Can Zoran Zaev avoid turning into Zlatko Lagumdzija?
By David B. Kanin*
In my view, instability will become more likely in Macedonia if Nikola Gruevski manages to regain power. His accusations against foreign ambassadors and NGOs in the wake of his party’s relative electoral failure were both dark and false. Gruevski has proven himself to be a run of the mill petty autocrat dedicated to his own glorification and his country’s permanent marginality. Macedonia’s fragile institutions would pass a major test if they could prevent him from forcing his way back into power and could protect the essential effort by the country’s special prosecutors to identify, clarify, and bring to ground whatever crimes have been revealed by the recent orgy of recorded conversations.
That is old business (let’s hope). Assuming Gruevski and his thugs are put out of business, it still will not be easy for VMRO-DPMNE’s opponents to figure out what kind of a government to form and how to put Macedonia on track toward something besides entropy. The Social Democrats should keep in mind their own electoral problems. The ongoing wiretapping scandal helped SDSM gain votes this time, but in 2014 – the last relatively representative election before the latest ballot – that party’s poor performance was due as much to its own bad leadership as to any vote stealing by VMRO-DPMNE. At that time Zoran Zaev –- appropriately — came under criticism from some of his own subordinates for a tone-deaf campaign and for his appearing to the electorate to be as untrustworthy as Gruevski. Underneath the palpable mood of relief that the most recent elections came off, and of the determination to be vigilant against Gruevski’s intention to lay siege to the state, it is not clear how much the political class and populace (the views of international diplomats are not important) are–willing to trust any government Zaev can put together.
Assuming SDSM cobbles together some kind of coalition with ethnic Albanians, the danger will still exist that Zaev reverts to form and settles into the archetypal, profitable, and comfortable role of patronage boss. His past behavior, including his pointless boycott of parliament after the defeat he suffered — and earned –- in 2014 suggests a pattern of seeking to organize a personal court rather than a functioning professional system.
This makes the attitudes and performances of other SDSM functionaries an important indicator of the party’s value and the country’s future. The disappointing trajectory during the 1990s and 2000s of Bosnia’s Social Democrats (SDP) should serve as a cautionary guide. Let’s remember that Zlatko Lagumdzija was not the only (or best) choice for party leadership. Tuzla Mayor Selim Beslagic had a track record for honesty and sincere dedication to the welfare of everyone regardless of their communal identity. Tuzla stood out as one of the few places where civic politics could function effectively and relatively honestly no matter whether under the notional jurisdiction of a collapsing Yugoslavia or of an emerging dysfunctional Bosnia-Herzegovina.
How Lagumdzija elbowed out Beslagic is not relevant to the issue here (although there is a history to be written about that dynamic, the story of how the boys of Serbia’s DOS marginalized Vesna Pesic after October 2000, and other cases where better roads were not taken). The relevant point is that Bosnia’s SDP came to power twice, squandered both chances on patronage-as-usual behavior, and led many in both constituent communities in what is an illegitimate Federation entity to come to the reasonable conclusion that it makes little sense to vote for alternatives to ethnic-oriented parties. In 2012, As his second stint at the top started to wobble, Lagumdzija underscored the reasons for not trusting him by striking a cynical deal with Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik that worked to the latter’s advantage and led even some close to Lagumdzija to shake their heads. There have been subsequent efforts to create multi-ethnic politics in the Federation and more will follow, but so what?
Somehow, SDSM has to do better than that. This will not be easy with Zaev at the helm. Nothing in his past behavior suggests he will be anything but another self-focused Big Man. It is not clear that there exist people in the party determined to hold Zaev accountable for what he does going forward, and to challenge him as soon as it becomes clear he intends to hijack the system as Gruevski and others have repeatedly done in Macedonia since Kiro Gligorov left office.
What about the Albanians?
Macedonia is a country in which a constitution exists but does not matter. This is true about many countries, of course, but Macedonia is different in that there nevertheless is a basic law in place. The 2001 Ohrid Agreement constructed a consociational arrangement that continues to operate to this day (although since 2014 the steel cage brawl between Gruevski and Zaev has undermined it). The recent elections have made it clear that Ali Ahmeti, the leading ethnic Albanian politician since Ohrid, is fast becoming another Big Man in trouble. His party’s poor performance at the polls has highlighted the emergence of Besa as a viable alternative – the agreement forged by three of the four ethnic Albanian parties is only a holding action pending future intra-Albanian competition. This will create problems for Zaev as well as for Ahmeti, as both notables attempt to balance personal interest, demands levied by others’ personal interests, and difficult substantive policy decisions.
The issues raised and shelved at Ohrid remain on the table. What will be the share of government jobs reserved for ethnic Albanians? Under what circumstances can ethnic Albanians and their representative use the Albanian language, fly the Albanian flag, and otherwise remind everyone else in the region that Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian community has little interest in either a unitary Macedonia or the West’s much-faded effort to force multi-cultural dogma on the Balkans.? What will be the relationship among ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, compatriots in Kosova who themselves are wrestling with a stunted sovereignty (the asterisk remains an open sore), and those in northern Albania whose economic and cultural ties with Kosovars and Macedonian Albanians are closer than those with Albanians south of the Shkumbin River? What is in any of this for the country’s Macedonian majority?
In the wake of the three-party agreement, it would be healthy for Ahmeti to relinquish his government and party positions –- he has had plenty of time to come through on his promises and would serve his community best by giving others a chance to build on his performance. It would be helpful on both sides of Macedonia’s communal line if the three Ethnic Albanian parties to the deal forge a coalition with SDSM and then establish working ties with those SDSM ministers and other officials who prove more likely than Zaev to work for the benefit of their constituents (defined more broadly than those people looking for jobs and under-the-table handouts). SDSM took advantage of Ahmeti’s waning popularity to attract ethnic Albanian votes and elect a couple of ethnic Albanian legislators, but that does not yet make SDSM a bi-ethnic party. Nevertheless, a government capable of accomplishing modest but measurable improvements in administrative performance, of enabling even marginal economic growth, and of establishing public trust would be a very good thing.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.