Two years after Macedonia’s wiretapping scandal: the price of EU laxity
-- By Daan Fonck, PhD Researcher, University of Leuven
-- the article was originally published on Euractiv's Blogactiv.eu
A regime crisis of unprecedented scale
Throughout the last decade, Macedonia has suffered from many governmental crises, but none of them compare to the most current one, exposing the capture of state institutions, the erosion of the judiciary, and ultimately threatening to unravel the inter-ethnic peace that was obtained with the Ohrid Framework Agreement of 2001.
The outbreak of the crisis goes back to the April 2014 parliamentary elections, won by the incumbent nationalist-conservative party VMRO-DPMNE, led by Nikola Gruevski, who until January this year had been the country’s PM since 2006. The main opposition party, the socialist SDSM, led by Zoran Zaev, did not accept the outcome of the elections as it accused VMRO-DPMNE of organising electoral fraud and of misusing state resources for electoral purposes. It therefore refused to take up its 34 parliamentary seats and announced a parliamentary boycott.
(Nikola Gruevski, © EPP, 2011)
The crisis reached a new culmination point when Zaev signalled he had acquired secret tapes containing compromising information against Gruevski’s regime. In an attempt to silence Zaev, Gruevski responded by giving a dramatic TV address in January 2015, in which he accused the opposition leader of espionage and conspiracy with foreign intelligence services to stage a coup. This in turn prompted Zaev to release his so-called ‘political bombs’.
The secret tapes were illegally recorded over a four-year period by the Macedonian secret service (UBK), led by the prime minister’s cousin Sasja Mijalkov, allegedly on the order of Gruevski. The people being tapped include journalists, judges, members of parliament, opposition figures, ambassadors, but also some of the government’s own ministers. The wiretaps, in total affecting more than 20,000 people, reveal how the incumbent regime has made itself culpable of a systematic abuse of power and how it is involved in an intricate web of corruption practices. Amongst other things, the tapes expose how the ruling party has administered state resources for organising voter fraud, how it is effectively controlling parts of the media, how it is involved in practices of extortion, bribing and clientelism, in selecting and instructing judges, jailing political opponents, and perhaps most disturbing, how it tried to cover up the death of a young student who participated in a political rally.
The revelations confirmed long made accusations by NGOs and opposition forces of the systemic problem of state capture by the country’s ruling party.
The EU’s intervention and the way to the Przino Agreement
When in May 2015 a few thousands started to take to the streets in Skopje to demand the resignation of Gruevski, the country was startled by a two-day shootout between Albanian insurgents and government forces that erupted in the northern town of Kumanovo, killing 18.
The exact circumstances in which the terrorist plot took place still remain very unclear. While Prime Minister Gruevski claimed that police raids prevented a terrorist attack and the President explained that the violence was due to ‘Macedonia being left out of EU and NATO integration’; the opposition and civil society actors saw it as a government-orchestrated attempt to distract both domestic and international audiences from the wiretapping affair.
Crucially, after months of almost complete silence on the part of the EU, the events in Kumanovo alarmed Brussels and prompted Commissioner Hahn to gear up the diplomatic pressure to broker a political solution to the crisis. Together with three MEPs, Hahn launched an EU-facilitated dialogue between the four main political parties (ruling parties VMRO-DPMNE and DUI, and opposition parties SDSM and DPA). Meetings took place in Brussels, Strasbourg and Skopje.
(Commissioner Hahn, the leaders of the four political parties and MEP Ivo Vagjl, © vecer.mk)
Only a few weeks later, the intense talks gave birth to the so-called June/July Przino-agreement (see here, here and here). The text of the agreement was impressively ambitious. With their signature, the four parties committed themselves to the return of SDSM to parliament, the creation of a parliamentary committee of inquiry tasked with investigating the wiretap scandal, the handover of the tapes to the public prosecutor for investigation, the participation of the two main opposition parties in a transitional government, the reform of the State Electoral Committee, the cleansing of the manipulated voters’ list, and the resignation of PM Gruevski 100 days before new elections, in order to make way for a new government with a limited mandate of organising the elections scheduled for April 2016.
(Commissioner Hahn, the four party leaders, the EU and US ambassadors and MEP Howitt during the night of the Przino Agreement, © mkd.mk)
Most interesting however, were two other commitments that slipped into the agreement without Gruevski being fully aware of their implications. On the one hand, the parties agreed to the installation of a ‘Special Prosecutor with full autonomy to lead the investigations surrounding and arising from the interception of communications’. It implied that the tapes were not to be investigated by the normal public prosecutor who would have been easier to control by the ruling party.
