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Sonja Stojadinovic: The Macedonian left-wing SDSM lost the election because it did not dismantle the Gruevski regime of nepotism and harmed Macedonian identity 


Sonja Stojadinovic holds bachelor and masters degree in political science and international relations, both from the Faculty of Law, Skopje, University of St. Cyril and Methodius, Republic of North Macedonia and a second masters degree in South East European Studies, from the University of Graz, Austria. Among her topics of research and work are the European Union integration process, international relations, labor law, workers’ rights, social equality, and Chinese investments on Western Balkans. She is a well-known columnist for Macedonian daily newspapers and regional political web sites, as well as a left-wing activist.

LeftEast is delighted to reprint this interview Vladimir Mitev recently conducted with our comrade and Macedonian political scientist Sonja Stojadinovic for Cross-border Talks, in which they discuss the internal situation and foreign policy dynamics immediately after the swearing the May 8 elections and the swearing in of Macedonia’s new president (Gordana Siljanovska from the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE).

After recent parliamentary elections, the right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE became the biggest party in the Macedonian parliament. In addition, their candidate was elected president of Macedonia. These developments are commented by foreign media as a huge turn in Macedonian politics as Macedonians appear to support politicians that look skeptically at the agreements with Greece and Bulgaria, including the so-called French proposal regarding constitutional changes facilitating the path to the EU. What are the political and social motives for this disappointment from left-wing Social-Democratic Union for Macedonia, which came to power 7 years ago with a promise to dismantle the stabilocracy headed by Nikola Gruevski? 

The main motives for the disappointment that came from the SDSM is that during the 7 years of their rule they have done nothing to dismantle the whole corrupt system that was installed not only by the Gruevski regime, but also by all previous Macedonian governments. Since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, there has been no government that has made any effort to fight corruption and nepotism and to hold all previous politicians accountable for their criminal activities and decisions that contributed to the erosion of state institutions and the country itself. The behavior of the SDSM during their 7 years in power was to steal as much as they could because they were in opposition for too long and became “hungry” for the state’s money. They did not uninstall the system of Gruevski, but they ‘upgraded’ it. 

Changing the country’s name, accepting a framework for negotiations with the EU that will further damage the identity of Macedonians, increasing the salaries of government officials by 78% while pensioners struggle to survive the month on their small pensions, have further contributed to the already devastating situation. The physical absence of citizens owing to high emigration abroad is clearly visible on the streets of Macedonian cities. For example, if someone tries to open a bar or a restaurant in the towns outside of Skopje, there are simply no people to come as customers because many of them have left the country in search of a better life.

Also, during the SDSM government and during the election campaigns, the SDSM and VMRO DPMNE did not find the strength to condemn the Albanian political party DUI (Democratic Alliance for Integration), which was a coalition partner of the SDSM, for its contribution to the total partization of the state institutions and for filling them with uneducated people employed solely because of their party membership and waving Great Albania flags and shouting the name of the Albanian terrorist organization UCHK during the election campaign.

To what extent can we expect a return to what the Gruevski regime was before as a state that was known for strong hegemony of one family and related oligarchy?

Maybe we will not see the same faces as before, but definitely the same corrupt system that produced oligarchs and one-family relations is there. Whether Gruevski comes back or not, the system will remain and will be improved by each new government and adapted to its needs and interests. If Mijalkov (the former head of the Macedonian secret services, who is a relative of former prime minister Gruevski – note of the editor) was the face of Gruevski’s family ties and how he rose to be the most influential person in Macedonia, we have seen the same with Zoran Zaev’s brother, Vice Zaev. The Zaev family has expanded its business with marijuana and during the government of Zoran Zaev, the family ties were very visible. With the return of VMRO-DPMNE in the government, maybe we will see new faces, maybe not, but the system remains.

What will be different now, when VMRO-DPMNE appears to be again set to take over power in the country?

Although the official program of the VMRO-DPMNE for the last elections (both presidential and parliamentary) is not to change the course towards the EU and not to leave NATO, they have often emphasized the bilateral agreements with Greece and Bulgaria. From their point of view, these agreements are harmful for Macedonia and its citizens and represent a direct attack on the Macedonian identity. However, we will see how much they will implement their threats and promises regarding the non-observance of these agreements, because we have seen many times “hot” promises during the election campaigns and lukewarm implementation of the threats afterwards. It is easy and very common for Macedonian politicians to make big promises during the election campaigns, but it is also common not to follow them after the achieved victory. The Macedonian electorate, unfortunately, loves to hear politicians’ hotheaded statements and promises and has not learned that not all promises can be fulfilled. 

