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Macedonia: Its Name, Its Corruption, and Looming Global Flashpoints

The sun is seen through the fog behind a monument depicting Alexander the Great in Skopje, December 18, 2013

Macedonia is “a small nation with a complex and fascinating history,” according to the travel guide, Lonely Planet. “Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman history, it offers impressive ancient sites side by side with buzzing modernity.”

These days, however, it’s hard to separate the two. The capital, Skopje, is a giant construction site, in the midst of a neoclassical makeover that in the eyes of less charitable observers has turned the city into the European capital of kitsch.

“We are building an older and better Skopje,” a Macedonian friend quipped, referring to the government-sponsored project of urban renewal.

In the most recent—and, as it turns out, misguided—move, more than a thousand palm trees imported from China were supposed to garnish Skopje’s new cityscape, with its Alexander the Great statues and neoclassical façades.

Other Macedonian cities were to enjoy the palm trees, including Ohrid and Prilep. But palm trees need a lot of water and do not tolerate snow, seemingly inhospitable to the imported flora.

The palms have to be heavily watered every evening. And, given the Macedonian winter, some may wonder whether the palms will need thick woolen coats before the end of the year. The new Skopje, with its thirsty palms and architectural throwbacks, is symbolic of a nation with an identity crisis.

Although in that respect Macedonia is no different than some of its neighbors—or indeed many other nations—it has had more reason to feel insecure than most, given the continued opposition of Greece to the very name, Macedonia.

But this year a combination of political scandal at home and growing pressures from global events and governments mean that the country’s immediate future is uncertain, at best, and certainly far bleaker than at any time since it became independent, almost 25 years ago.

The only constituent republic of the former Yugoslavia to secure its independence without a war, Macedonia initially made good progress toward EU and NATO membership. It became a member-state of the UN in April 1993, albeit as the rather awkwardly named ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, in deference to Greek objections.

Until recently the name issue has been an obstacle in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, but Greece can no longer be blamed for all of Macedonia’s troubles. Many Macedonians—and Greece would even deny them the right to refer to themselves as such—are forced to confront the fact that something is rotten in their own state.

“Greece is not creating obstacles to the development of a democratic society in Macedonia, or progress in media freedom,” an independent NGO activist observed, citing government control over media and the lack of transparency by the ruling elite.

“Nobody in the media is serving the public interest,” Zana Trajkoska, director of the Skopje-based School of Journalism and Public Relations, told RFE/RL.

She continued: “Major TV and radio stations are controlled by the Government, and a few web portals are being used by the opposition as a tool in the struggle for power. Citizens are caught in a crossfire between two sides deeply involved in propaganda."

The past spring was particularly turbulent in the Macedonian capital, when a wiretapping scandal set off a serious political crisis. The opposition leader Zoran Zaev went public with segments of conversations between government officials, purportedly revealing their involvement in a number of cover-ups over the past few years, including the death of an anti-government protester.

Zaev said his sources had told him that more than 20,000 people had been tapped, although he never revealed how he acquired the tapes (he insists that they had been provided by “a patriot” in the secret services).

The revelations led to public outrage and mass protests, and demands for the Government to resign and fresh elections to be held. Yet support for the populist Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, remains strong. When the opposition supplied tents to demonstrators camping out in front of the government building, Gruevski mustered equally large pro-government demonstrations—and they came with their own tents. By August 1, only the remnants of the pro-government camp were left in front of the parliament, as the European Union managed to defuse the crisis and bring both sides to the negotiating table.

The mistrust and the divisions remain, however, and now Macedonia finds itself on several geo-political fault lines. To begin with, there are simmering ethnic tensions on the regional level. A quarter of the country’s two million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians—a large and restive minority.

Noting the lack of independent media in Macedonia, TV21, a private station from Albanian-dominated Kosovo, is launching a Skopje-based TV channel in September. But foreign powers are also making their presence felt, drawing the country into conflicts well beyond its borders.

The Turkish news agency Anadolia is preparing to join the battle for the airwaves, and the Russians are showing growing interest in developments in Macedonia. Russian investment in the country is growing—businessman Sergei Samsonenko owns the country’s most popular handball and soccer clubs (both called “Vardar”), and hotel “Russia” now graces the city center of Skopje.

The Russian portal claimed in May that Russia must build a strong Orthodox coalition in Europe “to beat the West” and in the same article accused the West of undermining Macedonia by relying on “the Kiev Maidan scenario”. Such rhetoric emanating from Moscow clearly indicates that Macedonia is seen to be up for grabs. In that sense, the new Russian gas pipeline, Turkish Stream, will be a big test for Macedonia, and Prime Minister Gruevski may choose to cast his lot with Moscow, or turn to Brussels, depending on who proves to be more useful in keeping him in power.

So the country, until recently a promising exception in a troubled region, now finds itself in political turmoil over the wiretapping allegations, while simultaneously having to deal with a series of other vexing issues. Those include an influx of Middle Eastern refugees, and the need to find an adequate response to two major global crises, ISIS and Moscow’s power play against the West. In the East-West power struggle, theBalkans have emerged as a key battleground.

Russian interference in Macedonia’s domestic politics is growing, no doubt with the aim of steering the country away from EU and NATO membership. Meanwhile, according to the Minister of Internal Affairs, 130 Macedonian citizens have left to join ISIS. On August 6, nine individuals were arrested at various locations around the country, accused of taking part in the fighting in Syria and Iraq, or recruiting fighters for those conflicts.

Given all these internal tensions and outside pressures, Macedonia—and Skopje—needs more than a kitschy facelift or rows of homesick palm trees. Yet as long as pensions are paid on time, and new buildings and monuments are there to remind people of past glories, Gruevski might well survive the wiretapping scandal. That is partly because corruption barely makes headlines in the Balkans today, as it is all-too-commonly accepted that it goes hand in hand with politics.

Unfortunately for Macedonia, many other vultures are circling, and they are after much more than the country’s name.