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Id Foundation

Elections in Northern Macedonia: breakthrough for the nationalists

Every Monday morning, you can listen the director of the Identity and Democracy Foundation on Ligne Droite, Radio Courtoisie’s morning show, followed by his column on our website. This week, we focus on the presidential election in Northern Macedonia.


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Last week saw the first round of presidential elections in Northern Macedonia. Candidate for re-election, the outgoing president Stevo Pendarovski came second (20.48%) and will face Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova in the second round on 8 May. She was his unsuccessful candidate in the second round of the previous presidential election, but this time she came out well ahead in the first round (41.20%). Parliamentary elections will be held at the same time as the second round.


The political situation in Northern Macedonia


This small Balkan country to the north of Greece is dominated by two major political forces: on the one hand, a progressive left-wing force favorable to the European Union and NATO, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which won the elections in 2016 and has been in power ever since; and on the other, a nationalist right-wing party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, which is better known by its acronym VMRO.


The VMRO is a nationalist organization that has evolved considerably since it was founded in 1990. Northern Macedonia is a recent country, born of the break-up of Yugoslavia, and is struggling to define its identity. As a small country at the crossroads of several major cultural groupings, Northern Macedonia has undergone numerous migrations and external influences. It is also a multicultural country where Macedonians make up only 60% of the population, compared with 24% for the Albanians, for example. This is reflected in Macedonian nationalist discourse. The Panslavism and Yugoslavism that dominated the country during the communist period have been succeeded by antagonistic nationalisms. Bulgarophiles rely on the Slavic nature of the Macedonian language and the proximity between Bulgarian and Macedonian to call for rapprochement or even reunification with neighboring Bulgaria. Conversely, supporters of Antiquisation use the country’s geographical position to claim the heritage of the ancient Macedonians, particularly Alexander the Great. This claim is rejected by Greece, which sees it as the appropriation of its history by a Slavic people and has always refused to recognize the country under its former name of Republic of Macedonia. In 2018, the Prespa Agreement between Greece and the left-wing government of Northern Macedonia put an end to the dispute between the two countries. The Republic of Macedonia became the Republic of North Macedonia and recognized the absence of any link with the former Macedonia, as well as the Slavic character of the Macedonian language and people.


The evolutions of the VMRO nationalists were part of these debates. Initially moderate, Bulgarianophile, pro-European and pro-American, the VMRO became more radical when it took power in 2006. It then became an ultranationalist party, favorable to Serbia and Russia, opposed to the European Union and NATO, and spearheading antiquisation. Since its defeat in 2016, the VMRO has tended to reorient itself towards a centre-right party favorable to the European Union, liberal-conservative and supportive of NATO, even if a temptation to return to a much more nationalist discourse has appeared in recent years, particularly in the context of the Prespa Agreement with Greece, which the VMRO sees as a betrayal, a sign that it has not completely abandoned its support for antiquisation.


In addition to these two political forces, there is a third reality: the importance of the Albanian community. This Muslim community represents between 25% and 30% of the population of Macedonia and the political parties representing it are a major political force capable of making or breaking majorities. These three political forces (the social democratic left, the nationalist right and the parties of the Albanian minority) were the main contenders in these presidential elections.


The issues at stake in these elections


The first issue at stake in this election is the question of Macedonia’s relationship with the European Union and NATO, as Macedonia wishes to join the European Union in the long term and reorient itself towards a pro-Western stance. Then there are the problems of endemic corruption in the country, a powerful argument for the right-wing VMRO, which regularly accuses the ruling social-democratic party of corruption. Relations with minorities are also an important issue, given the tensions between the Albanian minority and the Macedonian majority. In 2001, the Albanians waged a war of independence in an attempt to separate the Albanian part of Macedonia and eventually join Albania. Since then, Albanian has been considered a co-official language with Macedonian, but tensions remain. Last but not least, the question of Macedonian identity is far from having been settled by the Prespa Agreement. This agreement, signed by the left, was rejected by the VMRO, which saw it as interference by Greece and continued to claim an ancient Macedonian identity. Strong debates about Macedonian identity persist, and this is one of VMRO’s main arguments against the left, which it accuses of having completely abandoned Macedonian identity. Conversely, the social democrats accuse the VMRO of threatening relations with Greece and Bulgaria, and therefore the country’s future membership of the European Union, and of wanting to bring the country closer to Serbia and Russia.


The results of the first round


The right-wing won the elections with over 41%, which came as a surprise. The Social Democratic Party, on the other hand, scored a very disappointing 20.5% of the vote. The Albanians confirmed their position as kingmakers, as the two Albanian parties combined for around 23% of the vote in the first round. For the nationalist right, the pleasant surprise was the emergence of a left-wing nationalist force. Two left-wing nationalist parties together achieved 15% of the vote. The second round therefore promises to be a difficult one for the right, but it could win the elections.


It is important to note that the second round of the presidential elections will take place at the same time as the parliamentary elections, when the whole of Macedonian political life will be determined. For a long time, the nationalist right was fairly isolated, with the Albanian parties tending to favour the left because of the VMRO’s nationalist discourse, which was perceived as hostile towards minorities, especially the Albanian minority. The emergence of left-wing nationalist forces could help to break VMRO’s isolation, and a government bringing together right-wing and left-wing nationalists could enable VMRO to govern the country without the help of the Albanians.


The stakes for Europe


These elections have high stakes for Europe. The VMRO’s accession to power could slow down Northern Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, or even reinforce the emergence of an anti-Western bloc in the Balkans, given the developments in Serbia and in Republika Srpska. There could also be a re-emergence of tensions between Northern Macedonia and Greece if VMRO were to call into question the agreements reached on Macedonian identity and change the country’s symbols (in particular the flag and emblem) to bring them back into line with antiquisation. Finally, it should not be forgotten that the Balkans are in the process of becoming a powder keg, notably due to the rise of Bosnian and Albanian Islamo-nationalism fueled by Turkey. In Bosnia, tensions persist between the Muslims of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the orthodox Serbs of Republika Srpska, while in Kosovo, the Muslim Albanians persist in their desire for ethnic cleansing against the Serbs. A VMRO victory could reactivate the very strong conflicts between Albanians and Macedonians and become part of the conflict between the Albanians and their Christian neighbors. And let’s not forget that Bulgaria is 10% Muslim, most of them Turkish. The opposition between Muslim and Christian peoples in the Balkans is likely to grow stronger in the years ahead and threatens to provoke a new conflict on Europe’s doorstep, much to Turkey’s delight.

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