Macedonian police escorts injured members of the parliament including Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev near the parliament in Skopje, April 2017. 
Ognen Teofilovski / REUTERS

A contentious election in 2016 lays bare a country’s raw divisions. Sharp polarization brings protesters onto the street. A formal investigation looms over the most powerful figure in the nation, who acts to thwart the process. Rather than stand up against this blatant violation of principle, U.S. Republicans either shrug their shoulders or provide indirect support for the now-embattled leader. Moscow watches the situation with glee while attempting to sow doubt about the country’s institutions—indeed, about the very concept of democracy.

Although the parallels are striking, the above description does not refer to the United States but to Macedonia, a small Balkan country that is rapidly proving to be an example of what happens in democracies when leaders can disregard the rule of law. As Macedonia’s stability hangs by a thread, Republican senators in the U.S. Congress have irresponsibly entered the fray—and in doing so have abetted intensified meddling from Russia.

A DETERIORATING POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

Government misbehavior in Macedonia, as in the United States, is being driven by the threat of criminal proceedings. The country’s autocratic former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, is the subject of several investigations that were launched last year by a special prosecutor. Allegations first emerged in 2015, when the leader of the opposing Social Democratic Party, Zoran Zaev, released a trove of wiretapped conversations that appeared to reveal systematic abuse by senior officials in Gruevski’s government, possibly even including conspiracy to cover up a murder. The sensational revelations touched off sustained protests and rising tension, setting Macedonia up for a violent confrontation.

Intervention in the crisis by the EU and the United States resulted in the Przino Agreement, which created the special prosecution and forced the once-invincible Gruevski to step down in January 2016 in anticipation of new elections three months later. Given his government’s complete control of the judiciary at the time, Gruevski originally calculated, mistakenly, that he would easily influence the special prosecutor as well and that no court in Macedonia would accept evidence from illegal wiretaps. Failure to abide by the terms of the agreement, particularly regarding the conditions for free and fair elections, delayed the elections until last December. Once they were completed, Gruevski’s nationalist VMRO-DPMNE Party had narrowly fallen short of securing a majority in Parliament: the party won 51 seats versus 49 for Zaev’s Social Democratic opposition in the 120-seat assembly. The high-handed Gruevski also failed to form a coalition government, as Albanian parties rejected his reported demand to end the special prosecution. (Ethnic Albanians make up around one-quarter of Macedonia’s population and have been a constant coalition partner in the country’s governments.)

Gruevski’s Plan B has been to attempt to force new elections under the pretext that the political crisis has come to an impasse after months of VMRO-DPMNE’s filibustering and not allowing the new majority to elect a speaker of Parliament. He would then attempt to engineer the results through a combination of rigging and intimidation. Since March, Gruevski’s handpicked associate, President Gjorge Ivanov, had denied Zaev the opportunity to form a government, escalating the crisis. Two weeks ago, the deadlock led to a violent confrontation. Zaev had managed to scrape together a vote for a new parliamentary speaker, who happened to be ethnic Albanian. Outraged that the new majority elected an Albanian speaker, VMRO-DPMNE supporters stormed the Parliament as police stood by, with some even joining the mob, beating opposition members. A shocking photo from the scene shows Zaev with blood spurting out of his forehead as he attempted to calm his thuggish attackers.

Gruevski and Ivanov have proclaimed themselves patriotic defenders of the ethnic Macedonian majority against the prospect of having a government led by the Social Democrats and Albanian coalition partners, whom they claim would compromise Macedonia’s independence. The VMRO-DPMNE has suggested that Zaev and the Social Democrats are traitors for acquiescing to the allegedly secessionist Tirana platform, a set of demands by certain Albanian-majority political parties, in order to secure coalition partners. Among the aims of the platform is making the Albanian language an official language throughout the country, alongside Macedonian.

But Gruevski himself had tolerated the same platform in his own desperate bid to form a parliamentary majority with Albanian parties that had spurned him earlier. He had been sharing power with the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) since 2008, and the new Albanian parliamentary speaker had once been a Defense Minister in his government. In fact, Gruevski alleged this Albanian irredentism only after the DUI refused to offer him support to form a parliamentary majority and instead decided to support the opposition. To cover his decision to reverse himself and grant Zaev the governing mandate (a move which came under direct pressure from the EU and the United States), Ivanov insisted that Zaev pledge to guarantee Macedonia’s territorial integrity.

The crisis will not end now that Zaev has taken office; it will merely enter a new phase. Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE will continue their efforts to destabilize the government and force new elections in order to avoid jail time. Once again, outside actors such as the United States, the EU, and Russia will have a critical, even decisive, influence on the tiny country, which has just two million inhabitants and is no bigger than the state of Vermont.

