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Macedonia: Stagnation and exodus

Elizabeta Milosevska / cl
September 8, 2016

There is no celebratory mood in Macedonia, despite 25 years of independence. The country is no closer to European integration. There is a general sense of hopelessness, and young people are leaving the country.

Flagge Mazedonien
Image: Imago/imagebroker

"I have lived abroad for one and a half years, and yes, I want to move away again," says Blazen Maleski. The young political scientist is almost as old as his independent homeland. But he is planning to emigrate, to make a better life for himself. Many Macedonians think like this. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) around 20,000 people emigrated from Macedonia in 2014. Most of these were young people, who wanted to get away from the permanent sense of misery in the country.

They see no prospects in a country that has gone nowhere in the 25 years since independence. The poverty rate is at 22 percent and the level of unemployment is almost 25 percent. These high levels effect more than half of the young people under the age of 29. The current national debt is at 49 percent of the GDP. But many experts see these official figures as optimistic. Yet Macedonia, alongside Croatia, was for a long time seen as a model student of European integration. Since 2005 it has been a candidate for admission to the EU.

Mazedonien bunte Revolution
Colorful protests demanding reforms have swept MacedoniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Batev

Pressure from the people has consequences

But a weak economy is only one part of the problem in Macedonia. Corruption is widespread, there is virtually no free press and regard for human rights is steadily declining.

For a long time this situation had no ramifications for the reigning elite. But since the beginning of 2015, the atmosphere in the country has reached boiling point. This is since the opposition party disclosed excerpts of hundreds of thousands of telephone conversations of numerous politicians and businesspeople. They revealed an unbelievable misuse of power, as well as control of public institutions and the media, by the ruling National Conservative party.

The final straw, which ignited a wave of protests across the country, was when President Ivanov offered amnesty to 56 politicians and civil servants. A specially convened court was investigating them for committing crimes during their terms of office. This led to mass demonstrations and numerous protests. Public pressure, as well as intervention by the West and especially Germany, led to the amnesty being withdrawn. Furthermore, after a long break, political players have restarted discussions and have negotiated for elections to be held in December.

It is unclear if elections will ease tensions

Opinions in the country are divided as to what the elections will mean for Macedonia. "It is an historic opportunity to punish the government and to say no to their old policies. This is how to get rid of the disgrace and bring back hope," said former diplomat Nikola Dimitrov in an interview with DW. "Due to the propaganda by the government controlled media we have been living for years in a kind of Reality Show. We've been continually bombarded with stories about traitors and foreign secret agents and had to listen to how painstakingly our government has worked." Dimitrov believes this fairytale is now at an end.

Ljubomir Frckovski, the former Macedonian interior and foreign minister is less optimistic. In an interview with DW he said that he believes that Macedonia has a big problem with democracy. "That is why it is so important not to attribute too much meaning to the election process in Macedonia." Modern dictators, such as those who have been part of the Macedonian populist party, have been able to manipulate elections. That is why the entire election process "needs to be taken out of the hands of the government and there needs to be international monitoring in place. Fortunately this is now going to happen in Macedonia," said Frckovski.

Mazedonien Ljubomir Frckovski Politiker
Former interior and foreign minister, Ljubomir Frckovski, is not very optimisticImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Atanasovski

His forecast for the immediate future is based on a simple formula: "The pattern of politics with us is like this: first we have 10 years of dictatorship, then we spend 10 years recovering from it. The big project over the next 10 years will be institutional reform in the country. Because Macedonia doesn't have any institutions today. They have been buried and taken over by the government."

Dispute with Greece over name

The Balkan expert, Franz-Lothar Altmann, is of the opinion that Macedonia has no time to lose. It is not only fair elections that are important for the future of the country. It is also important to settle the dispute over the name 'Macedonia' with Greece, which is blocking Macedonia's entry into the EU and NATO. Greece refuses to accept that the country be called 'The Republic of Macedonia'. According to Athens, the use of this name raises claims over Greek history, as well as Greek territory. "The EU must put pressure on Greece again and tell them that they must open the way for Macedonia to go forward," said Altmann. It should be made clear to Athens that it can't go on like this because "you will have a crisis-stricken country on your border."

According to Nikola Dimitrov, the dispute over the name and the associated embargo on European integration has been used as an excuse for not implementing reforms and for the ever-increasing isolation of the country. "The problem is how we have reacted to the embargo. We should meet the Greek embargo with cautious and intelligent politics. We need to implement reforms and use this to win other countries over to our side."

But for the young political scientist, Blazen Maleski, it is clear that small reforms are not enough. "To get ahead, there needs to be a massive shift in the country." The old political elite needs to be thrown out and the way made clear for young people. Otherwise these young people are going to find a future somewhere else. According to Blazen, "I want to have the same conditions as my friends in Europe. I would like to be able to do the job that I love. And I would like to be able to express my opinion without having to worry about whether the way I have said something is going to bring a family member into danger."