Why should Europe help Macedonian citizens in their battle for European values?
A new wave of protests has descended upon Macedonia, more numerous in numbers than ever before. Symbolically named “The Colorful Revolution” as a pun to all the government mouthpieces fearing another “colored revolution,” – the protestors themselves are colorful: young, old, employed, students, men, women and children walk the streets every day at 18h, chanting “No justice, no peace”. 25 years after the referendum that established Macedonia’s independence, its citizens are standing up in defense of their own democracy and the rule of law.
Triggered by President Ivanov’s preemptive pardons of 56 politicians and their henchmen under (now halted) investigations of electoral fraud, corruption and a number of other massive wrongdoings, the protestors are asking for withdrawal of the pardons, transparent judicial processing for all involved in the state capture, postponement of the elections and the inclusion of civil society in resolving the crisis. Ivanov, who introduced impunity of the political class, advised the future generations: if you are powerful and wicked enough, you can get away with any crime.
The continuous protests on the streets prove that Macedonians care about the state of democracy in their country. However, the pardons have precluded the possibility of a mediated and democratic process to end the crisis.
Why should Europe, facing a number of serious challenges, including the refugee crisis and a possible Brexit, care about Macedonia?
First, the country is on the front line of the Balkan route taken by many refugees. Ironically, after three weeks of protests, its border with Greece appears to be much more stable than its cities. Macedonia is decidedly beyond the point when stability is possible without justice and respect for the rule of law.
Second, Macedonia has been the EU’s biggest conflict management success story, when in 2001, with NATO, it helped Macedonia avoid a civil war. After making Macedonia the most devastating case against the credibility of its own enlargement policy (it has been persistently blocked by Greece due to the name issue), the EU now risks Macedonia becoming a failed case of conflict prevention.
Third, as the deadly weekend in Kumanovo last May showed, with discredited institutions, Macedonia’s fragile interethnic relations can be an appealing target. While the government claimed that the group planned terror attacks in Macedonia, suspicions remain that the bloodshed was somehow exploited or even orchestrated to distract attention from the scandal. One cannot predict when the dangerous spark would ignite. We shouldn’t take the chances. We should fix the institutions.
Fourth, Macedonia is only the beginning. With democracy in continuous decline throughout the Western Balkans, the eyes of the Balkan strong men are on Macedonia. While some suspect wrongdoing of this kind is widespread in the region, what makes Macedonia so impossible for the EU to ignore is that the abuse of power has been so comprehensively documented and exposed. This means that the EU cannot simply turn a blind eye. While authoritarian leaders talk pro-EU talk, they also emulate the Russian model. It is therefore in the prime interest of Germany and the EU to step in. After all, Moscow has done so already, claiming that the popular revolt against the government was initiated from “outside”.
What then, can be done? Europe and Germany should not shy away from calling a spade a spade. President Ivanov’s blanket pardon openly defies the rule of law and undermines the EU brokered agreement, bringing the crisis to the point of explosion. President Ivanov should find a way to annul the pardons or face direct sanctions, in the form of travel restrictions and international isolation.
The same should be applied to those former and current government officials who are suspects, in addition to imposing asset freezes. The response of the regime would be unpredictable. But if ignored, the outcome of this grave situation is predictable: a deepening of the crisis and more repression, as the latest selective arrests of political opponents indicate.
Since the conditions for credible elections haven’t been met, the EU should declare the 5 June elections void, the OSCE should withdraw its election observers, the EC accession recommendation should be frozen, and aid stopped, until Macedonia shows credible signs of democratic recovery. If the pardons are recalled and elections delayed, it will take a special envoy based in Skopje to push daily, together with civil society, for another serious attempt to restart Macedonia’s broken democracy.
25 years ago, one of the “colorful” authors of this text, Ivana, was living the first days of her life, while the other, Nikola, was preparing to vote for the first time. 25 years later, our generations are more determined than ever to save the only hope for democracy we’ve ever known. 25 years later, the fight for this small country is the most important fight of our lives.
Ivana Jordanovska is a democracy activist.
A shortened version of this commentary was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 4 May.