The political crisis will not end now that Zaev has taken office; it will merely enter a new phase.

Unfortunately, Macedonia has attracted the interest of Republicans in the U.S. Congress, animated by their concern over the philanthropic work of investor George Soros. Several Republican members of the House and Senate, including Senator Mike Lee of Utah, have demanded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson investigate “how US funds are being used…by USAID to support left-of-center political groups and impress left-leaning policies on sovereign nations” through the work of Soros and his pro-democracy Open Society Foundation. USAID and Open Society have been generously and transparently aiding democratic processes in Macedonia and the region for the last 25 years, including funding for projects in Gruevski’s government ministries. According to Open Society for Europe Director Goran Buldioski, the false allegations were first made “in a pamphlet distributed to Congress by a Macedonian group, Stop Operation Soros, which was set up by Cvetin Chilimanov, the editor of Macedonia’s state news service and a former employee of the President’s office” and were uncritically accepted by the GOP senators. Simultaneously, Russia—and autocrats such as Gruevski and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—have labeled Soros and Open Society a “threat to national security,” alleging that the billionaire supports organizations and groups whose sole purpose is to undermine those countries’ sovereignty. In a region where U.S. moral authority is still predominant, this conspiracy-theory promotion from Washington is a morale boost, not only for the likes of Gruevski and Orban, but also for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

REGIONAL DANGERS

Despite sharing the Orthodox Christian religion and Cyrillic alphabet with Macedonia, Russia had traditionally paid negligible attention to the country, especially in contrast to its larger neighbor, Serbia. That all changed after the wiretapping scandal broke out in 2015 and Gruevski’s government faced its possible demise. Russia considered the government an ally in its pipeline plans for the region, which have been opposed by the EU. In the last few years, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has began issuing regular statements in support of Gruevski, and more recently it has significantly increased its staff at its embassy in Skopje. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly assailed the West for intervening against Gruevski, and the Foreign Ministry even alleged that the West interferes in Macedonia’s affairs in order to realize its project of a “greater Albania.”

The implications of this controversy go beyond Macedonia. At stake is the entire Western effort to inculcate democratic values and stabilize fledgling democratic governments in the Balkans as a bulwark against further outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence. Already, thanks to VMRO-DPMNE’s nationalist appeals, tensions are on the rise between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority; ethnic Albanians, along with Soros, are declared to be in league with those who want to “threaten the country’s existence.”

Anti-democratic cynicism is also on the rise in neighboring Serbia, where democratic institutions and freedom of the press have been under attack during Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s tenure. Recently, sizable protests against Vucic’s rule have dwindled. Russia, meanwhile, continues to present itself to the Serbian and Macedonian public as an alternative to Euro-Atlantic integration by pushing an agenda for a “territory of neutral sovereign states” in the Balkans, which would include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Polarization is on the rise in Bosnia, too, as Milorad Dodik, the leader of the country’s Serb entity Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, mounts an increasingly brazen and dangerous campaign for secession. Kosovo, which shares a frequently crossed border with Macedonia, is mired in bitter feuding, and continuing mistrust between the country’s dominant ethnic Albanians and the minority Serbs grips the breakaway north. If Macedonia descends into chaos, the repercussions in the region will be swift.

WASHINGTON'S NEXT STEPS

In this volatile situation, it is critical for Washington to lead. As ever, European capitals pay only intermittent attention to the Balkans. As a start, the United States should press Berlin and Brussels to join it not just in providing aid and incentives, but in isolating, blacklisting (denying visas), and freezing the assets of actors who foment crisis and subvert democracy to gain or hold political power. Domestically, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should urge Republicans in the Senate to cease their meddlesome, dangerous, and baseless attacks against USAID and Soros.

Following that, Tillerson must turn to the issue that each of his recent successors has neglected: tackling the Greek dispute with Macedonia over that country’s name. Demanding that Macedonia change its name, Athens has blocked the country’s bid to join NATO and the EU. The Interim Accord brokered by the United States and signed by Greece and Macedonia in 1995 allowed Macedonia to enter any international organization under the temporary name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Yet Athens continues—in defiance of an International Court of Justice ruling faulting Greece for violating the accord—to block Skopje’s accession to NATO and its progress to EU membership. This in turn opened the back door to Gruevski’s cheap brand of nationalism and authoritarianism. Only NATO and EU accession can truly stabilize the country’s democratic institutions and quell the incipient tendency towards violence, secession, and even dissolution.

And only level, determined heads in Washington, working urgently with their European counterparts, can avert the worst in Macedonia and the region.

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  • EDWARD P. JOSEPH is Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs, and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
  • OGNEN VANGELOV is a Canada Vanier Graduate Scholar at Queen’s University, Canada.
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