Macedonia Steps Backward

Last year, I turned down an ambassadorial posting to Moscow and ended my 18-year diplomatic career. Serving my government and my country, Macedonia, had become very different things, and I felt there wasn’t much I could do from within to make a difference. Recent events have only reinforced this view. Once praised as a success story in a region riven by war, Macedonia is in crisis and urgently needs European Union intervention.

In February, Zoran Zaev, head of the opposition Social-Democratic Alliance for Macedonia, or SDSM, accused Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of orchestrating the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people, including judges, foreign ambassadors, opposition politicians, journalists and police officials. According to Mr. Zaev, some were under surveillance for about four years. As proof, Mr. Zaev has released a series of recorded conversations, allegedly featuring himself and other political leaders, including Mr. Gruevski’s supporters.

Mr. Gruevski denies the allegations, insisting that the recordings were concocted by a foreign intelligence service — which he has yet to name — to instigate a coup. Mr. Zaev says the material came from whistle-blowers within Macedonian intelligence. He has been charged with “violence against representatives of the highest state authorities.” Five others, including police and intelligence personnel, were charged with espionage. One has since been sentenced to three years in prison.

Mr. Gruevski and ministers in his conservative VMRO-DPMNE party claim the recordings were doctored. But that charge is unlikely to stick. The SDSM has provided transcripts to journalists who were allegedly surveilled, and a number of them have confirmed the accuracy of those documents. Rufi Osmani, founder of the Albanian minority National Democratic Revival party, and Ljupco Svrgovski, a former public prosecutor, have also verified the accuracy of transcripts in which they appear.

If the recordings are legitimate, as looks increasingly likely, it would seem that no Macedonian public institutions are free of government control. The conversations suggest a series of nefarious electoral practices by the VMRO-DPMNE, including manipulating voter lists and IDs and threatening to fine private companies suspected of supporting the opposition.

On one tape, a voice widely attributed to be that of Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska is heard asking if a particular appellate court candidate can be considered “one hundred percent ours.” Another recording, according to Mr. Zaev, indicates that the country’s intelligence chief, Saso Mijalkov, accepted bribes in exchange for concluding a surveillance equipment deal with Israel in 2011.

Macedonia peacefully gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. In 1999, it sheltered over 300,000 Albanian refugees from Kosovo, and served as a NATO base. Ethnic tensions persisted, but in 2001, when fighting between ethnic Albanian militants and Macedonian security forces threatened full-blown civil war, a peace deal that included power-sharing provisions kept the country together. That year, Macedonia became the first Western Balkan country to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union, opening the door to accession.

In 2006, when Mr. Gruevski became prime minister, Macedonia was a functional, multiethnic democracy with a prospective future in both the European Union and NATO. Mr. Gruevski, a former finance minister, pledged to improve the economy and fight corruption, and was widely perceived as a successful reformer. His early attempts to make the country more business-friendly were promising. But somewhere along the line he lost his moral compass. Macedonia’s potential has gone unfulfilled.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Macedonia 117th globally (and last among E.U. and West Balkan countries) in its World Press Freedom Index, down from 45th in 2006. News of the wiretapping scandal is getting out, mostly via the Internet and independent media. But the country’s main outlets have refused to air the recordings, leaving many Macedonians unable to judge the extent of corruption.

In March, the SDSM, which has boycotted Parliament since general elections last April, urged the formation of an interim government to hold elections and ensure the independence of state institutions. This is commendable, but it’s hard to see how this will be achieved without outside help.

The European Union, which last year expressed “serious concerns” about the “increasing politicization of state institutions and government control over media,” has made efforts to mediate. European Parliament members have met with VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM representatives in Brussels, and there is consensus on the need for further talks.

But the European Union must take a tougher line. It must make clear that Macedonia is no longer a functioning democracy, call for the government to resign, and support the formation of an interim government. Once in place, the European Union should work to help reform state institutions, ensure an independent investigation of Mr. Zaev’s allegations, and prepare free and fair elections. If the VMRO-DPMNE won’t cooperate, the European Commission should threaten to freeze Macedonia’s E.U. accession process.

Macedonia became an E.U. candidate country in 2005, and has since been allocated over 600 million euros in pre-accession funds. It has made little progress toward membership, however, mostly due to Greek objections over the country’s official name (Greece’s northern region is also called Macedonia). But Mr. Zaev’s revelations suggest much more legitimate reasons to shelve accession for now.

Once Macedonia is back on its feet, its path to E.U. membership must be freed from Greece’s grip. This is as significant for the credibility of union enlargement as it is for Macedonia’s future. The crisis my country faces represents a failure of Europe’s much-applauded enlargement policy. Had accession negotiations been allowed to start years ago, Macedonia’s reformist forces would today be much stronger, and the current problems could likely have been avoided. It is my fervent hope that, if this impasse can be overcome, I will be able to proudly serve my country again.

Nikola Dimitrov, a former Macedonian ambassador to the United States and the Netherlands, is a distinguished fellow at The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

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