Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the new Balkan web-portal Bilten.org. Original publication in Serbo-Croatian is to be found here.
With approaching parliamentary and presidential elections in Macedonia this April a ‘new political situation’ is emerging. After almost nine years of total dominance by the current governing coalition – characterized by twin Macedonian and Albanian ethno-nationalisms – most of those interested in politics here naively hoped that this sort of rhetoric would fade away. This is especially true in light of the devastating socio-economic situation and the government’s harsh support for policies intensifying social and economic inequalities in Macedonia. Based on the number of socially-oriented protest movements that mobilized citizens in recent years and their significant impact on public discourse, one is tempted to think that the ethno-nationalist rhetoric would have been deprived of mobilizing space or that existing parties would have turned towards a more socially informed politics. The ‘new political situation’ has to do with the withering away of the belief among many activists that the increasing pressures exerted by worsening material conditions would have reshaped party platforms to reflect citizens’ needs (thus weakening nationalism and its mobilizing power).
The early campaigning period, which hasn’t officially started, already reveals an intensified period of nationalist discourse to come. The two ruling parties, the conservative Macedonian VMRO-DPME (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) and the Albanian DUI (Democratic Union for Integration) are not hesiting to deploy once again their bizarre political rhetoric to mobilize around non-issues. The VMRO-DPME launched their campaigning with the optimistic aim of electing 65 MPs, which would give them an absolute majority of seats in the Macedonian parliament, thus invalidating the need to negotiate with the Albanian DUI. It is clear that such a call runs against all the political and legal principles of the country, which is constitutionally defined as a multiethnic and democratic state. However, in a context where the concept of citizens’ representation is being replaced by that of ethnic competition, it seems a fairly pragmatic thing to do.
On the other hand the leader of the DUI, after failing to negotiate a consensual presidential bid with prime minister Gruevski (VMRO-DPME), announced publicly his intention to not recognize the future president elect. Despite the fact that Macedonia is a unitary state, the mode of politics that sees ethnic antagonisms, threats and contestation as politically viable tools continues to be validated as an expression of ‘patriotism.’ With a high degree of control over the media, and a serious crackdown on the freedom of the press, the current government has ensured a nearly hegemonic position for itself in dictating Macedonia’s political agenda. Under such circumstances, the two major opposition parties, the Social-Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) have little space, if at all, to promulgate any progressive political ideas. Instead, they are drawn into nationalist narratives and participate election campaigning with nationalist arguments of their own. Only the SDSM presidential candidate has made any serious attempts to reach out to the Albanian community and to other ethnic groups, a move that is already being portrayed as potentially damaging when it comes to his support among ethnic Macedonians .
The project of building an ethno-national state in Macedonia since the early ’90s established the foundations for the political activity that followed. This project included effective discrimination against non-Macedonian groups in the country, including descrimination along economic, educational and social lines. This led to the establishment of purely mono-ethnic parties whose political agendas sought to resolve ethnic issues for the benefit of their respective groups. This rationale, embedded in our constitution and our legal system from the very beginning, became the dominant force in the organization of political and personal life in Macedonia. Neighborhoods became more and more ethnically homogenous, cities increasingly divided, and antagonisms deepened. This situation benefited transitional elites who proceeded to privatize the economy for their own benefit without any serious social resistance. Instead political power was mobilized for the beneift of ethnic and nationalist contestation, effectively occluding the growing economic power of a few newly created owners of capital over an increasingly dispossessed working class and an growing army of unemployed (now a third of the population).
Nationalism played a key role in the privatization of state assets in Macedonia during the early ’90s, given that transition was seen as moving society away from a system shaped by an economic ideology towards a post-ideology economics, i.e. economics pure and simple. It is under these conditions that nationalist narratives established themselves as the only real idealism. Because of its emotive dictates and its ability to into invoke the position of the victim – as ethnic Macedonians were told they were suffering because of unjust obstacles in realizing their own national state and ethnic Albanians felt their status slip to that of second-rank citizens – nationalism was experienced as the postsocialist ideology par excellence. The devastating social effects of privatization on the social fabric, and its tremendous social, health and psychological costs, became a gain for nationalist ideologues. The splitting of working-class communities into smaller social units of households, families and individuals made it easier for nationalism to reorganize people into ethnic groups, using the unity of other ethnic groups equated with political danger as a pretext. Under these circumstances, nationalism came to be seen as a relevant response to the harm of privatization.
The resurgence of harsh ethno-nationalist language during every election cycle confirms that the dominant political mentality in the country is based on rigid divisions within society, which consequently reinforce and re-establish them as real political identities. During the last local elections in 2013, the logic of ethnically centered politics took on an unprecedented turn, with the two most bitter political rivals in the country – Macedonia’s conservatives and Social-Democrats – forming ethnic coalitions in Struga and Kičevo to consolidate the ‘Macedonian vote’ against the ‘Albanians.’ Only a few days ago, Ali Ahmeti, the main political leader of the Albanians in Macedonia and the DUI’s president, during a lengthy interview, explained that in Macedonia, elections are never about political ideas but rather ethnic votes, which according to him are supposed to be the main determinant of the political processes in the country.
