Macedonia’s accession process to the European Union (EU) is ever more under threat. It is not only the name issue with Greece, but it is the internal development inside the country that is much more worrying. As the latest report of the European Commission at the end of October shows, Macedonia is not progressing but is taking a couple of steps backwards.
The latest EU report about “Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2014-15” clearly warns Macedonia of an “impasse.” Furthermore it states that the freedom of expression, the freedom of the media and the independence of the judiciary are under threat. Therefore, it is likely that also 2015 no accession talks with the EU can be started. Despite being a candidate country to join the EU since 2005, a tenth year in a row will pass without overcoming the hurdle to get approved.
Name dispute with Greece
It is the sixth time that the European Commission recommends to the European Council to approve the start of accession negotiations. The main reason that the heads of states of the EU have not approved Macedonia is the unresolved dispute with neighboring Greece over the name issue, as I wrote elsewhere.
Greece is opposed to the use of the name Macedonia by its northern neighbor, saying that it implies territorial claims to Greece’s northern province of the same name. Although there is very little evidence that Macedonia aims for this territory, Greece is at least scared that Alexander the Great is to be “stolen” by the Macedonians who claim that it is their hero.
In the judiciary, increased politicization can be observed that leads to the common perception of observers that the independence of judges is not guaranteed. Critical media is marginalized or is even shut down completely. The mainstream media is under the control of government while independent journalists are threatened with fines for alleged insults.
The political climate in general is poisoned. There is a political dialogue with the opposition missing that is boycotting the political institutions, including the parliament, and in fact still does not recognized the results from the elections in April 2014 claiming that elections were “unfair and non-democratic.” However, the final report of the OSCE elections observer do not mention any fraud although mention quite some problems. Until today, the opposition insists that the government is not interested to “real dialogue.”
Ignoring the seriousness of the situation
In contrast to the criticism, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, does not seem to be willing to recognize the political realities. Rather, he points out that the European Commission is still recommending a start of EU membership negotiations. Gruevski who was celebrated as a “reformer” and “pragmatist” in 2006 when he came into power, is taking a hard stance ignoring the importance of unifying the country.
While it is correct, Gruevski is ignoring calls from civil society organizations and the opposition that criticize the lack of reform and point out that the latest report is way more critical towards Macedonia in comparison to the document issued last year. There is a small elite that controls the power, politically and economically. You are either part of it or not, because their resources by now are overwhelming.
Constructing a new identity
The Macedonian government is rather concerned about reconstructing Macedonian identity with a focus on ethno-nationalism and the family. In the capital Skopje it is particularly obvious with the project “Skopje 2014” as the main square and its surrounding areas were turned into a space full of neoclassical statues of heroes and “ancient” buildings at its worst, costing millions and described by one observer as “a heavy-handed, Vegas-esque attempt to impose both historical and aesthetic unity where there is none.”
These kind of “ancient reawakening” is linked with a strong tendency towards homophobia, as elsewhere in the region. Homophobia is still ripe, as a recent attack in Skopje shows, as two gay activists were wounded. It is not only the inaction of the government about that but also the active policy to explicitly forbid any kind of same-sex marriage.
On the way to an illiberal democracy
Overall, an article of the Deutsche Welle sums it up quite well in a recent title reporting about Macedonia, “Macedonia’s path from a progress to a problem child”. Macedonia is on the way towards an illiberal democracy. The EU should finally pressure Greece to overcome the name issue while at the same time pressuring Skopje to allow for real political reforms.
Most importantly though is that Macedonia’s young, well-educated elite should finally wake up and provide a much more liberal and open climate to rescue their country from disappearing.
Note: In an earlier version, there is also mentioned that a Michael Jackson statute was installed, although it turns out to be fake news.
Featured image: (c) https://imageshack.com/f/f695de1a6a8c3bfdc3a90d099j