By Harald Schenker*
It is now nearly two years since a nationalist mob stormed the Macedonian parliament, the most despicable and destructive act of political cowardice this country has seen in the almost two decades since it narrowly avoided civil war in 2001.
That act in April 2017 changed the country and put an irreversible end to the era of Nikola Gruevski and his cronies. Or did it? Many of them have been amnestied and continue to enjoy the perks of a large variety of companies and real estate.
Ever since the moment civil society protests were taken over by the now-governing Social Democrats in March 2015, it seemed that history was being made on almost a daily basis.
With much support from the European Union and some of its members, but also from the United States, the country recovered from total state capture and continues to stumble along the path of reform towards the end goal of EU and NATO membership.
Meanwhile, the main problem blocking progress has been solved – ‘North Macedonia’ has become a reality. Or has it?
This Sunday will see the first round of presidential elections.
The vote will put an end to the mandate of a president who has never, not for a single moment in his ten years residing in the villa above the city, allowed a hint of doubt that he was not the president of his people, but of his benefactor, Gruevski.
It will put an end to the mandate of a president of uninspired political manoeuvres, of obscure convictions, of stubborn denial and of refusal – above all, a refusal to acknowledge the country’s change of name and the new reality it created: de-facto NATO membership, an open path towards the EU and a serious blow to pro-Russian forces.
But total state capture is not something a society recovers from overnight.
The legacy of those who captured it is alive today, as is a collective Stockholm syndrome.
I went recently to the opening of a film festival. The opening ceremony naturally used the official name of the country – North Macedonia. One could not miss the rolling of eyes, the collective frown at listening to that name being spoken aloud. It was not the majority in the hall, but still enough to be noticed.
Meanwhile, what will probably go down in history as the least inspiring electoral campaign in a long time is nearing its end. Apart from a heap of unrealistic promises, mainly ignoring the fact that the president has nearly no executive power, one thing remains a worry: the opposition’s promise to undo the name change.
It is not worrying as a political promise, because nobody in their right mind would go down that path – they know very well what the consequences would be. Isolation has never been a good idea. The British Tory party decomposing in public is a stark enough warning.
No, it is worrying because it represents an attempt to keep people hostage to a past that has been overcome, to an ideology of exclusivism which is at the best atavistic, and to a policy that brought the country to the brink of dictatorship.
A president to heal
North Macedonia has still to enter the hearts and souls of its people, along with the knowledge that identity is a very personal and fluid thing, one that is permanently fabricated by a multitude of factors, among which political manipulation cannot be allowed to dominate. But this is another, long discussion.
The next president will have to be an integrative figure, one that will attempt to mend the various rifts and festering collective wounds.
It will have to be someone to restore trust in the post, to fill it with new life, with new meaning. It will have to be a president of all citizens, one that will make that very clear – irrespective of ethnicity, social category, gender or any other personal identity markers, like religion, sexual orientation, preference for a sports team, knowledge and use of languages, preferred literature or TV show, etc.
It will have to be a president to show the ethnic Albanians that they belong, and to ask them to act accordingly. It will have to be a president to lead, in concert with the prime minister, a long and thorough reconciliation process.
That’s it. There is not much else for the president of North Macedonia to do. And it should be clear that the people are the first priority. Another resident-in-hiding for the villa above the city would be a waste of time and resources. Windmills are there to be fought.
Time is running out
But of course, the political parties are hostages of a self-created mess, too.
The 40-per cent threshold for the second round of the election to stand is a potential trap.
The failure to organise a census, the failure to feed real information into the databases used to create the voters register offer carte blanche to both forgery and challenges to the result.
This lack of responsibility needs to be owned by all political parties, as it threatens to delegitimise the institution of the president even further.
Should the elections fail, they will most probably be followed by yet another political crisis. Early parliamentary elections could be one of the outcomes. Having in mind that the EU Council is supposed to decide about the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia in June, the need to avoid another crisis is self-evident.
I started with the attack on parliament. Now, two years on, those events seem distant and almost unreal, and a general sense of apathy has conquered the public space. The presidential election campaign has not managed to change that. Some say it even contributed.
I wonder if the president emerging from this election will be the one to inspire the people, to go out and tell them that democracy is a battle fought every day, that the bad guys win if citizens don’t fight that battle.
One need only glance at the state of the cities and their public infrastructure, at the disastrous state of so many national heritage sites and at the construction mafia acting nearly unchecked to get the feeling that it is very nearly five to midnight.
*Harald Schenker is a freelance consultant and political analyst
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.