Same Formula, Different Actors
Thus spoke the President…
The President of the Republic of Macedonia, Mr. Gjorgje Ivanov – usually absent from the Macedonian TV screens – made a statement on April 12 causing deep unrest in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. The President decided unilaterally to pardon all politicians under investigation: many of whom were implicated in the wire-tapping scandal of February last year.
The details of the president’s controversial move came to light when the decision was published in the Official Gazette. It quickly became apparent that the president had not only pardoned politicians accused of corruption, but businessmen (both Macedonian and foreign) and soldiers charged with torture, as well as the former President and leader of the opposition party.
The list includes 57 individuals, both from the governing and the opposition parties, possibly in an attempt to soften the reaction of the opposition and to prevent the possible association of this decision solely with the ruling party the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).
The pardoning, which is often referred to as the ‘blanket pardon’, seriously undermined the judiciary, and more specifically, the work of the Special Prosecutor. The office of the Special Prosecutor was established with the Przhino Agreement, signed to end the political crisis resulting from the unraveling of the wire-tapping scandal.
Questions arose as to the legality of this decision, the basis of which originates from another contentious decision earlier this year; the decision of the Constitutional Court (5 voted in favor and 4 against) in March to remove the previous provisions preventing the president from pardoning a number of crimes. This allowed the president to pardon crimes including electoral fraud. Yet, according to the law, it is the Minister of Justice, not the president, who can initiate the procedure for pardoning. In fact, the Minister of Justice, recently sworn into office from the junior coalition party, stated that the decision deepens the crisis. Furthermore, the president admitted that he did not consult with the parliament or the courts about how to proceed
The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which initially published the wire-taped conversations, introduced a motion to impeach the president. The junior Albanian coalition party supports the opposition’s motion; but it has yet to pass. The civil society sector has also been active in opposing the decision of the president, with the Helsinki Committee of Human Rights publishing a statement calling for the filing of Public Criminal Charges against Gjorgje Ivanov, declaring that he had committed a crime when trying to undermine the rule of law.
Protests and Confusion
The decision to pardon politicians and businessmen, and to pardon them in such an imposing manner like the President of Macedonia did, inspired many citizens of Skopje and later in Bitola to go out into the streets in protest. Because the decision seemed to directly target the office of the Special Prosecutor (fun fact: the Special Prosecutor and her team were also on the ‘pardon list’), Macedonian citizens headed to their offices in order to express support for their work. The chants however quickly escalated into demands for the resignation of the president.
Soon the protestors headed towards the Office for Relations with Citizens of the President in the center of Skopje. Finally the protestors arrived at the recently refurbished headquarters of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE. Further blurring the line between state and party, for which Macedonia has been often criticized by the European Commission, there were more police forces ‘to protect’ the party headquarters than anywhere else in Skopje.
The protests started peacefully, with the eggs occasionally being thrown at the new buildings of the ruling party. Yet the police dispersed the crowd and began to arrest protesters using violent methods, which have always been viewed as legitimate by the Minister of Interior. The protests continued and grew over the weekend, when the main square of Skopje was filled with protesters waiving Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish flags and demanding the resignation of the president. After a pause to re-group on Sunday, the protests are set to restart on Monday, 18 of April, starting at 18.00.
Is there an End?
In a strange turn of events, although by recent Macedonian standards not very strange, VMRO-DPMNE declared on April 15 that they propose to send a letter to the President, signed by all four main political parties, to review his decision. By the end of the day, the president’s decision was being disavowed not only by the opposition, and the governing Albanian party, but also by the party that nominated him in three separate letters. The move by VMRO-DPMNE seemed to be a response to not lose face, as the decision was seen unfavorably by all parties, and as the junior Albanian coalition partner moved to support impeachment.
Regardless, the President declared in a televised statement following the protests and the letters, that he remains firm in his decision. These moves are in line with the maneuvers that the political parties have adopted to manage this crisis to their own benefit.
Despite the recent unrest, and continued statements by the EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn and the EU Ambassadors accredited to Macedonia declaring that the upcoming elections on June 5 will not be credible or fair, the Speaker of the Parliament signed the decision for elections to be held as planned. As per formula, business as usual continues for the governing party.
It is still not clear who will participate in these elections, as many opposition parties have chosen to boycott and proposed to postpone the elections to a later date. It is also uncertain what the major Albanian political parties will decide. Could Macedonia be heading for a one party election, or will they be postponed yet again? One thing that is clear is that Macedonia needs deep systemic reforms, and a return to the separation of powers.
Undemocratic Governance in Macedonia and Turkey
This kind of judicial disregard and eschewal of the rule of law seems to follow a formula preferred by some other well-known leaders. The political crisis in Macedonia is especially reminiscent of Turkey and then Prime Minister Erdoğan’s handling of the 2013 corruption scandal, where meddling into the affairs and the procedures of the judiciary reached new heights.
Not to mention other similarities the likes of election fraud, allegations which Macedonia faces now more than ever, similar too was the rhetoric employed by both Ivanov and Erdoğan when blaming foreign powers for the troubles affecting their nations, claiming the necessity to defend against external and internal enemies that bear ill-will towards the party and the people. The corruption scandal was immediately labeled as a coup plot against the government by Erdoğan and his clique. After Erdoğan was elected President in 2014, all suspects involved in the corruption scandal were acquitted and four ministers were cleared through a parliamentary vote.
Undemocratic governance and the violation of rule of law by elected politicians become almost the only game in town in the midst of oppressed dissenters, rigged elections and hijacked legislatives in Macedonia and Turkey. The undemocratic formula seems to strikingly repeat itself in both candidate countries as the constitutional principles and EU conditionality are openly ridiculed by the Macedonian and Turkish governments.