Concerns Grow About Authoritarianism in Macedonia
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA — The ambitious retooling of this small nation’s identity — a Balkan brand of hyper-patriotism accompanied by the trumpeting of Macedonia’s ancient roots — is raising concerns internationally about growing authoritarianism, the silencing of dissent and accusations of abuse of power by the governing party here.
The European Commission released its annual report this week on the country’s progress toward E.U. membership, and found that the country was backtracking on protecting media freedoms and that it was making insufficient progress on protecting the rule of law.
The criticism comes as Macedonia’s quirky national soul-searching has intensified. Visitors entering the country are now told via text messages on their mobile phones: “welcome to Macedonia, the cradle of civilization.” The center of the capital is a bizarre jumble of historically and aesthetically dissonant statuary: on a short walk, visitors will see a 29-meter, or 95-foot, bronze Alexander the Great, along with statues of Justinian, Mother Teresa, the ninth-century Orthodox Christian saints Cyril and Methodius, and a 22-meter-high triumphal arch, among others.
(photo: Antti T. Nissinen/flickr)
But the renaissance of Macedonian pride masks a more sinister anti-democratic current, according to domestic critics and international observers.
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, a 41-year-old economist, led his populist center-right political party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, or I.M.R.O., to its third consecutive mandate in June elections — the most of any Macedonian government since the former Yugoslav republic declared independence in 1991.
The International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental conflict-resolution organization, said in its report on Macedonia this August: “Rising ethnic Macedonian nationalism, state capture by the prime minister and his party, decline in media and judicial independence, increased segregation in schools and slow decentralization risk undermining the multi-ethnic civil state Macedonia can become.”
The patriotic politics of I.M.R.O. have generated a public debate about “real Macedonians” and “traitors,” said Vasiliki Neofotistos, an anthropologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo studying identity politics in Macedonia. “People are afraid, and they are very divided.”
Growing concerns about a decline in press freedoms climaxed when the government revoked the license of A-1 television on July 30, perhaps the most openly critical media voice. While the government defended the closing on the basis of violations of tax laws, critics argued that pro-government media have never been audited.
Three newspapers owned by the same media group stopped printing earlier the same month after facing a similar investigation.
The government is one of the biggest advertisers in Macedonia, and its weight in the advertising market is also used to control the media, analysts say.
“Editors and journalists are faced with increasing undue political pressure and intimidation” according to the 2011 report of the European Commission released Wednesday.
In one bizarre incident last month, three pro-government Macedonian journalists attended a European Parliament hearing on media freedom in Macedonia called “Silencing the Press” and heckled the hearing members, according to media reports. They called the members “Taliban” and “one-sided Euro-Bolsheviks” before being ejected from the room.
The E.U. report also states: “The media continue to be subject to interference from political and business interests. Intimidation of journalists and selective enforcement of legislation against media companies are increasing causes for concern.”
Aside from the issue of media control. the E.U. report found that “some limited progress can be reported on the independence and efficiency of the judiciary.”
Some legislative amendments were adopted covering a range of issues in the judiciary, the report found, however “core problems relating to independence, competence and efficiency still remain to be tackled in practice.”
A 2009 survey by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental regional security group, found that 44 percent of Macedonian judges surveyed said that judges in their courts “faced external influences and pressures,” mainly from the executive branch of government, but also from political parties and other judges.
The justice minister later denied that there was political pressure on judges.
The I.M.R.O. party rejects the nationalist label, describing itself as a “big tent” party inclusive of all citizens of Macedonia. However, the party’s “patriotic” program finds no traction among Albanians, who make up some 25 percent of the population.
The Albanian parties have expressed concerns that “the antiquization” of Macedonia’s identity is alienating Macedonia’s friends in the E.U.
But officials within I.M.R.O. deny the party is changing Macedonians’ identity.
“It’s more of a re-establishment of our identity,” Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski said an interview at an opening ceremony for a new section of highway outside Skopje last month. “We are trying to recreate the identity because it was lost during communism.”
“If you read the newspapers, you will see that most are criticizing the government,” said Mr. Stavreski, dismissing the allegations of a I.M.R.O. clampdown. “It’s a normal political fight like in any other country.”
Despite the increase in international criticism, the government has won praise from many Macedonians by bringing a bit of style to this formerly gray Yugoslav city.
The Skopje 2014 renovation project includes not just 20 tall statues, and over 100 small ones, but 220 retro red double-decker city buses from China and brand-new civic buildings and museums.
On the streets of Skopje, many Macedonians say they like the new look of the city, finding it more like other European capitals. They also like that it’s more “Macedonian.”
“I.M.R.O. is a patriotic party, national heritage and national identity is what the party stands for,” said Vladimir Gjorcev, 33, a I.M.R.O. MP and senior party official, giving a reporter a tour in his car.
Asked about the concerns of foreign institutions about government tightening its grip over the media and the judiciary, Mr. Gjorcev changed the subject to talk about the new shopping centers and business parks built on the outskirts of town with investments by British and American companies.
Mr. Gjorcev, a former party spokesman, noted that the last 20 years have been the first time in centuries that Macedonia has been an independent state — and that it was time to rebuild the city to house national institutions.
“Finally we can design the interior of our own living room,” Mr. Gjorcev said.