After a long period of instability and the coming to power of the Social Democrats promising an anticorruption program, Macedonia is instituting reforms to overhaul the country’s political life and improve its tarnished image in Europe.
In recent years, Skopje has repeatedly been in the spotlight in connection with various scandals. After the opposition leader’s revelation of the existence of a vast phone-tapping network organised by the country’s Internal Security, then led by the Prime Minister’s cousin, a succession of such bombshells has rocked the Macedonian political system. These recordings, which were recently played in court hearings, revealed a series of scandals at the top of the Macedonian state, proving the long-term use of state organs for the purposes of personal enrichment by a group of politicians called “the family”. The recordings brought to light the manipulation of electoral processes through the subjugation of the courts and state media resulting in a system of total control of state institutions to serve the interests of the party and its leader.
As the exercise of power by the government of Nikola Gruevski, who became prime minister in 2006, took on an authoritarian tinge, the multiplication of measures against any form of opposition has gradually led to the rise of public discontent.
It was the desire to extend the government’s control over the universities which, at the end of 2014, led to the first mass protests. Initially spurred by opposition to the evaluation of education by examinations conducted under the aegis of the Ministry of Higher Education, these demonstrations and strikes in universities gradually morphed into a generaralised outrage among the country’s population. However, they eventually died out as the government conceded a withdrawal from its university reform.
Throughout this period, the opposition failed to take advantage of rising rancor to position itself as an alternative to the nationalist right-wing government of the VMRO-DPMNE, despite the beginnings of protests in 2011 and 2012. It was not until 2013 that the longstanding leader of the Social Democratic Party, Branko Crvenkovski, stepped down and gave way to a new generation of leaders. The party’s figurehead, who served as Prime Minister and President of Macedonia, was blamed for the collapse of the economy during this period and was also accused of greenlighting the privatisation of state owned entities for the benefit of former apparatchiks of the Yugoslav regime turned businessmen. His sidelining and replacement by Zoran Zaev in 2013 was part of a drive to restore the party’s credibility.
These events, which ended with Zoran Zaev’s formation of a government at the end of May 2017, revealed the fractures that plague Macedonian society. The over-politicisation of everyday life, as a result of VMRO-DPNE’s excessive use of public employment as a means of securing the loyalty of its constituents, has profoundly divided the population. In a difficult economic context, with unemployment officially at 22.6 percent, government cronyism was for many the only way to find a stable job.
The results of the local elections of October 15, 2017, however, suggest a certain stabilisation following the scandals of the VMRO-DPMNE government, which lost the majority of municipalities in the country (and many of its bastions), including that of Skopje.
Nevertheless, it will be necessary for the government to prove itself by succeeding in making the institutions and the administration work towards the implementation of its program, and above all by avoiding any return to past practices of politicising employment.