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Bechev: Greek scenario possible in Macedonia

Dimitar Bechev, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The longer the crisis in Macedonia lasts, the more it moves toward the Greek or Spanish scenario, says Dimitar Bechev, an analyst with the European Policy Center, in an interview with RFE/RL Balkan service.

Bechev is an author of several books, including the "Macedonian Historical Vocabulary".

RFE: What is behind the crisis in Macedonia? Why are the authorities are not respecting the agreement with the opposition which was brokered by the EU several months ago?

Bechev:I think the guilt this time lies squarely with the Government and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who has backtracked on his commitment. Of course, he washes his hands saying that president Ivanov pardoned officials involved in the wiretapping scandal, which clearly was not part of the deal (between the government and opposition on overcoming the political crisis).

Gruevski has been using the EU brokered process to delegate and to share power, but also to outplay all other political forces, which is not fair, and that why it has triggered the street protests - because Gruevski is not playing by the rules.

RFE: Has Gjorge Ivanov, president of the country, amnestied the suspects for the wiretapping affair on his own? Because even Gruevski has distanced himself from this decision.

Bechev: Macedonia is a small country and everyone knows that Ivanov is completely dependent on Gruevski.

By distancing himself from the amnesty, Gruevski is trying to maintain his position even at the price of sacrificing Ivanov.

In any case, the Macedonian President did not make that decision on his own, as it was certainly coordinated with the Prime Minister.

RFE: Why he is doing so, since it could eventually backfire on him? Even if he wins the upcoming elections at the beginning of June, the election outcome won't be endorsed by the EU in case that the opposition boycott it. And Macedonia is striving to join the EU.

Bechev: He is overplaying his hand. I think he calculated that the opposition will find it hard to say no.

The EU dignitaries now have no doubt who is to blame... Last summer one could have argued that both sides – the opposition and Gruevski - had to make concessions.

Now it appears the opposition are the "good guys", while Gruevski breaches the rules. It is a version of the game of "chicken" - who will blink first?

I think that Gruevski made an unwise decision, because he could have won this election without foul play.

RFE: What's your comment on the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs' statement that the destabilization of the situation in Macedonia and the use of "the Ukrainian scenario" is fraught with the risk of exacerbating the situation in the entire Balkan region?
"The opposition, with outside help, is again used for stirring political conflict with the goal of disturbing the elections," a Russian foreign ministry statement said. It means that Moscow supports Gruevski.

Bechev: I think that Russia is opportunistic – as it is in all these crises. At the same time, Gruevski, as many other leaders in the region, has been balancing and hedging. But, if you look back what happened last year – he initially used Russia’s cover but ultimately accepted the EU mediation, i.e. got along with Brussels. So, it’s a bit far-fetched to call him an ally of Moscow.

Of course, Russia looks for an opportunity and exploits it in [the] short term in order to get some leverage. Russia tries to crack a hole in the Western mediated negotiation and to poke a finger in the eye of the West.

Gruevski attempts to align his tactic with the Russians but he will not be going very far. So, I don’t think that Russia is such important player in Macedonia although it is benefiting.

RFE: Last year it was speculated that the Gruevski's attempt to join the Russian sponsored "Turkish Stream" gas pipeline project triggered the crisis in Macedonia. He tried later to water down his stance by saying that Macedonia would participate in the project only if the EU agreed to it.
However, Brussels has adamantly opposed the project. In the meantime, the 'Turkish Stream' has been shelved following the rapidly deteriorating relations between Moscow and Ankara. Is there any geostrategic background or calculus behind the crises in Macedonia?

Bechev: No, this story was originated by analysts on "Russia Today"and, then, it was recycled through the media controlled by the government in Skopje in an attempt to delegitimize the opposition protest.

In any case, the "Turkish Stream " project is not going anywhere. The notion of geostrategic forces at play is exaggerated given the size and weight of Macedonia as a player in Europe as well as in the Balkans.

RFE: Is Russia lurking on the sides in attempt to exploit the crisis in Macedonia for its own sake, or it is actively involved through the employment of the "hybrid war" tactics we have seen in Ukraine and neighboring countries?

Bechev: I don’t think Russia is actively involved. It has a more clout in Serbia where there are at least two major players cooperating closely with Russia – namely the Serbian Radical Party and the coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), and the "Dveri" movement.

In Macedonia there is no such pro-Russian forces. If Gruevski today is to play with Russians, but tomorrow he will move closer to the West and utilizes Brussels in order to secure his power.

RFE: What's the position of the opposition parties? As I mentioned, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused them of being a "puppet" in Western hands. Or is the opposition just pushing its own agenda in an attempt to extract as many concessions as possible?

Behcev: They have their own agenda. They are interested in coming to power. However it would be difficult to overpower the ruling VMRO – DPMNE even if the elections were fair, because of its incumbency advantage. Meanwhile, the opposition parties have benefited from power sharing.

