Small, poor and now possibly explosive. For over a week, tens of thousands of protesters have been marching in Macedonia, infuriated by the president’s suspension of a criminal investigation targeting some of the country’s top politicians. Supporters of VMRO, the party which has led the government since 2006, believe the opposition is preparing what they call a “Ukrainian” scenario to take power by force. The opposition, dominated by the Social Democratic party, accuses the VMRO of authoritarianism. Meanwhile migrants stranded in Greece by the closure of Macedonia’s frontier in March have been hurling themselves at the border fence, only to be rebuffed in clouds of tear gas.
Macedonia has enjoyed a higher international profile since last year, when hundreds of thousands of migrants began trooping through the western Balkans on their way to Germany and Sweden. The European Union sees it as a vital partner in stemming the migrant flow. But at the same time, the country has been lurching from crisis to crisis. The current one is the worst yet.
The trouble started in February 2015, when the Social Democrats began releasing recordings of leaked wiretaps gathered by the country’s security services (then run by a cousin of Nikola Gruevski, then prime minister). The security services seemed to have listened in on some 20,000 people, and the tapes suggested that Mr Gruevski and his associates had been involved in electoral fraud, corruption and covering up the details of two controversial deaths. A series of protests ensued. In May security services engaged in a mysterious shoot-out with Albanian guerrillas. When the migrant crisis flared up, the EU became convinced the country was on the brink of chaos, and sent a team of diplomats to intervene.
The EU team helped negotiate a deal between the government and the opposition to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate potential crimes revealed in the wiretaps. New elections were called, and Mr Gruevski stood down. (The election has since been postponed; it is now scheduled for June 5th.) But on April 12th the country’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, ordered a halt to the special prosecutor’s investigation, which by then had targeted 56 politicians. Most of them, including Mr Gruevski, were linked to VMRO. Quickly, protesters took to the streets.
Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, invited Macedonian leaders to an emergency meeting in Vienna on April 22nd to mediate a solution. But the meeting was cancelled after the Social Democrats refused to attend. The EU’s problem, says Nenad Markovikj, an analyst at Skopje University, is that it has completely lost its leverage. Macedonia’s application for EU membership has been blocked for two decades by a dispute with Greece over its name, and Macedonian voters have grown bitter. “The carrot is gone,” says Mr Markovikj, “and the stick [EU officials] hold is really, really small.”
So far the demonstrations have been largely peaceful. Supporters of VMRO argue that they have delivered solid economic growth, and that the opposition want a revolution because they know they cannot win the election. The Social Democrats say that past elections have been rigged and the mainstream media turned into a VMRO mouthpiece. They have pulled out of the elections.
Parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of its population, have stayed out of the conflict so far, but that could change. The United States and several European countries have demanded that the president rescind his decision. Russia, predictably, accuses the opposition of plotting a foreign-backed coup.
Macedonia is a small country of 2m people, but what happens here matters for the region. Russian and Turkish influence is growing. Belief in the distant prospect of EU membership is fading. As a consequence, laments an EU source, Macedonia’s politicians “seem determined to damage their own country.”