After months of deep political crisis, the visit of EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn might prove crucial for Macedonia's democracy and its hopes of EU membership.
For the fifth time in the last seven months, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn (pictured) is traveling to Skopje on Friday to try to find a solution for yet another deadlock between Macedonia's warring political parties. And his latest visit might prove crucial for Macedonia's future if he can push Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to resign, helping politicians to finalize a date for early parliamentary elections.
"For the first time since the fall of Communism, the EU is facing a situation in which the prime minister of an EU candidate country must abdicate because of indications for criminal and political wrongdoings," Nano Ruzin, former Macedonian ambassador in Brussels told DW.
Once considered an exemplary pupil by the EU for its dedication to reforms and improving inter-ethnic relations, Macedonia is on the brink of losing its EU candidate status. The annual European Commission Progress Report published in November 2015 cites backsliding in key areas: democracy, rule of law and media freedom.
An EU experts report in June noted various forms of government corruption, such as electoral fraud, blackmail and extortion. It also highlighted "an unhealthy relationship" between top govenrment officials and the media.
In February, Zoran Zaev, leader of Macedonia's opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) started publishing materials that suggested illegal wiretapping of 20,000 people, widespread government corruption and even murder cover-ups.
Although Prime Minister Gruevski denied any wrongdoing, he accepted EU and US mediation in the political crisis. According to the July agreement, his 10-year-rule was supposed to end before January 15, paving the way for the formation of an interim government tasked with organizing early parliamentary elections on April 24.
Gruevski also agreed to implement a series of reforms to improve the democratic standards and to guarantee fair and free elections.
But according to three members of the European parliament, Ivo Vajgl, Richard Howitt and Eduard Kukan who visited Macedonia on Tuesday, the agreement is still far from being fully implemented, despite the country's steps toward restoring parliamentary stability and investigating the corruption allegations.
"It (the agreement) is not being fully implemented or we would not be here. It must be. That must include the resignation of the Prime Minister. It must include structural reforms, as well as the other parts of that agreement," Howitt told a press conference in Skopje.
One of the most controversial issues that remains unresolved is the voters list for the elections. According to the last census in 2002 Macedonia has a population of 2.1 million and 1.8 million listed voters. The opposition has claimed for years that Gruevski and his party are manipulating the list of registered voters, and some of the wiretaps published by Zaev earlier last year reportedly supported their suspicion.
"Even laymen know that with 1.8 million voters, [as] registered on the last electoral roll, Macedonia cannot go to elections," Zaev told the Balkan Insight on Tuesday. According to the Macedonian opposition leader "there are fewer than 1.6 million residents in the country, of whom some 400,000 are minors and we have fictional IDs and 'duplicate' voters."
In November, Commissioner Hahn stated that the implementation of the agreed reforms and the April elections would be considered key conditions for the country's future in the EU. Otherwise Macedonia might become the first country to lose the EU recommendation to open accession negotiations.
The latest polls suggest that Gruevski and his nationalist-conservative party are big favorites to win the elections if they take place on April 24. Some analysts suggest that that sort of outcome might cost Macedonia not only its EU candidate status, but more importantly the democracy itself.
While few doubt that Gruevski would be ready to risk Macedonia's EU integration to stay in power for another term, Nikola Dimitrov - an expert from the Hague Institute for Global Justice and former Macedonian ambassador to the US - told DW that the current situation makes the European Union equally responsible for the future of the country.
"As things stand, if the EU allows the elections to go ahead as scheduled, it will be complicit in letting the alleged wrongdoers get away with it once again, and in doing so, perpetuate the crisis and legitimize the farewell to democracy in the country," Dimitrov said.