In this essay, former OSCE observer Kurt Bassuener examines the current direction of travel in Macedonia. Having experienced the stumbling democratic transition in Ukraine, he recognises warning signs that the Balkan nation – and the western institutions supporting it – must address with honesty. Most of all, he argues, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev must push forward with the ambitious reform agenda he has outlined. 

As I work on my dissertation on the political dynamic in Macedonia since the Ohrid Framework Agreement (2001), I’ve been gripped with a strong feeling of deja vu. The landlocked Balkan nation has been given a real chance at a democracy and accountability reset with the departure of the regime of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski last May, bringing a coalition led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to power. The situation reminds me of the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution – which I witnessed firsthand as a political analyst for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission. This does not bode well.


The parallels between Macedonia now and Ukraine then are numerous. Governments in both countries have had to deal with becoming increasingly isolated internationally because of large-scale corruption and unsolved crimes. By 2002, President Leonid Kuchma – the second President of an independent Ukraine between 1994-2005 – had become so politically radioactive that at the Prague NATO summit, the United States insisted that country name tags be in French so George W. Bush did not have to sit next to Kuchma.

Recordings of leadership malfeasance were integral to stoking public discontent against both governments. In Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski’s government was exposed in recordings obtained by the opposition to be engaging – along with his political partners – in a kaleidoscopic array of abuses of power, including efforts to cover up a murder. As part of an internationally mediated effort, Gruevski formally withdrew from office, although he continued to pull the strings behind the new placeholder.


In Ukraine in 2004, political opposition to the government drew on a wide array of public dissatisfaction with corruption and arrogance of power. Viktor Yushchenko, previously head of the National Bank and Prime Minister, was widely embraced as the end of a popular battering ram to break-up cozy government-business-criminal ties in Ukraine, allowing the country to move forward towards functioning democracy and rule of law.

In Ukraine – as in Macedonia recently – Russia was directly engaged in supporting the ‘party of power’. It was even widely suspected to have been involved in the infamous dioxin poisoning of Yushchenko, which he only narrowly survived from, but remains disfigured.

Attempts to steal the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election led to an outpouring of popular frustration. Civic-opposition united around the goal of ending the Kuchma regime, as well as preventing an even more compromised continuation of the political system. But it is important to note that this was more an alliance of necessity, rallying around a fevered mixture of exasperation and hope, rather than any particular political endorsement. As a close friend remarked to me on the Maidan on one of those frigid winter nights: “We shouldn’t really be chanting ‘Yu-schen-ko!’ We should be chanting ‘U-krai-ina!’”

A close friend remarked to me on the Maidan on one of those frigid winter nights: “We shouldn’t really be chanting ‘Yu-schen-ko!’ We should be chanting ‘U-krai-ina!’”

The 17 days and nights of protest which marked the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution finally forced the captured state institutions – including the Supreme Court and Central Election Commission – to perform their duties properly, rather than as mere adjuncts to the executive. Western diplomatic engagement was critical in deterring violence from the Ukrainian authorities; something we would also see in Macedonia.

Yushchenko was duly elected in a repeated second round of elections. The New Year’s celebration on the Maidan was effectively a victory party, with all the major figures of the Orange Revolution present – not only Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, but also oligarch and current President Petro Poroshenko and then Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. While the mood was overwhelmingly positive, one could also sense a deep undercurrent of hard-won sceptical entitlement. The message could have been distilled thus: “we gave you this chance to change this place. Don’t blow it.”

A girl attaches flowers to riot police officers’ shields during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Kiev. Image: jf1234 [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Returning in April 2005, just 10 weeks after my departure, the momentum had clearly evaporated. Internecine strife among the egos in the ruling coalition was the dominant theme. President Yushchenko, while widely thought not to be personally corrupt, was surrounded by those who evidently were. They were clearly trying to make up for lost time. While Yushchenko’s personal tenacity and decency were generally intact, his will to confront allies and lead was widely questioned – even from these early days.

Friends of mine who had previously been apolitical, but who had then involved themselves deeply in the Orange Revolution, became cynical and checked out. This phenomenon only intensified over the coming year. There had been high hopes in Ukraine that a democratic breakthrough would open the door to EU and NATO membership. The appetite for both quickly waned.