On the other hand, the parties committed themselves to the implementation of ‘all recommendations’ that were issued by a Commission-contracted fact-finding mission of rule of law experts, led by retired Commission Director Reinhard Priebe (the report was later translated into an official Commission authored document listing Urgent Reform Priorities). This was remarkable, not only because the parties committed themselves to implementing the recommendations at a time when the report was not yet finalised and published, but even more so because the report contained very bold langue. It was very thorough and pertinent in terms of pointing to those that were responsible for the crimes, in identifying underlying causes and problems, and in listing recommendations that needed to be implemented to address the situation.
In addition to the Urgent Reform Priorities document, the last two Country Reports also employ more direct language towards Skopje. In its Country Report of November 2016, the Commission frankly speaks of a situation where ‘state capture [is] affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society’. And after six consecutive positive recommendations to start accession talks, the Commission decided in 2015 to make its positive recommendation conditional upon the implementation of the Przino Agreement and the Urgent Reform Priorities.
The implementation path: delays, obstructions, meagre results
One and a half year later, the outcomes of the Przino Agreement remain underwhelming. On the winning side are the successful appointment of a relatively strong and independent Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) (which has started to investigate parts of the wiretaps) and the partial cleansing of the manipulated voters’ list.
Almost all other promises remain dead letter. While SDSM has returned to parliament, in practice, the institution remains completely side-lined. The parliamentary commission of enquiry became a complete farce since the PM only wanted to testify behind closed doors, while many others refused to present themselves before the committee. The successful participation of two opposition parties in government ended up being obstructed in practice. The initial election deadline was not met and was postponed to June, only to be postponed once more till December.
Overall, the implementation of the agreement has been effectively hindered by the ruling party, either through blocking reforms, applying delaying tactics, or by regaining control through the back door. One of its most daring moves was the President’s pardoning of 56 political figures that were under criminal investigation related to the wiretapping scandal, thereby undermining the work of the SPP. The pardons were only revoked after wide scale protests broke out in spring 2016 (the so-called Colourful Revolution) and after very strong joint pressure exerted by the EU and the United States.
During the summer of 2016, a second, more minimalistic, “Przino-2” agreement was concluded outlining the conditions for credible elections on 11 December, leaving aside rule of law issues and instead concentrating on balanced media reporting, and cleansing the voters’ list.
Where did the EU go wrong? Three flaws that undermined its leverage
While it could be expected that Gruevski’s party, trying to secure its own position, would be acting in bad faith throughout the implementation process, it is less understandable how the EU has kept on tolerating its moves and has come to accept the political situation as it stands today. In essence, the EU has made three strategic mistakes that have impacted on its credibility and leverage towards Skopje.
Mistakes in the architecture of the Przino deal
With the Przino agreement the resolution of the political crisis became dependent on the goodwill of those actors that were the very instigators of the crisis in the first place. To put it more bluntly, the EU asked criminals to resolve a crime. Perhaps the most evident mistake might therefore have been the decision to conclude an agreement with the ruling parties, while allowing them to remain in government thereafter. When a scandal of similar magnitude would have erupted in any other EU member-state, the only logical course of action would have been the immediate resignation of the acting government. An alternative could have been the installation of a new government of national unity, exclusively mandated with implementing the Przino-agreement.
A second mistake undoubtedly has been the setting of an election date, before any of the reforms had materialised. Commissioner Hahn in particular was a strong advocate of rapidly holding elections, and was strongly opposed to postponing the initial date. The setting of an election date, however, created a competitive atmosphere among the involved parties, aggravating tensions, and strongly incentivising the ruling party to block any reform that would harm its position. The alternative, as was proposed by some EU member-states, was to only agree on a concrete date after some essential reforms were delivered.
The dubious role of the European People’s Party
Since 2007, Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE is an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP). Instead of using its party channels as a positive means of influence over Skopje, Gruevski has continuously enjoyed vocal support from EPP leaders, in ways that are similar to how the party has been sheltering Orban’s regime.
Within the European Parliament, the EPP has repeatedly blocked critical remarks and condemnations of Gruevski’s government. The EPP’s spokesperson has actively backed Gruevski during the crisis, while the Chairman of the EPP group in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly shamelessly took over Gruevski’s allegations that the wiretapping scandal is nothing more than a conspiracy by an irresponsible opposition party. Only two weeks ago, the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz went as far as to appear on stage at a campaign rally of VMRO-DPMNE, praising the government for its handling of the migration crisis and for getting his country closer towards EU membership.
Messages of support are heavily picked up by the local regime-friendly media, while critical voices from the EU are often the target of smear campaigns. VMRO-DPMNE from its part has also strongly invested in lobbying networks both in the US as in Europe in order to ensure favourable news coverage and political support.