Of course, there are many voices among demonstrators in Skopje saying that organizations from civil society should distance themselves from the opposition. There're a fair amount of frustration with all political parties in the country, not only with the Prime Minister’s party.

The diversity of protest should be taken into account. Student protests commenced two years ago. The younger generation has voiced its criticism towards the opposition, too. The new left groups see the main opposition Social democratic party as a problem equal to that of PM Gruevski. Those voices on the social media have become louder. However, for now president of the Social democratic party Zoran Zaev has shown credibility as a leader.

RFE: Is this generation of social democrats different compared to that at the time of Branko Crvenkovski (former leader of the Social democratic party), who was in power before Gruevski?

Bechev: Absolutely. The new generation of student activists, even radical left-wing supporters do not feel comfortable in the company of old party leaders with links to former Yugoslav communists.

There are growing tensions among them, including when it comes to who is speaking for the left-wing forces in Macedonia. However, as long as Gruevski is in power, they have to stick together as a coalition of convenience.

RFE: Is Zaev a new type of social-democrat?

Bechev: He is a young man. He came in from outside Skopje. Some even see him as a provincial politician. He has been looked down upon by the party's elites – intellectuals, established voices in the former communists' circles, who snobbishly underline the fact that, for example, he does not speak the Macedonian language with a Skopje accent.

However, as a leader Zaev has shown stamina and successfully proven himself given the difficult circumstances he is working in. He faces a lot of difficult pressure – from the government, the media, the public sector, from hte clientele network as well as from within his own party. However, in spite of all the challenges, he has prevailed and I believe he is one of winner from this situation.

RFE: Is what is it at stake here a conflict of two established parties, or can we expect the emergence of a new, alternative politics now popular in the world, such as we have already seen emerge in Greece, Spain or the US and the United Kingdom?

Bechev: For now, it is a conflict between the two established parties, but with the potential to turn into something else. The longer the crisis lasts, the more it moves toward the Greek or Spanish scenario, because in that case the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia - as a backbone of the protests – is likely to face growing criticism from protesters.

RFE: Could the protest have an impact on inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia given the fact the Albanians are disenchanted due to the prolonged implementation of the Ohrid Agreement, which ended the armed conflict 15 years ago? Could it exacerbate the interethnic situation?

Bechev: It is remarkable that the protests are trying to bridge the ethnic divide, especially among those young activists who transcend ethnic lines. All slogans, and other content on social media, are bilingual on purpose.

Also, there are prominent Albanian activists who set their agenda beyond their ethnic identity. It pushes the two traditional Albanian parties (DUI and DPA) to navigate the situation. Right now, they're against Gruevski but they have a history of colluding with him, i.e. playing along. And in the next reshuffle they might find themselves in a new government, as well.

At the same time, leaders of the two major Albanian parties have to constantly look back over their shoulders because they are not sure about their support and trends within the Albanian community. There might be new forces and leaders emerging, who will try to challenge the established Albanian political elites and their politics of collaborating with the Macedonian authorities.

RFE: Do the protests offer the Albanian political forces a window of opportunity to secure their goals following their years of frustration over a deadlock in the Euro-Atlantic integration of Macedonia, due to the Greek veto over the country's name?

Bechev: I do not believe that the European path of Macedonia will be easily unblocked. But, certainly, the protests are a way for many Albanians to voice their frustrations over the behavior of their political elites, who are using the current stalemate and a power-sharing principle to entrench their own clientelistic interests.

All those socio-economic issues and frustration have been built up. However, it is difficult to predict if it will morph into nationalistic waves. Right now, there is a positive momentum, because the protest is not along ethnic lines but is rather rooted in anger over the misuse of power and corruption on both sides (Macedonian and Albanian).

RFE: Has the protest influenced the Balkan region overall?

Bechev: I do not think so, because Macedonia has grown pretty isolated from regional and international trends in the past 10 years. Each country in the region has its own internal dynamics. Serbia is facing its own problems, and the same goes for Bulgaria.

RFE: What would be outcome? Will the crisis in Macedonia resemble more the "Greek scenario", or the "Ukrainian” one?"

Bechev: The most likely outcome is that an election will take place as scheduled (the beginning of June), then a new negotiating framework is to be set. Finally, Gruevski may step back from the brink because of the pressure he faces from the EU.

Gruevski might win the upcoming elections, but the opposition will have a say in the Government. However, that does not mean that violence is not possible if Gruevski proves to be intransigent, which would lead to a radicalization of the protest. Then, it would necessitate a more robust Western intervention.

In the absence of transition of power, the best formula is to create a grand coalition under the EU tutelage. Just as it occurred right after the Ohrid Agreement was reached 15 year ago.