The immediate question that arises, if this is to be taken as an adequate description of the Macedonian political context, is why do we then need elections at all? Why not opt instead for a census oriented political system? By reinforcing ethnocentric discourses, the political focus on demographic issues has dramatically increased as a result of a growing array of government policies and campaigns. Last year we saw prime minister Gruevski deliver speeches calling for ethnic Macedonian women to focus on giving birth to more children, followed by a harsh campaign against women who pursue careers or independence, portrayed as anti-family choices threatening the nation. Following this intensified campaign on family issues a new abortion law was also adopted, setting up a series of limitations on women’s freedom to choose. Ethnic-nationalism has thus come to affect the lives of an increasing number of citizens, particularly women. Furthermore, in order to boost their nationalist appeal, especially inside the ethnic Macedonian political camp, opposition activists and leaders, as well as critical journalists and intellectuals, are being increasingly branded as traitors, ‘Sorosoids’ (meaning mercenaries of foreign interests) and Greek collaborators for their activities.
In recent months, a number of actions and gatherings by activist political groups have attempted to mobilize the popular dissatisfaction of those citizens living in poverty, unemployment or in constant fear of the government repression. The two most active groups, Solidarnost and Lenka, sought to support worker protests from factories bankrupted as a result of privatization. These actions coincided with the ‘Bosnian Uprising’ (February 2014) and many activists felt that there was an increasingly rebellious sentiment in Macedonia as well. They therefore organized actions to mobilize a wider base of support behind the workers. The protests were highly mediatized due to the ensuing clashes with the police, though they failed to ignite a wider social mobilization in Macedonia. Instead, the government succesfully used its near total control of the media to demonize the opposition as traitors, elitists and corrupt bourgeois. This sentiment is continuously exploited for the purposes of discrediting any sort of protest movement by portraying protestors as the extended hand of the opposition. This practice has been so persistent that it has become ‘common sense’ even for ordinary citizens. Suspicion marks most attempts at political organizations, including the activities of NGOs trying to voice their concerns over the mounting socio-economic disaster and the narrowing space for freedom and democracy in Macedonia.
The ‘new political situation’ in Macedonia thus calls for a serious rethinking of political perspectives in society, since the tendency of ethno-nationalist logic increases tensions, confrontations and possible outbursts of far-right populism by mobilizing mobs that might test the future of the country. Interethnic tensions have become increasingly common in the last four to five years, including in schools, stadiums, streets, neighborhoods, buses and in other segregated social spaces. These tensions are a direct result of the active political praxis of a government persisting with a pattern of dual ethno-nationalisms that coexist in a coalition and are only bound to each other as a result of a negotiated system of corruption.
This political situation is new in the sense that it calls for the immediate mobilization of progressive forces in Macedonia, forging an alliance of political organizations, NGOs and other civic platforms aimed at rupturing the reproduction of nationalist logics within both major ethnic groups. We urgently need to advance a renewed sense of shared belonging, one that is open and accessible to all citizens. This can be achieved by focusing on our common material experience of economic and social life, but also on our culturally shared perceptions. Here we must critically asses the cultural-liberal undertaking of the civil sector, which after the ethnic conflict in 2001 – and under the heavy influence of donor ideological convictions – spent a great deal of money promoting cultural difference in the country, which was supposed to become the basis for tolerance and respect. These differences were, under donor-driven logic, extended beyond normal, everyday manifestations, becoming a unbridgeable burden instead. The whole cultural-liberal undertaking that intentionally ignored the social consequences of continued privatization (a common lived experience uniting the majority of citizens), produced effects contrary to their proclaimed aim.
By now, we are aware that in addition to building political alliances that foreground the socio-economic commonalities uniting the majority in Macedonia, we also have to actively work at dismantling the institutional praxis that reproduces ethnonationalist discourses sustaining current political elites. Without institutional engagement and institutional reform and intervention, it is naive to expect that existing political parties will abandon policies that produce segregated schools and neighborhoods, a Macedonian Skopje 2014 Square as well as an Albanian Skanderbeg Square in the centre of Skopje or a schizophrenic public, intellectual and cultural life in Macedonia. It is precisely the lack of formalisation among smaller movements into a political structure which would provide a strong institutional alternative to ethno-nationalism that has produced a series of failures and dissapointments. The upcoming elections can at least provide a call for those who have plunged into intellectual despair, activist sectarianism or cultural self-fulfillment, to rethink their strategies and engage in Macedonia’s messy politics. By doing so, we can finally bring some sense to the process we know as ‘elections,’ which again and again for more than two decades was merely a process for validating the same ethnic majorities. We now need to invent a new majority!