Given his own political affiliation as an Austrian Christian democrat, it is questionable why Commissioner Hahn didn’t actively capitalize more on this partisan channel of influence, especially since he is also serving as the EPP’s Vice-President.
(Nikola Gruevski with EPP President Joseph Daul, © kurik.mk)
Flaws in the EU’s enlargement strategy: stability first, democracy later
Finally, the credibility of the EU’s overall enlargement strategy has become strongly undermined by two main problems: the Greek veto over the country’s name issue, and the increasing securitisation of EU relations with the country.
A first problem is the EU’s implicit disavowal of its often self-praised ‘meritocratic approach’ of the accession-process. That meritocratic spirit has been drowned through the Council of Ministers’ continuing blocking of the Commission’s positive recommendation to open accession talks for six consecutive years since 2009, which is due to the Greek veto over the use of Macedonia’s official name. In short, the adage ‘we are ready whenever you are’ no longer appeared to be valid for Macedonia. The slam of the door in 2009 proved to be a psychological shock for the country’s political elite, effectively halting the ambitious reform process the country had embarked on in the years before.
In practice, the EU’s crafted external incentive structure was sabotaged, and the cold shower from Brussels served as a permissive context for Gruevski’s more authoritarian turn. If Brussels could no longer grant his government legitimacy, the leader had to find it elsewhere, such as through his nationalist politics of antiquisation, aggravating relations with neighbouring countries Greece and Bulgaria, thereby further impeding Macedonia’s chances of entry into the EU.
While every other country in the Western Balkans has been able to make progress in the EU’s enlargement process over the last five years, Macedonia – once the frontrunner of the group – has been stagnating for a full decade now.
The stagnation of Macedonia’s accession process
(source: European Policy Institute, 2015; the graph displays separate phases of the accession process, starting from potential candidate status to full membership)
Indeed, concomitant with Brussels abandoning a clear merit-based accession approach, the reform engine in Skopje started to sputter. While during the first two years of its rule Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE was still strongly committed to implementing a pro-EU reform agenda, since 2009 the country started to backslide or stagnate in crucial reform areas such as the judiciary, democratic governance, human rights and freedoms, and the media sector.
The win-win game between Brussels and Skopje instead seems have been replaced with a double bluff game, in which Brussels has been willing to annually take stock of the ‘progress’ made, upholding an unconditional positive recommendation until the 2015 crisis, as long as the government continued to pay lip service to EU integration, and stability was preserved.
A second related problem is the increasing securitization of EU’s overall relations with Macedonia, according to which the EU’s priorities, calculations, demarches and reactions are first and foremost defined through the prism of stability and security.
During its years in power, Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE has been able to offer what has been the EU’s most precious good: stability and security. On an economic level Gruevski managed to bring economic growth, attract foreign investment and invested in public infrastructure (albeit while creating considerable budgetary deficits). On a political level, his alliance with the Albanian Democratic Union of Integration (DUI) as coalition partner in government has brought short term inter-ethnic stability. In so doing, Gruevski presented himself as the de facto guarantor of stability in Macedonia.
The EU from its part has showed itself ready to accept this modus vivendi, trading short term stability for democratic governance. The fact that its intervention only came after the violent incidents in Kumanovo, was very indicative of its approach.
The migration crisis has only further exacerbated the securitisation of relations. When in January 2015 the main opposition party made clear it was not willing to participate in elections, a frustrated Commissioner Hahn declared that elections were to be held as soon as possible, with or without SDSM, and that above all a working government was needed to deal with the flow of migrants through the Balkan corridor. Put differently, it showed that Hahn was ready to neglect the reforms and to get elections in exchange for a return to stability.
The EU’s posture towards the political scene in Macedonia during the last decade has been negligent at best, and permissive at worst. Rather awkwardly, with the outburst of the political crisis in 2015 Brussels found itself engaged with an outspokenly authoritarian regime, which it had been tolerating for years. Being well aware of its reduced credibility and its inability to deliver on accession promises, the Commission had come to accept that for the time being Gruevski was the best they could get.
With an upcoming ‘reversed enlargement’ of the UK, a potential Dutch veto hanging over the Ukrainian Association Agreement, and the continued withering public support for EU enlargement, the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy will only be further weakened in the medium term.
If therefore, Gruevski’s wrongdoings remain unpunished, the EU sends a clear message to the whole region that politics of authoritarianism and exclusionary nationalism will be rewarded at the end of the day. The way the Union will engage with the new government and will insist on the implementation of the Przino Agreement and Urgent Reform Priorities, will therefore be of crucial importance if it seeks to uphold its credibility and leverage in the region.
Daan Fonck is a PhD Researcher at University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium. While studying the EU’s role in the mediation of the Macedonian crisis, he undertook a research stay in Macedonia in November 2016.