As a long list of crises grows longer, Germany wants to make sure that the Balkans maintain economic and political stabilty and has invited their leaders to a summit in Berlin. Macedonia is a reminder of the pitfalls.
When Erwan Fouere, the longest-serving EU representative in Macedonia, started his mandate in 2005, Macedonia had just secured its EU candidate status and was considered a success story in the Western Balkans. The country seemed well on track to meet EU-membership requirements after it had managed to move beyond the abyss of civil war in 2001 by providing greater rights for the ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up quarter of the 2.1 million population.
Fouere left in late 2011, deeply disappointed and critical of what the country has become. Writing for the news portal Balkan Insight in April of this year he accused the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party of turning Macedonia into "a state where government controls all the levers of power, including the judiciary and the electoral process, does not tolerate any minority or dissenting views, and uses fear and intimidation to exercise its authority over society."
The promise of 'rebirth'
Hopes were high in August 2006 when the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party formed the new government under its leader Nikola Gruevski, a former finance minister.
The enthusiasm of the Macedonian voters who gave Gruevski's party a big majority in the parliament was initially shared by the Western press: "The Reformer," "Realist in Skopje," "West-oriented pragmatist" were just some of the headlines in newspapers across Europe.
Gruevski's mandate was to "reinvent" the country through economic growth, improved living standards, jobs, and EU and NATO membership. These promises were made repeatedly in the following years as Gruevski and his party won every single election cycle - parliamentary, presidential and local polls from 2006 onwards.
But eight years later there is little sign of the economy rebounding. Unemployment still hovers around the 30 percent mark, and NATO or EU membership are not in sight. Following its democratic progress in the previous decade, Macedonia is now considered to be a "democratic backslider" in the words of Anastas Vangeli, a doctoral researcher at the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw.
"At the core lies a powerful and deeply entrenched ruling elite, which has accumulated so many resources that is now virtually irremovable and able to create its own rules of the political game, but also to change the outlook of the state and the society as a whole," he says.
What turned Macedonia from a "success story" into a problem child was the Greek veto at the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, says Andreas Ernst, journalist and longtime south-east Europe correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
"It changed the incentive structure of politics in Macedonia. Why should the political elite make liberal reforms (to the detriment of its power), if there would not be a prestige reward through Euro-Atlantic integration?"
Greece has objected to the use of the name Macedonia used by its northern neighbor ever since the country gained independence from the Yugoslav federation in 1991. Both countries have been negotiating a solution under the UN auspices for the last 20 years, but no resolution is in sight. As a result, Athens is blocking both EU and NATO membership.
To offset the dispute with Greece, Gruevski and his party introduced the project "Skopje 2014" aimed at modernizing the capital but at the same time highlighting the country's ancient roots.
"The goal of Skopje 2014 is strengthening the rule of the incumbent elite, be it through providing powerful ethno-national mythology, or through presenting an image of a government that is actively engaged in construction projects," says Vangeli.
On the surface, Macedonia may be changing its appearance, however underneath the regime seems intent on maintaining a stranglehold on critical voices.
There have been numerous incidents of opposition party officials being thrown in jail, while critical media have been marginalized, or simply shutdown. The few independent journalists left are constantly threatened with heavy fines for libel or insult or are discredited in the mainstream media which is now entirely under government control.
Political analysts claim that the democratic decline in Macedonia in recent years is not an exception in the region, but a schoolbook example of the authoritarian tendencies in the Southeast Europe.
"The model of an 'illiberal democracy' (free but unfair elections, executive control of the judiciary and media intimidation) seems to be spreading in many south-eastern and eastern European countries," says Andreas Ernst.
Leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are attractive to many voters, says Ernst, because their illiberal rule increases security and wealth in their respective nations. And, he adds, although many of the Balkan leaders are failing to increase security and wealth in their countries, they seem to profit from the prestige of their role models.
Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, recently argued that the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans, but includes EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
It is no coincidence that Gruevski is forging strong links with these two countries and especially Hungary, says Anastas Vangeli.
"[Prime Minister Viktor] Orban runs an 'anti-everything' ideology that aims to produce a narrative of economic stability, national dignity and protection from domestic and external threats."
Stability over democratic benchmarks
When German chancellor Angela Merkel gathers Balkan leaders in Berlin on Thursday, she is likely to tell them that the "countries wishing to join the EU must meet stringent democratic benchmarks before being considered as candidates to join the bloc."
The invitation signals a new initiative from Berlin after a period during which the region was low on the agenda, due to the financial crisis in Europe and enlargement fatigue.
"The EU and especially Germany, who took over the caretaker role in the Balkans from the US, are too busy to be really interested in the developments here," says Ernst.
"As long as leaders like Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Gruevski can guarantee stability, the EU does not really bother about growing illiberal tendencies. Maybe the EU enlargement commissioner does, but certainly not the capitals that are not keen on enlargement at all," concludes Ernst.