But the main failure was completely homegrown. Aside from wanting to end the Kuchma-Yanukovych era, and declarations of wanting to move West, the new government had no unifying drive. Nor did it possess the political will to fundamentally change Ukraine’s corrupt and unaccountable political operating system.


In Macedonia, we see similarities. Former Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski was not an aberration, but rather an embodiment of a pre-existing system of politics.  And Gruevski remains on the scene. He’s installed a puppet leader of VMRO-DPMNE (the party he was once leader of), but as with the previous government, nobody is fooled that this changes anything. He knows relinquishing full control is likely to mean worse than just the end of his political career. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev will be successful in stewarding things; VMRO retains the ability to impede progress at a parliamentary level. Gruevski can bide his time.

Of course, as with all parallels, there are limitations. Macedonia has the possibility of EU membership – something that Ukrainians who demonstrated in the Maidan in late 2004 hoped for in vain. Macedonia, luckily, does not have Russia as a neighbour. But it does have Russia’s closest allied state in the Western Balkans, Serbia, next door. President Aleksandar Vučić has not been shy about making it clear how unwelcome the democratic regime change in Macedonia is. A “Macedonian scenario” would not be allowed to unfold in Serbia, he said. I would argue that in some ways, Macedonia is to Serbia what Ukraine is to Russia. If accountable democracy – pressed for from below and then emplaced through electoral politics – can succeed in the ‘little brother’ country, it can succeed with the ‘big brother’ too…

The Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić. He has not spoken warmly of Macedonia’s transition. Image:

Indeed, in Macedonia – as in Ukraine – popular mobilisation and electoral regime changes had at their root a pent-up demand for dignity and accountability. They also came about as a result of blossoming civic self-confidence and the overcoming of fear. Both embodied a societal hunger for deep and structural change, as well as justice.

Prime Minister Zaev was elected on a platform of building ‘One Society’. His attraction of 30-40,000 ethnic Albanian voters was both unprecedented and crucial to his breakthrough. It is still widely believed that Zaev, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, and Defense Minister Radmila Šekerinska are sincere in their goals of building an integrated, ‘just society’ in Macedonia, along with remediating the institutional rot and policy malpractice that led to Macedonia going from leader to laggard in the EU accession process. The issues of NATO and EU membership are clearly the most evident priorities for the government.

Zaev’s efforts on this front have already achieved results with Bulgaria (a member of both NATO and the EU). He and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov signed a friendship treaty last year in a move designed to end years of diplomatic wrangling and boost Macedonia’s integration ambitions. Protests in both Greece and Macedonia against a bilateral accommodation on the 27-year running ‘name issue’ have complicated, but not derailed, these efforts.


At the same time, I also recognise the creeping doubt and malaise I heard and felt in post-Orange Revolution Ukraine. As with Yushchenko’s poisoning, emblematic crimes and unsolved mysteries under the Gruevski regime continue to haunt Macedonia’s politics. While there are numerous examples, including the ‘Monster’ and ‘Sopot’ cases, I will highlight a singular – and, I believe, pivotal – one: the firefight in Kumanovo, on May 9 2015, between the Macedonian police and army and Albanian militants which left 8 police officers and 10 Albanians dead.

While a court convicted 33 of 37 defendants in early November 2017 for what happened (most of them with long prison sentences for charges of terrorism) nobody I have spoken to – including government officials – believes that this is the full story. Nor is there any evident Western appetite for an independent commission to investigate the matter further. This is despite the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, calling for one on the day of the incident.

The issue is perhaps emblematic of the challenge facing the Zaev government. The EU – and not only the EU – clearly has no appetite for uncovering and airing the full story of what occurred in Kumanovo back in 2015. But this reluctance is embedded in a wider disposition to dissuade the Macedonian government from proceeding assertively on justice reform, and the review of unsolved cases. The potential disruption that addressing difficult issues and uncovering old skeletons would likely bring would, it is feared, impede the ability to ‘declare progress’. And in its pent-up hunger for external validation, the Zaev government is assenting: it is effectively outsourcing the steering of the country’s democratic transition to the EU, rather than making it a priority to demonstrate its own substantive accountability to Macedonia’s people. This is a grave mistake. The EU will settle for – indeed insist upon – far less than the majority of citizens of Macedonia desire: systemic change and justice.

