Is There an Answer for Macedonia?

Is There an Answer for Macedonia?
AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski
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When you are in Macedonia, the landlocked Balkan nation works hard to remind you that Macedonia is where you are. Assertions of Macedonian identity can be as beautiful as its flag, an exuberant two-tone sunburst known as the “Sun of Liberty.” They can be as garish as Skopje’s obscenely expensive, Las Vegas-style remake of its historic center. They may also take feathered form, like the peacock kept on the grounds of a border-crossing from Greece. The bird struts through the idyll between the distant misty mountains of lakes Ohrid and Prespa and the concrete ribbon where customs officials inspect vehicles. (The peacock is a national symbol, or something just short of it.)

Where the trappings of independent statehood are most fragile, the symbols of nationhood often shine brightest. You learn that in the Balkans, and especially in Macedonia -- a speck of a state whose territory has always been contested. As centuries of Ottoman imperial control began to fray in the 19th century, the so-called Macedonian Question was among the most bloody and intractable, with pitched ethnic battles eventually joined to the manipulations of outside powers such as Britain and Germany. Nowadays, Albania in a strained circumstance could challenge Skopje’s territorial control; Greece actively challenges the country’s name, leading to its awkward official appellation, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; and in the 1990s, Athens’ protestations compelled Skopje to change its flag.

All of this is a lot to handle for a country of 2.1 million. The country’s history is disorienting, and it is easy for a traveler to understand why Skopje’s expressions of self tend toward the exuberant. It is in a sense celebrating what it still yearns to create: a stable nation-state on a level with its European peers.

To do that, Macedonians know they need outside help. But regional disputes have held Macedonia back, and those disputes cut to the very core of a nation’s identity: Greece, displeased with the country’s name, closed the door to NATO right when an invite to begin the accession process seemed nigh, and along with Bulgaria put the brakes on the EU process as well. A decade later, virtually all of its neighbors are farther ahead than Skopje in accession to NATO, the European Union, or both, in a region where some form of Euro-Atlantic integration is seen as vital to national consolidation.

And then Macedonia began to hold itself back. In power for nearly a decade starting in 2006, the government of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski degraded the country’s institutions, packing its courts and laying siege to the free press while bloating the national bureaucracy to create loyalty to his party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, or VMRO-DPMNE. However, after a dramatic turnover of power to a new government this summer, Skopje suddenly appears better positioned than at any time in the last 10 years to push that process forward. The West has shown that it views it as being in its interest to work with Skopje.

A Winding Path

The newly installed government of the staunchly pro-West Zoran Zaev, of the center-left Social Democratic Union, took a winding path to a fragile hold on power.

Macedonia a decade ago fit snug inside the frame of the poster child for progress in the Balkans, and yet it was rejected. Having narrowly avoided the civil wars that afflicted its neighbors as Yugoslavia collapsed, Macedonians elected Gruevski’s government on a reform-based platform dedicated to EU and NATO accession. A former minister of finance who had been known as a technocrat, Gruevski turned to a model of patronage-fueled, party-based power politics seasoned with nationalist fervor. Analysts I talked to in Skopje described a situation in which private enterprise was coerced into the hands of elites -- a fate that has also befallen popular news outlets, leaving most independent journalism to be funded from the outside. Debt has risen sharply: The most vivid illustration of VMRO’s reckless spending is the 21st-century pantheon of kitsch at Skopje’s Macedonia Square, where modernist buildings have been given bizarre neo-classical facades at great expense.

The former government may well have continued on its course unimpeded had it not been interrupted by a scandal involving recordings reportedly leaked by intelligence service personnel to the Social Democrats, then in opposition. Among other things, the tapes appear to indicate that the government engaged in election fraud. The leaks in 2015 led to widespread protests, the appointment of a special prosecutor, elections, and finally, the appointment of a new government led by the Social Democrats with the support of a coalition of ethnic Albanian parties. After a sensational attack by pro-VMRO protesters on parliament, Macedonia’s vacillating president, Georgi Ivanov, this May approved the mandate of a new Cabinet. Zaev took the Social Democrats into power, and Gruevski is now left to fend off charges that could see him face up to 27 years in prison.