We can expect that the conservative right-wing ideology will be followed, together with the control of the media, which was also enabled by the SDSM government with the amendments to the Law on Media. These amendments allow the financial support of the media by the government together with publishing government supported commercials and it is something that introduces the control of the media by the government and affects the freedom of speech. The program of the VMRO-DPMNE promises many investments in the energy sector and focus on the reduction of immigration, but we will see what they can do regarding the immigration, as they have strongly contributed to it during the last 10 years of government. Also, there is a “hot potato” that SDSM has left for VMRO DPMNE to deal with, and that is the constitutional amendments that are required of us to do it, more precisely, the inclusion of the Bulgarian minority as a constitutional nation.

What did the SDSM-led governments in the last seven years do to move the country further on the path to the EU? To what extent the reasons for the inability to start negotiations for EU accession lie with the internal situation in Macedonian society and government and to what extent they are caused by the international context? 

Many mistakes were made during the SDSM government. Many citizens, who are not members or supporters of Macedonian political parties, saw the change of the country’s name as a great shame and betrayal by the Social Democrats. The referendum on the name change held in 2018 was unsuccessful due to the low percentage of voters exercising their right to vote, but the government declared victory. For a long time, there have been other problems such as the lack of professionals to lead the negotiations with the EU because thousands of civil servants are employed on the basis of political party membership and not on the basis of their education and work skills.

Two months ago, the European anti-fraud office OLAF came out with a demand from Macedonian institutions to return 2.2 million euros, money used from EU funds. Last year in June, the government announced that by February 12, 2024, all Macedonian citizens must replace their personal documents (passport, ID, driver’s license) with new documents that contain the new name of the country, North Macedonia. This created a huge chaos due to the facts that many people were on vacation or were planning to go on vacation, the announcement came with a period of less than one year for the passports to be replaced and this was a result of the bilateral agreement with Greece for changing the state name. Nobody officially informed the citizens that the government had started to issue new documents with the new name 2 years ago and that they are obliged to change their documents within two years and the government in the given period issued documents both with and without the new name of the country. Therefore, the SDSM government literally punished its own citizens by blocking them from leaving the country if they do not have a passport with the new name of the country. This unreasonable and irrational decision has further contributed to the erosion of the already bad reputation of the SDSM among the citizens. Not to mention the costs that the citizens had to pay for the issuance of new documents, the chaos and humiliation that they experienced.

Moreover, as I said before, SDSM did not try to dismantle the system of family ties and connections installed by the previous governments and strongly developed by the VMRO-DPMNE. They have strengthened it with the family ties of SDSM members and their Albanian coalition partner DUI. We have seen an increase in the price of electricity to allow private electricity companies that entered the Macedonian electricity market to sell at higher prices and make a quick profit. These companies were owned by family members of politicians from the Albanian party DUI.  

For many years, the international community has contributed to Macedonia’s inability to start negotiations with the EU. It is not only our fault and responsibility that we are not already members of the EU. Brussels’ indifference to Macedonia’s bilateral problems and the fact that two EU members (Greece and Bulgaria) allowed Macedonia to flex its nationalist muscles have also contributed to the situation in which Macedonia finds itself today. From my point of view, both neighboring countries, Greece and Bulgaria, missed the chance to be the leaders and supporters of Macedonia’s EU membership. Instead, they chose the path of nationalism and denial of the Macedonian state and national identity. This is not how good neighborly relations should work.

The new Macedonian president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova had strong rhetoric against the agreements with Greece and Bulgaria. How likely is it that North Macedonia under her rule will be able to achieve the renegotiation or exit from these agreements? 

As I said before, we will see how much these promises can become reality. No matter how much the VMRO-DPMNE considers these bilateral agreements harmful for Macedonia, they are both approved and supported by the international community and it will be difficult to renegotiate them without strong negative consequences. 

Already at her inauguration in the parliament on Sunday, the new president Gordana Siljanovska Davkova did not use the prefix North in her speech when referring to the country of Macedonia. This caused an open reaction from the Greek Ambassador Sophia Philippidou, who left the hall as a sign of protest. There were also open reactions from the Greek Prime Minister Mitzotakis and from Bulgarian president Rumen Radev. The position of the VMRO-DPMNE is reciprocity in both bilateral agreements. However, Greece has not implemented its obligations from the Prespa Agreement, and Bulgaria has not taken any step towards the recognition of the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Renegotiation of both bilateral agreements without negative consequences is difficult, but we have to be honest that there is no reciprocity in their implementation and this is something that contributes to the policy of VMRO-DPMNE to openly ask for renegotiation.

The Bulgarian public should not think that the demands for renegotiation of the bilateral agreement between Macedonia and Bulgaria are directed against Bulgarian citizens and the state itself, or that Macedonia is turning towards  Serbia. We have to make a difference that Serbian politicians never denied the existence of the Macedonian state and identity, as Bulgaria did and still does. There is an internal wing in the VMRO-DPMNE party that always blames Serbia for our internal problems, but we have to see Serbia from the perspective of an official state policy. 

