On March 1, President Ivanov denied Mr. Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union, the right to form a government, despite evidence that he had secured a majority in the Macedonian Parliament. In explaining his decision during a televised address to the public, Ivanov listed formal and ‘substantive’ reasons for not granting the government mandate to Zaev. Most importantly, he claimed that he could not entrust the mandate to a person or a political party “who advocate or have in their political program a platform for destroying the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Republic of Macedonia”. Ivanov was clearly alluding to the notorious political platform adopted in January by all parliamentary ethnic Albanian parties (the Platform). The Platform, the adoption of which was facilitated by the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, articulated a set of demands of the Albanian community to the future government. These demands were depicted as non-negotiable conditions for the support of any ethnic Albanian for any future Government.
Zaev was the second hopeful for the position of Prime Minister. Only two days after the ethnic Albanian parties’ Platform was made public on January 7, President Ivanov rushed to give the mandate to Nikola Gruevski, former PM and discredited leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, who won the early elections in December 2016 by a tight margin. The negotiations between VMRO-DPMNE and its traditional coalition partner, DUI, the most powerful ethnic Albanian party, lasted for almost three weeks, before the latter announced that it was not able to enter Government with VMRO-DPMNE. During the negotiations, pro-government media reported that VMRO-DPMNE had adopted parts of the platform predicting that an agreement would be easily reached. Once the negotiations failed, DUI officials rejoiced over the fact that both ethnic Macedonian parties were ready to satisfy the demands from the Platform, claiming that “there is no difference between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM when it comes to ethnic issues”. In the meantime, it was becoming increasingly clear that the major point of discord between the parties (apart from the fact that DUI had lost half of its electoral support in just two years due to its cooperation with VMRO-DPMNE) was DUI’s demand – one of the demands of the Platform – that the new government firmly support the Special Prosecutor’s Office, the most trusted institution of Macedonia, that is investigating many VMRO-DPMNE officials for criminal acts.
It is a practice in liberal democracies that the second-polling candidate gets a chance to try to form a government if the winner fails to do so. This was not the case in Macedonia, as President Ivanov asked Mr. Zaev to provide proof that he had secured a majority, and proof that the programme of the new government would focus on “safeguarding the unitary character of the state” and “reforms of the state security agencies”. Nevertheless, Mr. Zaev embarked on a lengthy process of negotiations not just with DUI, but also with Besa and the Alliance of the Albanians, two other ethnic Albanian parties that won seats in Parliament. According to media reports, after easily reaching agreement on almost all demands from the Platform, the negotiations largely focused on the part of the Platform that demanded better legal arrangements for the use of the Albanian language in the state.
When it became clear that a ruling coalition might be formed, VMRO-DPMNE, its supporters from the media and civil society responded with tactics that they are well-versed in: instigating ethno-nationalist hysteria by creating countless lists of domestic traitors and foreign enemies. Gruevski tapped into the nationalist mobilisation created by his media mouthpieces and loyal intellectuals and publicly called on his supporters to defend Macedonia before these imagined threats, just a couple of days before Zaev announced that he had secured the support of 67 legislators, six more than the required minimum. Immediately afterwards, rallies for ‘the protection of Macedonia’ erupted across the country, with thousands marching against Soros, the Albanians and all other imagined enemies of the state. In a matter of days before and after Ivanov’s decision to deny Zaev the right to form a government, multiple hate-crimes have reportedly happened across the country. Anxiety is rising, and the country’s prospects have never seemed less clear.
The International community has had a special responsibility in resolving the political crisis in Macedonia. They have been the mediating and verifying factor at all stages of the negotiations for the Przino Agreements and their further implementation. Therefore, the full attention of public opinion was directed towards the statements of US and EU officials regarding the post-electoral aftermath in Macedonia. A day after the elections, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini gave a joint statement assessing the elections in Macedonia as calm and orderly, with a good turnout.
They emphasised that they look forward to the swift formation of a new parliament and new government, and to the implementation of reforms to address systemic rule of law issues, also through the Urgent Reform Priorities. Government and opposition need to continue implementing previous political agreements in full, including supporting the work of the Special Prosecutor’s Office. A similar statement was given by the US Ambassador Bailey stressing the need for further electoral reforms and cooperation between the Government and the Opposition.
After the collapse of the negotiations between DUI and VMRO-DPMNE on 29 January 2017, the IC conveyed the message that what Macedonia needs now is not new snap elections but a new government and reform agenda. The very same statement was given by the EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who visited Macedonia on 9 February 2017 and met all the political leaders.
On 28 February, the US State Department called on Macedonian leaders to form a new Government with no further delay, according to the Constitution and Macedonia’s EU and NATO aspirations. The US State Department stated that the new Government was formed according to the rule of law and the necessary reforms will end the political crisis that has caused immense difficulties in the democratic and economic development of the country and its Euro-Atlantic integration.
Furthermore, the IC’s courageous messages were given after the SDSM leader had collected the 67 signatures necessary for a mandate. After this clear and strong majority was announced, and President Ivanov refused to formally grant the mandate to Zaev, Mogherini visited Macedonia and endorsed the new majority. She stated that President Ivanov should reconsider his decision and grant the mandate to the leader who has been proven to have a majority. In addition, she said that all the political leaders with institutional competences should calm their rhetoric and not allow this crisis to develop into a geo-political conflict by pouring fuel on the fire. This statement was publicly endorsed by EU Commissioner Hahn, US Ambassador Baily and the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has granted two official statements, both fully supporting the narrative of Gruevski and Ivanov. The first statement, issued on 2nd February 2017, condemns foreign interference in Macedonia and accuses the Western countries for their actions in removing politicians like Gruevski (and Ahmeti) that do not adjust to the Western pattern. The Russian Foreign Ministry warns that such Machiavellian politics might undermine the fragile stability of the region and cause escalation. The second statement, coinciding with Mogherini’s visit on 2nd March 2017, states that the Albanian Platform drafted in Tirana and validated in Prishtina aims to bring to power the defeated Macedonian opposition. This is also labeled as Western interference in imposing their will on the Macedonian people and redefining borders in the Balkans.
This new institutional crisis has high potential for instigating intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic conflict. The peaceful transfer of power is not expected unless there is robust interference by the EU and US diplomacy, as was the case when the Przhino Agreement was brokered. On the other hand, escalation of the current institutional crisis would undermine all the efforts by the Western international community throughout the mediation process in 2015 and 2016. The robust interference of the IC would also entail a threat of or the enactment of personal sanctions for the highest officials, who are eroding the democratic system by denying the right of the Parliamentarian majority to form a Government after an electoral process verified by all the participants. The reaction of the EU and US will be a test for the entire Western policy, both for Macedonia and the Western Balkans generally, especially after the Russian Government’s increased interest in the developments in the country. On the side of the domestic political players, the Parliament and its new majority will have a key role in legitimising the new Government and stabilising the institutional crisis. The stronger the Parliament, the greater the chances for political parties to democratise and endorse the culture of dialogue and compromise as a tool for the pre-emptive resolution of the political crises that have scarred Macedonian society in recent decades.