Can Europe Still Save Macedonia?
If ever there were a country that the European Union could benefit, that country is Macedonia. Bordering several troubled countries that arose from the bloodstained ashes of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, with a helping hand, could become the peaceful example that this patch of the Balkans sorely needs.
Stuck between Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Greece, Macedonia is a land-locked country of slightly more than 2 million souls. It is also a country typical of the Balkans, with its troubled past and the potential for future violence. Macedonia is a European nation in trouble, and the European Union should help it. The question increasingly is whether Macedonia still wants that help - and all the strings that come attached to it.
At a crossroads
Widespread corruption has brought the country to the brink of socioeconomic collapse. Many a Macedonian ekes out a living on just €250 ($274) per month, usually working two or three jobs. While its population fights to make ends meet, the government has drawn serious criticism for alleged graft and nepotism. Indeed, recently wiretapped telephone conversations between Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his government cronies revealed levels of corruption and ethical malpractice that would make Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe blush.
The recordings were leaked by former intelligence service personnel, who copied them on USB sticks and fled the country, fearing for their lives. They then handed the recordings over to the main opposition party, which now regularly organizes live-streamed press conferences on YouTube to play through the tapes. This is necessary, the oppositon says, because the government controls all mainstream media in the country.
Gruevski appears to have ordered the director of the intelligence agency -- who also happens to be his cousin -- to record all the telephone conversations of his Cabinet ministers, higher-ranking government staff, the judiciary, the police, and opposition figures. The reason for this is Gruevski's increasing paranoia. He does not trust even those close to him, and he seems to want everyone wiretapped so he can personally listen in on their conversations.
The tapes are embarrassing, to say the least. They reveal that government ministers conspired to keep opposition supporters from voting and catch them in the act of apparently offering expensive real estate to friends.
To the opposition, the tapes are proof of an autocratic government that will do anything to stay in power. And it probably needs the strongarm methods - the wiretapped conversations and rumors in the capital strongly hint at a country that is effectively bankrupt.
With the state's coffers empty, and creditors unwilling to invest amid the scandals, rumors abound that the prime minister is personally reaching out to Russia and China for secret loans to keep the government afloat.
This development has drawn attention from European capitals. But the question is whether there is much love to be found for the European Union among Macedonians. For years, most Macedonians yearned for their country to become a member of the European Union. Yet each overture was blocked by EU member Greece, which has historical reasons to mistrust Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.
As there is also a province in Greece named Macedonia, Athens fears that somehow the country of Macedonia will lay a territorial claim to Greek territory once it becomes an EU member. It is because of the work of Greek diplomats that Macedonia is now officially known as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - so that everyone can tell the difference.
And Greece is again playing on many a Macedonian's mind, but in a different context. Macedonians, already disappointed that the European Union has on the surface not done much to force out the Gruevski government, now have the eurozone's harsh treatment of Greece as a reason to rethink entrance to the Union. Macedonia is after all close to bankruptcy; who knows what kind of programs the European Union would impose to shore up Macedonian finances?
The European Union finally stepped in to mediate between the main opposition party and Gruevski. Elections that were originally set for 2017 have now been moved forward to April 2016. This has defused a potentially very violent situation, as groups of students set up tents in the capital, Skopje, to protest against the government. Demonstrations in recent months have turned violent, and frustrated militancy among the opposition is on the rise.
Stuck between the rock of potentially becoming a bankrupt, autocratic satellite of Moscow, and the hard place that may be the European Union, the Macedonians face a tough choice.
Yet everybody knows how uninhabitable a rock is, while the hard place has one advantage: It is uncharted. If this is the choice, an uncharted future in which it can find its own course is what Macedonia should probably hope for.