With an election looming, BIRN takes a look at Social Democrat Zoran Zaev’s record as prime minister of North Macedonia.
By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
When Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev gave his inauguration speech in mid-2017 as the newly elected prime minister of Macedonia, it marked the end of years of escalating political crisis over the rule of his autocratic predecessor, Nikola Gruevski.
In the spirit of the occasion, Zaev promised to turn a new page in the country’s history with a raft of bold pledges.
Three years on, with the country renamed ‘North Macedonia’ and a parliamentary election due next month, a BIRN fact-check shows that of 43 promises Zaev made during the speech, just 16 have been fully met and 12 only partially. No progress has been made on any of the rest.
Though the odds were stacked against him, Zaev struck historic deals to settle long-standing disputes with neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria, clearing a path to NATO accession and an invitation to begin talks on joining the European Union.
Progress has also been made in relations with the country’s large ethnic Albanian minority and in improving minority rights. But such successes stand in sharp contrast to the failures in the field of rule of law, a sore point for Zaev after a decade of creeping ‘state capture’ under Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE.
Zaev’s government did much of the legislative legwork sought by the EU, but the credibility of its flagship Special Prosecution body, SJO, tasked with rooting out high-level corruption, crumbled under the weight of a graft scandal involving one of its own.
High-level convictions have been sorely lacking, while the government’s own commitment was called into question when Gruevski miraculously fled to Hungary in 2018 and parliament passed an amnesty law the same year that allowed many of those involved in the storming of the assembly in 2017 to evade charges.
On the economic front, the government kept a pledge to ensure fiscal stability but a promised major economic upturn never materialised. Zaev also promised sharp increases in the minimum wage and the country’s average monthly salary, but this was only partially fulfilled.
On democracy and media freedom, Zaev’s record is mixed, with a number of systemic reforms still stuck.
In his defence, Zaev only had two and a half years in office before he resigned in early 2020 to allow the formation of a caretaker government to lead the country into an election which was then delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Euro-Atlantic breakthrough delivered
After a decade of drift and disappointment on the foreign policy front under Gruevski, Zaev vowed in his inauguration speech to take the country into NATO by the end of his mandate and begin accession talks with the EU, both blocked mainly by a dispute with Greece over the name ‘Macedonia’.
Zaev surprised the sceptics when, in 2017, he struck a friendship agreement with Bulgaria and then, the following year, months of high-stakes diplomacy ended in a deal with Greece under which Macedonia would become ‘North Macedonia’ and Athens would drop its veto on its northern neighbour’s NATO and EU accession.
North Macedonia became the Western military’s alliance’s 30th member at the start of this year.
The EU goal proved more complex, with France slamming on the brakes for Albania and North Macedonia last year, arguing the bloc should first resolve it own internal differences before taking in any new members.
Zaev resigned and the clock began ticking to an election set for April 12. The coronavirus pandemic pushed the vote back to July 15. France, meanwhile, softened its stance and EU leaders gave the green light to accession talks in March.
Rule of law: on paper, not in practice
On the rule of law, Zaev initially promised a vetting process to root out corrupt judges and said his cabinet would pass several key laws and provisions sought by the EU to “create conditions” for an overhaul of the justice system.
The newly-elected prime minister promised to rid the courts of political interference so that many high-profile graft investigations and trials could be brought to swift and fair conclusions.
He even spoke of a till being set up in central Skopje to count the money returned to state coffers after each guilty verdict.
The corpus of laws and provisions were passed, to praise from Brussels.
But beyond the ticking of boxes, both the EU and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission said the changes had still to be put into practice.
In June 2019, a survey conducted by the non-governmental Centre for Legal Research and Analysis among legal professionals revealed that the image of the justice system was still poor. Those surveyed gave the lowest score for judicial ‘independence and impartiality’ – 2.2 out of a possible five.
A third of the judges and half of other court employees said other institutions exerted pressure on the courts; 40 per cent of judges also said disciplinary measures were not carried out objectively or based on professional principles.
The Special Prosecution, meanwhile, ran aground after chief prosecutor Katica Janeva was arrested and charged with corruption in mid-2019.
In its four-and-a-half years of existence, the SJO managed to close just three cases, two of which ended in charges being withdrawn.
Some 40 cases remained unfinished and were transferred to the regular public prosecution, 15 of which are being tried by the Criminal Court. The SJO also left behind 19 ongoing investigations in which charges have yet to be filed.
But the biggest symbolic blow was dealt by Gruevski himself when he fled a jail sentence for the illicit purchase of a luxury Mercedes, the one case that the SJO managed to close successfully. He was granted asylum in Hungary.
Zaev’s government abandoned its promise to vet judges, arguing it could leave the courts unable to work. That has not stopped him from making the promise again ahead of the next election.
Democracy and media: a mixed bag
Taking power, the Social Democrats promised an inclusive, multi-ethnic society built on civic values, mutual respect and open debate, the kind of society that has largely evaded North Macedonia in the two decades since it flirted with civil war during fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
As promised, in March 2018 parliament passed a new Language Law that extended the official use of the Albanian language across the country, to howls of betrayal by the opposition VMOR-DPMNE.
Efforts to improve media freedoms after years of backsliding under Gruevski, however, ran aground.
Changes were made to how senior figures are appointed at the country’s public broadcaster and the electronic media regulator, but new appointments to both have been held up by political disagreements at the parliamentary committee level between the Social Democrats and the VMRO-DPMNE.
The makeup of the ostensibly independent Program Council of the public broadcaster remains the same as it was under Gruevski, when it was accused of serving solely the interests of his government.
The Social Democrats also vowed to cut the flow of public money to private media outlets, a practice that flourished under the previous government as a way, critics argued, to extend its political influence beyond state-run media.
It has indeed been cut, but not entirely:
In 2018, Zaev’s government began subsidising the production costs of print media, arguing an exception should be made given the climate facing print media around the world.
This year, with COVID-19 on the march, the caretaker government led by Social Democrat deputy leader Oliver Spasovski announced a similar package to help private TV stations stay afloat. It was a one-off, the government said, and in no way a bid to buy favourable coverage.
When it comes to money, promises half met
On the economic and social welfare front, the performance of Zaev’s government again looks better on paper than in practice.
While many of the smaller steps were taken, the bigger promises were left unfulfilled or only partially met.
The government, for example, did cut the tax paid by citizens to fund the national broadcaster and scrapped the surcharge for a stay in a public hospital.
It also boosted state subsidies for farmers and agricultural workers and gave more money in the form of grants to start-ups and in loans to small and medium enterprises.
The data for 2017 and 2018 show the government, as promised, allocated some 600 million euros for capital investments. But poor realisation meant the money actually spent only reached this level at the end of last year.
COVID-19 means the government will almost inevitably miss it target of GDP growth in excess of five per cent by the end of 2020, when its regular term should have ended.
But even before the pandemic, the target looked out of reach, with the economy forecasted to grow 3.5 per cent in 2020 prior to the lockdown imposed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Keen for people to see tangible benefits, Zaev vowed to increase the minimum monthly wage from 150 euros to 220 euros. And he did. But the average salary in the country fell short of Zaev’s promise of “up to 500 euros”, having climbed from some 320 euros in 2017 to around 400 euros at the start of this year.
The government’s promise to hike wages for doctors hangs in the balance given the threat of significant budget cuts due to the pandemic.