April 27, 2016 | Commentary on Macedonia, International Conflicts

An Ally Reels in the Balkans

Macedonia is one of the few success stories emerging from the chaos that enveloped the Balkans during the 1990s. Now, however, the country’s political situation is becoming dangerously tense.

The political class has been embroiled in a wire-tapping scandal. The main opposition party, led by Zoran Zaev, is exploiting the situation for political gain. At the same time, a refugee crisis is straining the country’s resources.

After weeks of protest last year, Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov made a number of concessions to the opposition. First, he agreed to early elections this year, even though the international community had declared the 2014 elections free and fair.

Then, in January, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski stepped down. Mr. Ivanov replaced two government ministers, including in the key Interior Ministry, with members of the opposition party and gave three more deputy ministers from the opposition oversight and veto powers in three other ministries.

But Mr. Ivanov made an even more controversial move: He granted amnesty to 58 senior officials who had been under a seemingly endless and politically motivated investigation into the wiretapping accusations. It has been claimed that the special prosecutor running the investigation had overtly sided with the opposition party even though she was meant to be neutral.

Mr. Ivanov probably went the amnesty route to help reconcile the country, thinking that it would relax the political environment in the walk-up to the elections. The opposition cries “cover-up.” And Ivanov allies say the amnesty gives the false impression that they have something to hide.

On top of these purely domestic political problems, Macedonia now faces a major challenge from outside its borders. The country has become a heavily-traveled transit route for migrants and refugees leaving the Middle East for northern Europe. Already more than 1 million refugees have passed through Macedonia — a country of only 2.1 million people. Proportionately, this would be like letting 150 million refugees transit the U.S. from Mexico to Canada. Unthinkable.

What happens in Macedonia matters to the U.S. After all, it has been a steadfast ally for years, deploying troops to assist in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It met all criteria to join NATO back in 2008, and has been refused membership only because of a bilateral dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s constitutional name. Macedonia is one of America’s best allies in the region, and it is shameful that the White House has not pressured Greece on the name issue.

Greece’s childish veto has not stopped Macedonia from excelling. It is the regional leader by a long shot in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. It ranks 12th in the world and sixth in Europe in The World Bank’s Doing Business report and is expected to have the highest GDP growth in Europe this year. This is in complete contrast to its southern neighbor Greece.

No government is perfect. Without a doubt, some in the country have legitimate political grievances against the incumbent government — but show me a country in the world where this is not the case.

Parliamentary democracies thrive when there is a robust and loyal opposition. But right now, the “loyal” part of the equation seems to be lacking in Macedonia. Opposition protesters have burned the public office of President Ivanov and attacked the Ministry of Justice. This isn’t democracy, this is darkness.

In a democracy there is no greater judge and jury for a government than the ballot box. Peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy civil society. But if political change is to take place in Skopje, it should be through the ballot box and the parliament — not on the streets.

Macedonia’s next elections, set for June 5, were agreed by the government, the opposition and the international community. That’s when — and how — Macedonians should determine who will lead their country.

- Luke Coffey is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

About the Author

Luke Coffey Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times