Macedonia Has New Government, but Rocky Road Ahead

“The fact is,” he said, “nothing is further from the truth. We know that the hardest part is yet to come, when we will have to face the damage left” by the previous government, led by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party.

The nation’s first change in power after 11 years was greeted with cautious optimism by the United States government and European officials.

In a statement, the State Department congratulated Mr. Zaev on his victory and said that the United States “looks forward to working with the new government as it strives to fulfill the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations by implementing urgent reforms that strengthen rule of law and judicial independence, media freedom and government accountability.”

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations, said in a joint statement on Thursday: “We welcome the vote for the new government led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

“We expect all parliamentary parties to put their divisions aside now and work jointly on delivering, from the outset, on a common reform agenda that would benefit the country in its entirety and bring the country back on its European integration path.”

Macedonia, a small landlocked Balkan country of two million, transformed from a fragile but promising democracy to an authoritarian state under Nikola Gruevski, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2016. During the period, the country witnessed a degradation in the rights of the news media, a heavily biased judiciary system, rampant corruption and abuses of power.

Formerly a republic in Yugoslavia, Macedonia is strategically important to the international community as a source of stability in the region, and because it is in the center of the so-called Balkan route taken by migrants fleeing war-torn countries. It applied to join the European Union and NATO, but a long-simmering dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia has derailed that plan.

Two years ago, a wiretapping scandal erupted after secret recordings caught top government officials discussing everything from rigging votes to covering up killings. In April, Mr. Zaev and at least 10 others were injured after a mob of angry nationalists attacked lawmakers in Parliament. The mob was protesting the election of a new speaker supported by the Social Democrats and parties representing the country’s ethnic Albanian minority, who are about one-quarter of the population.


Supporters of Mr. Zaev outside Parliament on Wednesday night after his cabinet was confirmed.

Robert Atanasovski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Macedonia is a deeply polarized society, where citizens are being divided based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, political views,” said Dona Kosturanova, the executive director of the Youth Educational Forum, a nongovernmental organization.

“Some of the political elites in the country, including the former ruling party, are only deepening the gaps between the people, instead of working to bridge them closer,” she added. “That is why it will take a lot of consciousness, education and critical thought for the citizens to remain immune to these political influences, which can further jeopardize this fragile society.”

The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization — Democratic Party, known as VMRO-DPMNE, won the most seats in elections in December, but not enough to form a government. Led by Mr. Gruevski, the right-leaning VMRO-DPMNE failed to form a governing coalition in time, and after the incident inside Parliament, President Gjorge Ivanov opened to the door for an alternative government.

Mr. Gruevski blamed foreign countries for his party’s loss. Minutes before the voting, he said that the main reason for the foreign interference was because his party had “insisted on a fair solution for the name issue with Greece, which blocked our E.U. and NATO integration” effort.

Bojan Maricik, the executive director of Eurothink: Center for European Strategies, an independent think tank based in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, said he believed that Western governments did try to influence events in the country, but only to prevent wide-scale interethnic conflict and to ensure that basic democratic principles were being respected, such as the rule of law and freedom of the press.

He said that in the past few years, Macedonia’s blocked integration into the European Union had “fueled nationalistic tensions insomuch as the level of unprecedented corruption and power abuse.”

Any revival of ethnic tensions, however, would be an “explosive” issue for neighboring Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, he added.

Mr. Zaev, the new prime minister, said that it would take six months for Macedonians to see the first results of his changes and around two years for everyone to start feeling the improvements in the country.

He has vowed to place greater emphasis on solving longstanding issues with neighboring countries in order to hasten the country’s European Union and NATO integration, and to bring long-term stability to the region.

For the international community, the violence in Parliament in late April was a serious warning about the future and the stability of Macedonia.

“Any repeat of such acts would seriously endanger the country’s European perspective”, said Mr. Hahn, who in the summer of 2015 brokered the deal that was supposed to end the country’s biggest political crisis since independence, prompted by the wiretapping allegations, which revealed wrongdoing including fraud in the electoral system and government manipulation of the media and of the judiciary.

To any visitor to the capital, amid the crowded coffee bars and the sight and sounds of construction, there are few signs of the political crisis, except for the increased number of police officers in the streets around Parliament.

Whether the change in power will bring an end to a crisis is not yet clear. In addition to the name dispute, the country’s European Union prospects are challenged by the need for reforms in many segments of society, priorities drawn up by the European Commission.

“We need a strong and independent judicial system, critical media and strong opposition, a strong Parliament that will control the executive organs, not act on instructions from the government,” Mr. Zaev said. “That is why we will leave all control mechanisms to the independent experts, to safeguard the country from us, from the Social Democrats and from the government coalition.”

Correction: June 1, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the month of a violent confrontation in Macedonia’s Parliament. It occurred in April, not May.

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