What is the future of Macedonian-Greek and Macedonian-Bulgarian relations in the context of these electoral ambitions of the winners of elections?

On a human level, in daily communication and cooperation, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Greeks have been getting along well for decades. Macedonians have been doing business with Greeks for decades, despite the bilateral problem, and many Macedonians have completed their academic education in Bulgaria. Macedonians in the eastern part of the country are doing business with Bulgarians. These are one of the foundations on which these relations should be based. Finding common ground and building cooperation without interfering with the hot-headed nationalistic vocabulary and denial of the existence of the very close neighbor are the foundations of the future of our relations. It is difficult to imagine that these relations will be changed in a negative way on the basis of the current winners of the elections. It is important to know that despite the hot vocabulary of the election campaign it is in the interest of all three sides to keep the relations on a positive track.  

What will be the Macedonian foreign policy strategy now that VMRO-DPMNE, which has certain sovereignist orientation, is about to take power? 

The VMRO-DPMNE claimed that it would establish a foreign policy with a strong backbone and respect for neighbors. This is difficult to do without a strong diplomatic network and high-level professionals. 

The VMRO-DPMNE has stated in its election program that it has a plan to renew Macedonian diplomacy and to strengthen it with professionals and to open new embassies around the world. These are sweet words due to the fact that just like SDSM, VMRO-DPMNE has strongly contributed to the long process of destroying Macedonian diplomacy and its quality, something that we inherited from Yugoslavia. It is hard to say that they can install any kind of foreign policy that can be seen as different and better than the previous ones.

Moreover, a change in foreign policy by the VMRO-DPMNE may also be problematic because they are currently negotiating with a strongly nationalist Albanian party, VLEN, which openly advocates the federalization of the country. With a nationalist coalition partner who is interested in the slow but steady creation of a Greater Albania, it is difficult to conduct a sovereign foreign policy. 

We can expect cooperation with the countries that have right-wing governments, which was already the case during the previous VMRO-DPMNE government, but not strong changes in foreign policy towards the EU and the USA, because this could lead to the international isolation of the country.

How do you expect the relations with Macedonian neighbours in the Western Balkans to unfold? Will North Macedonia continue to be part of the Open Balkans initiative? 

I do not expect any changes in Macedonia’s relations with its Western Balkan neighbors. It is in mutual interest to continue the cooperation on all levels and to keep Macedonia in the Open Balkan Initiative. It is good that we can now work in the Western Balkan countries without visas, but Open Balkan should not be a substitute for the EU. Through this initiative we can “practice” how to establish and maintain the internal market as it is established in the EU, but we should not stay in this initiative forever.

Macedonia has created over the last decades pro-European experts and elites, who also have their contacts and influence in various EU capitals. What is the future of the EU integration of the country? And how would the future Macedonian government position itself if it is asked to make a choice between siding with the pro-American or the pro-Chinese forces in the region? 

I do not know how the future Macedonian government will choose between pro-American and pro-Chinese forces in the region. My opinion is first of all that all pro-American and pro-EU forces have to answer to the question and that is how they have “allowed” China to be so strongly present in the Balkans despite all their promises and support that Macedonia will be an EU member and its being a strong ally of the USA.

The main question is what China has offered more than the EU and the US to be the preferred partner in some investments for Macedonia and the Balkan countries. Choosing an ally that offers more than the others is normal in domestic and foreign policy. There are no eternal friendships, only eternal interests. China has offered political non-interference in the cooperation with the Western Balkan countries and this is something that the Balkan countries have needed and appreciated much more than the loans and credits for various forms of investments.

The mouths of Macedonian politicians are full of EU, but one thing is much more important. We have not reached the EU standards on many levels. We have strong environmental pollution, widespread corruption, shockingly low efficiency of the judicial system. First, we have to meet the EU standards for ourselves, then for membership in the EU.

What role could countries like Bulgaria and Romania, which are members of the EU from the region, play in the modernization and development of North Macedonia in the current internal Macedonian and international situation?

Bulgaria and Romania can contribute to Macedonia’s integration into the EU by sharing their experience and support. As large countries, they have certainly made mistakes on their way to the EU and can greatly contribute to minimizing mistakes that the Macedonian government and institutions may make. Another problem that needs to be solved from the beginning and where both countries can help in some way is the reduction of immigration to the EU and the retention of skilled workers in the country, which is our current and burning problem. 

Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian Romanian-speaking and Persian-speaking journalist. He is the founder of the Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship”, as well as the founder of the Bulgarian-Romanian-Persian blog “The Persian Bridge of Friendship”. Vladimir is correspondent of Radio Romania for Bulgaria and is an editor at the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria.