Macedonia's Tumultuous Year Ahead

8 MINS READDec 30, 2015 | 09:30 GMT
People participate in an anti-government protest in downtown Skopje, Macedonia, on May 17.
Forecast Highlights

  • The new government in Macedonia will have to deal with a politically and ethnically divided country, a lingering refugee crisis and an unresolved name dispute with Greece.
  • The prospect of EU accession will continue to influence the political situation in Macedonia, but Skopje is unlikely to join the bloc any time soon.
  • Prolonged negotiations with the European Union could, over time, reduce political support for compliance with EU requests and trigger more social and political instability.

The first half of 2016 will be key for the future of Macedonia, a country where long-standing political turmoil is being further intensified by Europe's refugee crisis. In January, the country is expected to appoint a transitional government that will organize early elections in April. After the elections, the new government will have to deal with a growing but fragile economy, a politically and ethnically divided country, a lingering refugee crisis and an unresolved name dispute with Greece. Though the chance for ethnic conflict is not as high as in other Western Balkan countries, several incidents in 2015 were a reminder that violence is still a possibility.

Political Stagnation and Social Unrest

In 2016, Macedonia will have an opportunity to end a three-year political stalemate. After the end of the armed conflict between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians in 2001, the country experienced a decade of relative calm and stability. However, tension rose again in December 2012, when opposition lawmakers were expelled from the legislature during a controversial budget vote. This triggered a bitter confrontation between the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity party (commonly known as VMRO-DPMNE) of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) party, which decided to boycott the parliament.

Though an EU-sponsored agreement with the government eventually led SDSM lawmakers to return to parliament, tensions remained. After VMRO-DPMNE was re-elected by a landslide in early elections in 2014, SDSM contested the results and once again decided to withdraw its representatives from the legislature. The confrontation escalated further when SDSM leader Zoran Zaev accused government officials of illegally wiretapping members of the opposition, the judiciary and the press.

As street demonstrations calling for Gruevski's resignation grew, the European Union once again intervened. In June 2015, Macedonia's most powerful political forces came to an agreement: Officials would form a transitional government, Gruevski would step down Jan. 15, 2016, and new elections would be held April 24. In exchange, SDSM lawmakers agreed to return to the legislature.

But 2015 also showed that Macedonia's problems are not just political. In May, clashes between security forces and ethnic Albanian militants in the north of the country resulted in the deaths of about two dozen people, Macedonia's worst ethnic violence since 2001. The Macedonian government claimed the police had to act after discovering that former rebel commanders from neighboring Kosovo had been plotting to attack civilian and state targets. However, residents in the region accused Gruevski of inciting ethnic violence to divert public attention from the wiretapping accusations against his government. In Macedonia, where more than one-fourth of the population is ethnically Albanian, the clashes were a reminder of the country's lingering ethnic tensions.

Macedonia's Challenges for 2016

The first imperative for Macedonia next year will be the creation of a stable government. This is not the first time Macedonia has turned to early elections to unlock a political stalemate. Fresh accusations of vote-rigging or fraud will trigger a new round of street demonstrations and political boycotts. Macedonian politicians will also have to deal with a disenchanted electorate: A recent opinion survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research showed that more than half of Macedonians believe that their country has become more unstable in recent years and that it is moving in the wrong direction.

In its latest report on Macedonia, the European Union warned about "breaches of fundamental rights, interference with judicial independence, media freedom and elections, as well as corruption" in the country. The report also mentioned "the divisive political culture in the country" and asked all parties to honor the political agreement reached in June.

The next government in Skopje will also have to continue slow progress toward EU and NATO membership, a process that has been hampered by a dispute with Greece over the country's name. Greece refuses to accept Macedonia's name out of fear that doing so would allow its northern neighbor to make territorial claims over the Greek province of Macedonia. Because Athens is a member of both the European Union and NATO, it has veto power over the incorporation of new members into both organizations.

As long as the name dispute with Greece is unresolved, Skopje's EU accession will remain unlikely. After meeting with his Greek counterpart Dec. 17, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said that there were still "huge mountains" between the two governments over the name issue. This potentially creates several problems. On the one hand, Macedonians could blame their government for the lack of progress in EU accession. On the other hand, the lack of a resolution could rekindle nationalism and reduce popular support for a settlement with Greece and for EU membership.

The survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research showed that although support for EU accession remains strong, it is declining. In early 2006, 97 percent of the population thought Macedonia should join the bloc. By late 2015, support for EU membership had fallen to 72 percent. In addition, only 25 percent think Macedonia is closer to EU accession today than it was when Skopje was given EU candidate status in 2005. This is probably a combination of long-term factors, including a progressive disenchantment regarding the union, and more recent events. For example, half the people surveyed said they felt the European Union is not handling the refugee crisis correctly. Macedonians seem to have similar feelings regarding NATO; support for accession declined from 90 percent to 74 percent over the past nine years.

In addition, the next Macedonian government will have to deal with a potentially tumultuous ethnic situation. The events of May 2015 were a reminder that Macedonia is still fertile ground for ethnic (and politically instigated) violence. Another period of political instability in Macedonia could reignite divisive ethnic and nationalist rhetoric, fueling discontent.

Macedonia's high unemployment rate offers additional reasons for social unrest. Despite some improvement over the past decade, more than a quarter of the country's labor force remains unemployed. The bleak economic situation could create room for extremist political forces, which would exacerbate Macedonia's political and ethnic issues.

Adding to the complexities of 2016 is Europe's immigration crisis. In 2015, Macedonia was one of the countries most affected by the massive influx of immigrants from the Middle East. However, for most of the year Macedonia was basically a transit state for asylum seekers trying to reach Germany and other northern European countries. Things became more complicated when countries along the Balkan route began to close their borders, creating bottlenecks at several points.

The boundary between Greece and Macedonia became one of these contentious areas. Skopje closed the border, and Athens was forced to accept a deployment of EU border guards to bar immigrants from crossing north out of Greece. However, protests by asylum seekers on the Greek side of the border have multiplied in recent weeks, and refugees will likely try to reach Macedonia next year.

To a certain extent, the prospect of EU membership will continue to influence the political situation in Macedonia. In broad terms, Macedonia's political establishment supports EU accession, which gives Brussels influence over Macedonian politics. For example, the last two political agreements between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM were the results of EU pressure for a settlement.

In its latest report, the European Union warned about Macedonia's political situation but praised the country's recent economic progress. According to Brussels, Macedonia "is at a good level of preparation in developing a functioning market economy." The European Union also referred positively to Macedonia's stable macroeconomic environment, sound monetary policy and favorable conditions for market entry.

However, Macedonia is unlikely to be ready for EU accession any time soon, and Brussels is progressively losing interest in accepting new countries. The more Macedonian politicians feel that EU accession is not a tangible goal, the less interested they will be in following Brussels' advice and turning to the union as an external mediator for domestic conflicts. Macedonia is not likely to experience a significant escalation in social unrest and ethnic violence. However, over time, the country's protracted negotiations with the European Union could diminish political support for Macedonia's complying with EU norms and complying with EU requests, in turn giving rise to stronger nationalist sentiments.

If Skopje no longer considers EU membership a goal, Macedonia will have less interest in maintaining good ties with its neighbors. This could open the door for conflicts with Albania and Kosovo over the situation of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and with Greece over Athens' resistance to Macedonia's EU and NATO accession. Though it is improbable, this scenario cannot be ruled out, particularly in light of the European Union's ongoing political fragmentation.

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