The EU will settle for – indeed insist upon – far less than the majority of citizens of Macedonia desire: systemic change and justice.

Adhering to the EU’s prescriptions to the exclusion of domestic priorities reflects a vulnerability that contemporary Macedonia shares with 2005 Ukraine. As several people underscored in interviews, while Gruevski may have perfected the use of public politics for personal gain in Macedonia, he hardly invented it. And furthermore, he didn’t do it alone. His junior – but essential – partner was the Albanian DUI party, which was the initially reluctant partner (at least from Ali Ahmeti’s perspective) of the SDSM to form the Zaev government. The impression a cynic could draw from this partnership, reinforced in local elections last October, is that the SDSM doesn’t want to change the system, but control it.

Parties in power do not reform, so the likelihood of DUI cleaning up its own act, absent judicial pressure, is zero. But even when outside power, they don’t necessarily do so. Nor do they necessarily strategise about what to do – and how to go about it – if they get back. This seems evident now with the Zaev government, which is effectively treating the EU as its primary constituency, in the hope of obtaining deliverables (such as an invitation to join NATO or the launch of EU membership talks) with which to campaign for a stronger parliamentary majority next year.


Zaev’s leadership of the SDSM represented a major and welcome shift in the party’s approach, messaging, and ambition for the country and society. There is no question that the challenges facing it – including prosaic problems like just equipping their stripped offices – are massive. The concentration of all decision-making power under the Gruevski regime has hollowed out Macedonia’s institutions, much as the columns on the facades of the many new buildings in Skopje sound hollow when knocked upon. There is a clear capacity deficit which will take time and resources to remediate.

Zoran Zaev with Ana Brnabic, Prime Minister of Serbia. Image: Government of the Republic of Macedonia [CC]

But at least as debilitating is the lack of evident progress on developing a wider strategy of what Zaev’s ‘One Society’ vision could entail, how it could draw upon the pent-up energies of citizens across the political and ethnic spectrum. A broad civic constituency for such change is latent – but is has not been catalysed by either the government or civil society. This void is slowly, but surely, being filled with frustration.

Nor is the choice ‘either-or’. I have long championed the aspirations of those who wish to join the EU and NATO as functioning democracies. But the shifts since 2015 in the West also demonstrates that just joining these communities – indeed, being present at their creation – cannot insulate one’s democracy from internal (and external) challenges. Maintaining liberal democracy and rule of law is a constant obligation of citizens and their institutions. The achievement of entry criteria to these organisations should be graded strictly and fairly. But nobody should suffer the illusion that these checklists alone reflect a healthy democratic polity.

Despite the messages Brussels may be sending to temper the pace or depth of reform in Macedonia, Prime Minister Zaev has to decide who his real bosses are – his citizens, or the members of the clubs he wants to join.

So, despite the messages Brussels may be sending to temper the pace or depth of reform in Macedonia, Prime Minister Zaev has to decide who his real bosses are – his citizens, or the members of the clubs he wants to join. Deciding on the former does not mean abandoning the latter. Rather, generating popular support by delivering on justice and accountability will give Zaev and his compatriots greater leverage, not just with the European Commission, but also with the citizens of the EU’s member states who ultimately need to accept Macedonia as an ally or fellow member – some of them in direct referenda.

If an ambitious reform effort in Macedonia (with all the necessary breaking of crockery) succeeds, all will be forgiven with the EC bureaucracy and member state governments. Not making the full-bore attempt amounts to failure by default – and a betrayal of the opportunity the government has been given. That’s the choice Prime Minister Zaev and Macedonia’s true believing reformers have before them. They can no longer postpone it.

Kurt Bassuener is a PhD candidate and Fulbright Scholar at the University of St. Andrews Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is co-founder of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based initiative for accountable democratisation policy worldwide. He lives in Dundee.

Feature image: Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in October 2017, at a UN meeting about sustainable development. Image: Macedonia government [CC0 1.0]