The “success” of a party responsible for one of the most notorious political scandals in contemporary Europe was partly achieved through reliance on ethnocentric myths of victimization. These myths have served a legitimizing function and assured great level of public support for an openly corrupt political elite.
When state capture and myths of victimization meet: the story of a party’s attempt to prevent democratic alternation of power
Dual strategy for prevention of government alternation
VMRO-DPMNE’s eleven-year rule in the Republic of Macedonia (2006-2017) came to a close during April and May when a new parliamentary majority took control of the parliament and appointed a new government. For many, this was the only possible outcome following the wiretapping affair of 2015 which unraveled the character of VMRO-DPMNE’s governance. With the publication of the wiretapped recordings, Macedonian citizens had the possibility to explicitly witness the specifics behind the state capture operation. The revealed conversations indicated an extensive list of wrongdoings, beginning with the unlawful wiretapping itself (directed at both individuals supportive or opposing the rule of VMRO-DPMNE, as well as the party’s own members) and ending with many episodes involving flagrant abuse of power, including but not limited to corruptive deeds, electoral fraud, actions aiming at establishing control over public and private media and suppression of the opposition and the civil sector.
Yet, the party and its elite proved to be very resilient. It managed to significantly derogate the achievements of the EU-brokered “Przhino Agreement” that aimed to create a leveled political playing field and which designed steps for assuring accountability. VMRO-DPMNE managed this through reliance on the captured institutions, in which the party continued to “push the buttons” in order to ensure electoral advantage and impunity. Perhaps more remarkably, the party stepped down from power while still enjoying significant political popularity despite the clear responsibility related to the wiretapped revelations: VMRO-DPMNE won 51 MPs in the 120-seat Parliament at the last December 2016 general elections, as well as the largest portion of votes. Finally, when it became increasingly clear that despite the significant electoral achievement, VMRO-DPMNE will not manage to negotiate control over the parliamentary majority, the party utilized its ethnocentric appeal to further prolong its imminent fall. As a result, the country remained in the well-known state of a protracted political crisis that the elections were supposed to swiftly resolve.
The events of spring 2017 clearly exposed VMRO-DPMNE’s dual strategy for prevention of government alternation. On the night of April 27, protesters from the ethnocentric movement “For Common Macedonia” stormed the parliament demanding the annulment of the conducted procedure for election of a parliamentary speaker which represented the first step leading to alternation of power. Protesters claimed that alternation would lead to a severe damage for the state, its unitary character, and the position of the Macedonian ethnic group within it. The protest got out of hand when MPs from the new parliamentary majority were physically attacked inside the parliamentary premises. The state institutions remained cut-off and failed to react promptly, a situation which fueled the public agony of uncertainty during the bloody night. While intervention was assured only several hours after the violence had erupted, the public quickly learned that the command chain in the police forces was largely responsible for the failure to react promptly and accordingly.
Thus, the April incident represents just one of the manifestations of VMRO-DPMNE’s strategy to prevent government alternation which most broadly contained two main elements: 1) reliance on the already established mechanisms of control of the institutions and 2) reliance on ethnocentric myths of victimization which were used to create an image that the fall of the party would bring to a “destruction” of the state. Through these two actions VMRO-DPMNE managed to significantly affect the institutional and political outcomes, as well as to ensure public support through the last several years.
Brief history of the equation between state and party
VMRO-DPMNE’s history is instructive to understand the high ethnocentric appeal that the party enjoys at present day. It was established as a political party championing the cause of ethnic Macedonians, claiming to be a direct descendant of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), a rebel group active at the turn on the 20th century, which demanded self-rule for Macedonia (then part of the Ottoman Empire). VMRO-DPMNE was one of the first political actors that openly pressed for Macedonia’s exit from the socialist Yugoslav federation. Despite its significant popularity due to its patriotic branding during the entire first decade of Macedonian independence, it managed to obtain power only in 1998, missing a chance to lead the country following the first multiparty elections (1990) due to its unwillingness to form a coalition with an ethnic Albanian political party.
Being largely in opposition during the first decade of Macedonian independence, VMRO-DPMNE stood against the Interim Accord with Greece (1995), and in particular to the provisions that cemented the use of the name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)” in multilateral international relations and the change of the state’s flag stipulated with the agreement. Internally, it stood against the concessions that the SDSM-led government placed towards the Albanian minority in the country and in particular on the issue of Albanian language higher education. This way, it broadened its ethnocentric appeal and it strengthened its ethnic Macedonian electoral base.
The 2001 internal conflict and VMRO-DPMNE’s acceptance of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) which sustained it, somewhat diminished the party’s reputation among Macedonian nationalists, but only for a short time. The OFA brought to a more inclusive framework of the state in regard to the ethnic minorities, and especially the Albanian ethnic group whose demands were the main drivers of this redefinition of the Macedonian polity. This was seen by many ethnic Macedonians as harmful for Macedonian interests. The outcome of the conflict, as well as the electoral defeat in the hands of SDSM at the 2002 elections brought changes in the party leadership - long term president Ljubcho Georgievski was replaced by Nikola Gruevski. During Gruevski’s leadership the party went to reclaim and expand on its ethnocentric appeal and managed to achieve a significant success - winning four rounds of general elections in dominating fashion (2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014).
