Peace and Justice Remain Elusive in Macedonia

The continuing practice of limiting negotiations to the main parties, to the exclusion of other actors in society, will only further entrench a discredited political leadership.

Gruevski Hahn Zaev111 by MIA
EU mediated talks in Skopje in 2015

Another year, another agreement. This government with its ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, in power since 2006, has broken all records in the number of internationally mediated agreements just to keep the country on its feet.
The latest agreement was concluded on July 20 between the four main parties in the presence of the US Ambassador and a representative from the EU Delegation. It comes just over a year after the previous so-called Przino Agreement, which set out a timetable of commitments aimed at restoring the rule of law in Macedonia, following serious allegations of criminal activities and abuse of power by senior government and ruling party officials revealed in the wiretapping scandal.
The subsequent failure of the political parties to respect the timetable for reforms, and the clumsy attempt by the President to circumvent the rule of law by decreeing pardons [subsequently withdrawn] for several dozen individuals, including senior government officials subject to investigations, led to a further breakdown in the political environment.
This latest agreement may bring some respite for a country exhausted by endless political infighting and months of protest marches. But for how long remains an open question.
A positive element of this new agreement relates to the sequencing of events leading to early elections. In contrast to what was envisaged in the Przino Agreement, a date for these elections has not been set. The leaders of the four parties have until August 31 to determine whether all the conditions for holding elections have in their view been fulfilled.
Although the agreement does not stipulate what happens if no consensus between the parties is reached by that date, at least its puts the focus on the reforms needed for free and fair elections, one of the key demands set out by civil society.
It is unfortunate in this respect that there appeared to have been little effort to engage with civil society prior to the latest agreement. This is despite the fact that a large group of civil society representatives had come together in an unprecedented show of collective determination to contribute to the negotiations.
The “Blueprint for Urgent Democratic Reforms”, presented on July 8, sets out a reform strategy that would do any political party proud. Yet, the agreement reached on June 20 barely mentions civil society. This shows once again that the lessons from past conflict situations, where involvement of civil society ensured a greater sense of ownership in the final settlement as well as enhanced accountability, are not being heeded.
The continuing practice of limiting negotiations to the main political parties to the exclusion of the other actors in society will only further entrench a discredited political leadership at a time when new faces untainted by baggage from the past are desperately needed.
In terms of media reform, it is difficult to consider that this agreement offers anything new. On the contrary, it reinforces partisan influences in a fraught media environment where professional journalists struggle to have their voice heard, let alone survive.
Another body established to “monitor compliance with media provisions of the electoral code”, as stipulated in the agreement, does not guarantee a change of behaviour and respect for the basic standards of independent media. The final report of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, published on 8 July, refers to the highly partisan media environment and to the concerns raised “regarding the deterioration of media freedom due to political pressure and owners interfering in the work of journalists”.
Of even greater concern in this and previous agreements between the political parties is the failure to address the continuing, pervasive problem of intimidation of public servants and businesses by the ruling party, referred to with increased intensity, notably in the OSCE/ODIHR reports.
In their letter addressed to the Prime Minister on February 21, which underlined that the necessary conditions for organising credible elections on April 24 were not in place, the US and EU Ambassadors expressed concern “at initial reports of pressure and intimidation of voters and others”.
They were echoing what had already been underlined in clear terms in the so-called Priebe Report of June 8, 2015(*): “Apparent direct involvement of senior government and party officials in illegal activities including electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion (pressure on public employees to vote for a certain party with the threat to be fired)….”
The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Report of July 8 also refers to the climate of intimidation and to “credible allegations of pressure on public-sector employees to attend counter-demonstrations, including threats of termination of employment. This raised questions about voters’ right to cast their vote free of fear of retribution, as provided by paragraph 7.7 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document”.
In the face of such damning reports, what is the guarantee that the same tactics will not be used again? The ruling party has an army of tax inspectors, which it will no doubt unleash to intimidate business interests, as it has done in previous elections. Robust monitoring mechanisms supported by the international community must be in place to prevent this and all other intimidation practices from happening again.
As for the Special Prosecutor who represents the only hope for a return to the rule of law in the country, the agreement offers little if any assurance that she will no longer face repeated attempts to undermine her work, no matter what the Constitutional Court decides on the constitutionality of the legislation establishing her office.
The failure to set up a special chamber in the Criminal Court, which would adjudicate all the cases presented by the Special Prosecutor, means her investigations have little hope of due process, with a judicial system remaining firmly in the grip of the ruling party.
Even if this latest agreement brings some respite, the agony of Macedonia is unfortunately far from over, with a return to the rule of law as elusive as ever.

Balkan Insight

27 July 2016