A New and Dangerous World

None of the above is meant to stake a side in Macedonian domestic politics -- rather it shows how quickly things can go wrong. Skopje had narrowly averted civil war between its ethnic Macedonian and Albanian populations by working with outside partners to forge the Ohrid Agreement in 2001. Its major parties had willingly turned over power to each other after elections. Macedonia’s intrinsic interest in joining the Western consensus comes from a need to solidify its institutions and to modernize its economy. Western institutions seemed to offer an exit path for transitional states like those in the Balkans.

When Macedonia’s appeals to NATO and the European Union were stalled, Europe was in a different era -- an era when it seemed like the peaceable borders of democracy would only progress. It was in this same era that Turkey’s efforts to accede to the European Union were treated with derision and when countries like Ukraine and Georgia were told they could eventually accede to NATO, enraging Russia, without however being given firm plans for membership. (As Michael O’Hanlon points out, this only made those states doubly vulnerable.) Mistakes were made that could have been avoided with a minimum of thoughtfulness.

Now the Western Balkans loom anew as a security challenge for Western leaders to address, and with Macedonia in worse condition than it was a decade ago, some truly bad ideas are being thrown about. The Macedonian Question recently re-emerged, stripped of all historical context and geographical consequence, in the words of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who told an Albanian television station in February that the country is not a country and should have its territory fed to its neighbors along ethnic lines. Academic iterations of this deeply flawed argument have also been recycled in recent months.

The way ethnicity overlays the Balkan map is by no means simple, in either a political or topographical sense, but its manifestation is strongest where its powers are most in question. The deep red of the Albanian flag blankets the roads of villages in Northwestern Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are the majority -- far more than you tend to see in Albania itself. Likewise in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, where the flag of that Serb-dominated constitutional entity drapes highways right up to the perimeter of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Such are the micro-realities of life on a civilizational fault line.

It’s too easy to draw the wrong conclusion from this. Ethnic partition has a chthonic draw, always rising anew from the deeps to offer a fresh epiphany, as if identity were set in stone and as if ethnic lines were drawn neat and straight on the map. The last thing this region needs is yet another redrawing of borders.

Indeed, in Macedonia there is at least as much reason to believe that what the ethnic Albanian population wishes is to participate in the existing state, more than forging an alternate union with Albania. It wants its rights guaranteed in such a state, which helps explain why in 2001 the Ohrid Agreement stopped a growing conflict. Similarly in Montenegro, the government was able to recognize Kosovo’s independence despite broad initial opposition, recognizing that the act would advance its interests. (Behind the nationalist rhetoric it is probable that Serbia would like to do much the same thing.)

Aspirations need a political context for success if they are not to spill over into conflict. Macedonia has experienced a prolonged period of transition from Communist rule, a transition in which economic elites have behaved as kleptocrats while the mass of the population remains poor, and in which weak institutions have limited democracy to zero-sum struggles for dominance between political parties. Failure to begin the accession process to NATO and to engage with the European Union risk creating a growing disappointment and disillusionment that can make all of this worse.

There Is No Easy Answer

The European Union is in little position to enlarge, and as it deals with its own internal problems, it will also need a new model to engage the countries on its periphery. The problems in the EU’s own east help elucidate this: The last thing Brussels wants right now is to bring into its membership countries that might turn around and send another Orban, another Szydlo, a future Gruevski, to its Council. It will remain as such so long as the European Union views itself as an all-encompassing civilizational project. In the same way Berlin clashes with Budapest on immigration, many of the normative tenets the Union wants to require of its members go down poorly in places like Skopje. Still, even if the accession process is slow, the long-term tutelage it can provide is considerable.

NATO can move more quickly, though its scope for helping members is more limited. A membership action plan for Macedonia was already in place years ago, and Macedonia’s military is considered highly competent -- probably more capable than that of Montenegro, which joined the alliance earlier this year. As O’Hanlon also pointed out, NATO has shifted from its earlier, purely self-defense role, to a function where it helped create a space for a number of states to improve governance and solidify transitions to post-communist polities.

There is no easy path. But an opportunity has opened up for the West in Macedonia, a country within Europe, 600-odd miles from Vienna. If the West doesn’t figure out its act in the Balkans, plenty of other outside actors already are.

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