Under Gruevski, VMRO-DPMNE strengthened its opposition to any agreement with Greece over the name dispute, reframing the discord in a question of national identity. Furthermore, Gruevski’s government created a new dynamic in the overall dispute - by pursuing a programme of so-called “antiquisation” (best visible in the “Skopje 2014” project), which aimed to establish a historical continuity between the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great and the contemporary Macedonian state, an idea towards which Greece unequivocally opposes. This further complicated the possibilities for resolution of the long-standing name dispute, which represents the most important external obstacle for Macedonia’s EU/NATO accession.
VMRO-DPMNE’s reluctance to achieve a deal with Greece, as well as the recourse to “antiquisation”, was seen by many ethnic Macedonians as issues of national pride. These actions went in parallel with VMRO-DPMNE’s success to publicly demonize the opposition as “treacherous”, and to further frame the concessions of the 1990s and the early 2000s as a “sellout” of the Macedonian national interests. By the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, which “buried” Macedonia’s ambitions to join the Alliance, VMRO-DPMNE was largely viewed internally as the only protector of the ethnic Macedonian interests. Despite the inability VMRO-DPMNE’s governments to bring NATO membership for the country (and later to start accession negotiations with the EU), the party’s popularity remained stable - high and constant - throughout the years.
A myth intended to salvage an imminent fall
VMRO-DPMNE faced the wiretapping affair in this mode: largely seen internally as a sole protector of Macedonian interests. Contrary to the accusations of significant wrongdoing, the party publicly pushed for a narrative in which it presented itself as a victim in the scandal, claiming that (never precisely named) foreign secret services have joined forces with domestic “traitors” to push an agenda of two points: federalization of the country and speedy “sell-out” of the country’s name. A part of this narrative was also the disagreement that that the wiretapped recordings were authentic at all, instead, VMRO-DPMNE claimed that the recordings were fabricated in an attempt to conspire against Macedonian statehood.
VMRO-DPMNE’s campaign leading up to the December 2016 elections was also focused on the outlined conspiracy theory. While the oppositional SDSM party promoted an agenda of advancement of the official use of the Albanian language, VMRO-DPMNE used this as a “proof” that the country will be federalized if government alternation takes place. This was, of course, much exaggerated, given that the Albanian language is used in official communication in Macedonia since 2002 and this was done through reaffirming the country’s unitary framework.
When the leaders of Albanian parliamentary parties agreed on a joint platform after the elections, which also included demands for the advancement of the use of Albanian language, VMRO-DPMNE depicted this as interference of the Republic of Albania in Macedonia’s internal dealings. Gruevski used the media to call for “defense” of the state, claiming that it is “under attack” by domestic and external conspirators. Upon this, the movement “For a Common Macedonia”, that served as a cover-up for the April events, emerged. It’s main demands closely reflected VMRO-DPMNE’s positions and multiplicated the outreach of the “federalization myth”.
Despite the constitutionally guaranteed bilingualism, and despite the existence of no explicit connection between bilingualism and federalization, and moreover without publicly present tangible demands for federalizing the country by key Albanian political leaders, VMRO-DPMNE managed to manipulate the distrust of segments of the public to block government alternation for several months. As outlined, this was done by constructing a complex narrative of conspiracy against the country, implicitly directed against the Albanian ethnic group and with cues for alleged domestic and international involvement against Macedonian statehood and self-determination.
The EU must deal with the myths of victimization operating in Western Balkans societies
The “blockade” that Macedonia experienced in its EU and NATO accession processes, has directly contributed to the development of the myths of victimization that VMRO-DPMNE skillfully used to prevent alternation of power. Large segments of the population began to cultivate a genuine mistrust towards the international community and especially towards the EU, which was increasingly seen as factor going against Macedonian positions in the name dispute with Greece. Public opinion polls show that majority of Macedonian citizens (and especially those from ethnic Macedonian background) do not support Macedonian accession in the EU if it is subject to concessions regarding the name of the state (66% of citizens hold this attitude according to a poll conducted by IDSCS in 2016). At the same time, when EU accession is “disconnected” from the name dispute, joining the EU has extremely high support among the Macedonian population (80% according to the same poll). This signals a need for a different approach by the EU, one that would be more sensitive towards the identity concerns of the Macedonian population. If such an approach is not initiated, Macedonia is at risk to experience another authoritarian episode in which the myths of victimization will play a prominent role.
The EU should also draw lessons from the Macedonian experience in dealing with other countries of the Western Balkans group, a geography where various divisive historical myths operate to negatively affect contemporary developments. Understanding that the myths of victimization are important for contemporary politics in the Western Balkans, and moreover, finding a way to sustain their negative effects, should be one of the key tasks of EU policy towards the region. Making the membership perspective more credible for the Western Balkans countries will have a profound effect in minimizing the “voices” against EU accession, even when they are based on complicated identity issues that fuel the ethnocentric myths of victimization.