Opinion: Giving color to the kleptocrats in Macedonia | Opinion | DW | 23.04.2016
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Opinion: Giving color to the kleptocrats in Macedonia

Macedonia is on the brink. The country has been rocked by massive protests against a corrupt political elite that has reigned for almost 10 years and has no willingness to leave peacefully, DW's Boris Georgievski writes.

A "Colorful Revolution" has given new hues to the kitschy constructions of downtown Skopje as the 25th anniversary of Macedonia's independence approaches. More importantly, the large numbers of people who have taken to the streets in recent weeks might finally, slowly, put an end to a corrupt regime that is facing international isolation and sanctions.

Over the past 10 years, Macedonia's ruling national-conservative VMRO-DPMNE has imposed complete control over the state, its institutions, the judiciary and the media. During his reign as prime minister from August 2006 until he stepped down under pressure this year, VMRO leader Nikola Gruevski - with the help of his partner, the former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti, who was brought in to represent Macedonia's large Albanian community - built an authoritarian regime based on clientelism that pervaded every aspect of society, including, as revelations of wiretapping make clear, citizens' private lives.

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DW's Boris Georgievski

Many suspected that the prime minister was up to no good, and a few Macedonians even protested, but until last year there was no way to prove that Gruevski had done anything wrong. In February 2015 the opposition Social Democrats started publishing wiretaps recorded by the secret service, which was at that time headed by Saso Mijalkov - Gruevski's cousin. The wiretaps revealed widespread government corruption, electoral fraud, blackmail, extortion, illegal surveillance and political influence over the judiciary.

The prime minister could be heard, for example, ordering the demolition of a building owned by his political opponent, or asking for 20 million euros in kickbacks in return for a multimillion-euro deal with a Chinese company. The wiretaps also revealed that, as many other notorious authoritarian leaders around the world have done, Gruevski personally controlled and planned the monuments to his reign, which were then constructed for the "Skopje 2014" project - a gauche collection of neoclassical buildings and hundreds of statues in the heart of the capital - with costs totaling more than 600 million euros of taxpayer money.

Still in control

Gruevski resigned his post in January as part of last summer's EU-brokered Przino Agreement - but his system remains mostly intact.

It was not until the formation of the Special Prosecution envisaged by the Przino Agreement that Gruevski and his kleptocratic regime began to feel pressure. A group of independent prosecutors started examining the wiretaps and found enough evidence to start proceedings against more than 50 government officials, including Gruevski and his closest associates.

That's when many in Macedonia learned about the existence of Gjorge Ivanov. Gruevski's handpicked president had spent the previous seven years mostly unnoticed, visiting local festivals and amusing foreign diplomats with stories about the biblical nature of the country and the legendary visit of Apostle Paul somewhere between 50 and 52 AD. The Holy Spirit may have guided Ivanov on April 12, when he decided to grant amnesty to 56 politicians and their associates who were being investigated for all sorts of crimes - from corruption to torture.

Ivanov's pardons caused an uproar in Macedonia. Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets every night in what has been dubbed the "Colorful Revolution" - a revolt not just against the blanket amnesty but the abuses of the past decade.

The European Union, too, seems to have finally woken up to the problems faced by Macedonians. After tolerating Gruevski's regime for years, idly watching his onslaught on democracy, independent media and civil society, EU officials announced that the time to act had come. Known for doing too little, too late in the Balkans for the past 25 years, the European Union has apparently switched to a course of doing too much, and possibly to no avail, by announcing the possibility of targeted sanctions against VMRO-DPMNE officials, and even withdrawing its recommendation to start EU accession talks with Macedonia.

Brussels works in mysterious ways, and it is hard to know whether the sudden change in tone was caused by Ivanov's amnesties or by concern that any further instability might endanger Macedonia's closure of the Balkan route to the European Union for refugees headed north via Greece.

At any rate, Brussels has, for all intents and purposes, acknowledged that its carrots and sticks have failed miserably in Macedonia. Gruevski and his cronies ate all the carrots and, as one Macedonian analyst recently put it, the stick is now too small: Brussels has lost its leverage. Withdrawing the recommendation to begin accession talks won't give Gruevski many sleepless nights, anyway. He didn't care about EU accession a decade ago; he cares even less today. With his back against the wall, his only chance of political survival is to hold the country hostage with constant counterdemonstrations and by provoking interethnic tensions with Macedonian Albanians - tactics that he successfully employed in the past.

But Macedonians also have a say. Despite threats and intimidation, arrests, and verbal and physical abuse, many of them have shown remarkable courage and have challenged the regime with their massive and mostly peaceful demonstrations in Skopje and other cities. And they are truly colorful - not only because they have painted the symbols of Gruevism in Skopje, but also for their ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

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