Last week Macedonia cleared another important hurdle on its path to EU and NATO integration. 80 MPs voted to start the process of constitutional changes which are required to fully implement the name agreement with Greece, and we can assume that these votes will also be available for the constitutional changes themselves at the end of the process. This clearly represents a victory for the pro-Western forces in the country, but many seem to be tempted to also view it as a political victory for SDSM over VMRO. I would not go that far. In fact the political situation so far resembles the previous mandate of SDSM in government, from 2002 to 2006. To see why this is so, we need to go over that period, before coming back to draw parallels with the current situation.
SDSM came to power in 2002, after VMRO had ruled for four years. Its government had been one full of scandals, most of all concerning unaccountability, heavy abuse of public funds and quick enrichment, as well as electoral manipulations, most notably in presidential elections 1999 and local elections 2000. Its mandate culminated with a full-blown crisis, the Albanian uprising of 2001. It ended with the Ohrid framework agreement, and one year later SDSM easily won the parliamentary elections. Forced by numbers it formed a government with DUI, which was the absolute winner in the Albanian bloc. At that time this was considered a controversial move, since DUI was still seen as a radical party, having only recently been transformed into a political party. SDSM itself had previously promised that it would not enter such a coalition.
Many thought that with the new government in place Macedonia would turn a page and become a normal country. It was expected that a firm rule of law would be established, government would be held accountable, people would answer for their crimes and abused funds returned to state coffers. Not much of this happened. The whole transition of power seems to have happened with a silent deal for amnesty between the two big parties.
Midway through its mandate the government faced a referendum. Its cause was the new territorial organization of the country, which VMRO disingenuously presented in nationalistic terms, claiming that it was a victory for Albanian separatism, which would seriously threaten the territorial integrity of the country. However the referendum was successful, and the new territorial organization went in place. It was then argued that this was a heavy defeat for VMRO. Meanwhile the party itself had split, and its charismatic former leader Georgievski had formed a new party. Most of the VMRO MPs followed Georgievski, and were plainly unanswerable to their own party. With the party in such dire conditions, it was predicted that it may soon totally fall apart, and it would have no chance of returning to power for a long time.
It in fact turned out that the referendum had been a turning point between SDSM and VMRO. Far from being a defeat for VMRO, the government’s rating had taken a nosedive. A few months before elections Macedonia got its candidate status for EU membership, but even this victory did not help SDSM. VMRO soundly won the 2006 elections. Starting from a hopeless position in 2002, it had managed to completely turn the tables and return to power, this time for the next 10 years.
Much like 2002, SDSM in 2016 took charge of a country devastated by the previous VMRO government. It had again, but in a much bigger scale, abused public funds and manipulated multiple electoral processes. At the end it faced a full-blown crisis, with the so-called bombs and massive street protests. Thus SDSM again came to power with hopes similar to 2002, chiefly that of accountability and rule of law. Yet to get there the numbers dictated that it once again form a government with DUI. And again this was a controversial step, this time not because DUI was seen as radical, but because it had been an equal participant with VMRO in the regime’s excesses.
Contrary to expectations, not much seems to have changed for the past two years with SDSM in power. It is obvious that the government continues to wield enormous power everywhere, its accountability is just a facade, while it continues to do business in the same old way, often with the same old people. It is true that some high-profile cases of corruption have been processed, but these are still too few. In general there is a sense that we are again undergoing through a process of silent amnesty, agreed by the sides during the transition of power.
The eerie parallel to the previous government of SDSM is of course the referendum and name agreement. VMRO has again taken up a disingenuous cause against the agreement, presenting it as a threat to the existence of the country and Macedonian identity, much like it did with the territorial organization. It is also obvious that it faces internal splits along many lines, most importantly between its MPs and the party leadership.
For these reasons its chances of challenging the party in power are again prematurely written-off, just like they were more than a decade ago. But if we follow the events of 2002-2006, this could be a big mistake. Ultimately its internal splits did not wound her fatally. It used the referendum to ride a wave of nationalism, combined with incessant attacks of every misstep of SDSM’s government. There is no reason to believe that it will not do the same now. Far from being a defeat for VMRO, the name change offers it a rallying cry, which will eventually overshadow its crimes from its time in power. I expect that it will keep up a rhetoric of patriotism, while diligently attacking the government for any and all reasons.
It is also a mistake to put too much hope in EU and NATO integration as a counterweight to VMRO’s rating. It will continuously insist that those achievements are too few for the big price the country had to pay, just like it criticized the candidate status in 2005 because Macedonia had not gotten a date for accession talks. And just like the candidate status itself did not help SDSM much in elections, there is no reason to believe that it will be different this time around.
So far SDSM’s mandate looks a lot like a replay of its previous one in 2002-2006. If it follows the same pattern, VMRO is far from mortally wounded, and may return to power sooner than many experts think.
Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik