over the northern Greek province of Macedonia and misappropriates ancient Macedonia’s cultural heritage. Gruevski’s government has responded by building massive statues of Alexander the Great in Skopje.) By solving the name dispute, Zaev could finally remove that roadblock to NATO membership and, possibly, the EU.
EU membership, however, is a two-way street. The EU is suffering from significant financial troubles and many European capitals feel EU enlargement fatigue. But the EU needs to stop dragging its heels with Macedonia and the Balkans and remember that EU accession is its most powerful foreign policy tool. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently voiced his frustration, stating that Kosovo and Albania will unite either through Europe or in the “classical” fashion. The EU made a political commitment to integrate the Western Balkans 12 years ago through the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration. It now needs to find the energy and courage to help EU-aspiring countries move decisively closer to accession. This imperative becomes more urgent in light of a resurgent Russia and the return of geopolitics.
The more immediate policy response from the EU and the United States should be to force Gruevski to agree to a transitional government that would pave the way for true democratic elections. In the long term, Europe needs to demonstrate a clear commitment to EU membership for the Western Balkans.
If the West correctly handles the current crisis, Macedonia may move decisively closer to the Euro-Atlantic integration. If not, the crisis has the real potential to bring about violent ethnic conflict within the country, and Russia will be eager to capitalize on that instability in order to extend its influence in the Balkans.