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Macedonia: the authoritarian challenge to Europe

Macedonia's "hybrid regime" poses a serious threat to Europe, and the EU needs to act now before it's too late.

Nikola Gruevski. Demotix/Toni Arsovski. All rights reserved.Based on data from Freedom House and other relevant international sources, authoritative studies such as The Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe co-authored by Sten Berglund, Macedonia is placed in the group of countries in Eastern and Central Europe with stable hybrid regimes since the fall of communism to this day.

What is different from the year of publication of this study to date is that Macedonia has strengthened its position of a hybrid regime and has leaned toward an open autocratic totalitarianism. According to “Freedom House,” Macedonia is a partly free country sliding toward “not free”, placed in the 120th position with regard to the freedom of the press in 2013. According to Reporters Without Borders, Macedonia today is at the alarming 136th place in the freedom of the press.

What is at stake in the Eastern European Hybrid Regimes?

Hybrid regimes are usually defined as “competitive and electoral authoritarianism.” Seen from the formal standpoint and as evaluated on the electoral day itself, including the process of counting and eventual recounting, competitive totalitarianism is marked by elections which are legal, democratic and fair. By “formally fair elections” we refer to the fact that there is no electoral fraud in the technical sense of the word, falsification and stilling of ballots.

However, there is one defining characteristic of the elections held in hybrid regimes which undermines the very possibility of substantially free and democratic elections: abuse of state resources by the incumbents.

The latter involves a set of intersecting policy mechanisms which are abused as follows:

(a) control over the media verging with pro-government propaganda, which, in the period nearing elections, becomes indistinguishable from media campaigning in favor of the ruling party;

(b) state controlled neoliberal economy which favors pro-regime companies, but also owns companies through party control and employs party activists among the ever growing public administration, enabling the incumbents to intimidate and exert pressure on voters;

(c) over-regulating legislation, in particular the one concerning fiscal discipline, coupled with draconic penalization which is abused for political pressure on companies, institutions (e.g. universities) and the society as a whole.

If economy is dependent on party control, it is, then, not free let alone free market oriented. It is ideologically controlled. However, in the case of the hybrid or openly authoritarian regimes, “ideology” is an elusive term. Party pluralism is not ideological pluralism as the political-economic system remains the same regardless of which party gains power. Ideology is reduced to mere difference in rhetoric in what is essentially populism.

In Eastern Europe, the ruling parties are usually declaredly conservative. However, the conservatism at issue is also hybridized. It is combined with policies which would normally be considered leftwing: universal health care, free public education, state subventions in different areas ranging from culture to agriculture, etc. 

Also, “hybrid regimes” or “competitive authoritarianisms” are not about absence of the rule of law and, hence, aberration from free market economy. Quite to the contrary, the state run capitalism is legally codified and it constitutes a political-economic system in its own right. The references to “the rule of law” and “free market” in the Western European sense of the word are obsolete when the EU rapporteurs attempt to measure the success of the “transition” from socialism according to the so called Copenhagen criteria. Namely, they do not apply to this particular form of neoliberal economy which is divorced from the democratic political model and the free market economy pursuing a creation of a new model which Victor Orban famously termed “illiberal democracy.” 

Macedonia’s early parliamentary and presidential elections which took place in April 2014 are the perfect example of hybrid regime elections and illustrative of the type of economy they create.

The case of Macedonia: The long term price of a short term economic stability

The report of OSCE-ODIHR assessed the general elections held last year as “efficient” while raising the problem of “partisan media coverage and a blurring of state and party activities [which] did not provide a level playing field for candidates to contest the elections.” Apart from the noted problems of uneven media coverage and the abuse of state resources on the part of the incumbents, the Report states the following:

The OSCE/ODIHR EOM received a large number of credible reports that included pressure to attend campaign events; pressure not to attend opponents’ events; and promises of or threats to state employment, including through the use of temporary contracts. The OSCE/ODIHR EOM also noted claims that governing party activists requested civil servants to provide lists of identified voters, along with their personal identification numbers, who would vote for the party, and intimidation of small business owners with the threat of taxi inspections. This raised concerns about candidates’ ability to campaign in a fair atmosphere, as well as voters’ ability to cast their vote “free of fear of retribution,” as required by paragraph 7.7 of the 1990OSCE Copenhagen Document.

It seems that, when referring to the “generally fair elections in Macedonia last year” Commissioner Johannes Hahn actually means “efficient.” The description from the OSCSE-ODIHR report quoted above hardy describes anything “generally fair” or free.

Intimidation that one might lose their job or see their business destroyed is yet another way of practically falsifying the result in advance. What is equally important is that it also implies a hybridity of the economic system itself which consists in the combination of profit oriented market economy controlled by state companies or companies close to the ruling party. The model par excellence of such economy would be that of politically communist yet economically capitalist China. The one Macedonia seems to mimic under the leadership of Nikola Gruevski is that Putin’s Russia.

According to the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, Macedonia is at the 53rd position, placed in the group of “moderately free,” just one place above Hungary. The report notes that “Macedonia’s transition to a more market-based economy has been facilitated by relatively high social and political stability that has enabled the economy to adapt to comprehensive reform measures.”

Moreover, it is states that “corruption and cronyism are prevalent in public administration and procurement procedures, increasing costs for businesses and chilling foreign investment” as well as that “Macedonia remains an important transit and destination point for human trafficking to Western Europe, as well as for the smuggling of arms, drugs, and stolen cars. Registering real property and obtaining land titles continue to be difficult.”

The section concerning regulatory efficiency remarks the following: “Forming a business takes two procedures and two days, with no minimum capital required, but completing licensing requirements remains relatively time-consuming. The labour market lacks flexibility, hindering more dynamic job growth. The state has tried to maintain fiscal discipline to bolster its case for eventual membership in the Eurozone, but spending on agricultural subsidies increased again in 2014.”

The government led by Gruevski has been focusing on formal technocratic measures that would increase the country’s position in the international rankings. However, behind this façade there is a lack of free market reality as there is a disparity between the formally democratic conditions and the reality of cronyism. Our claim here is that cronyism is not an aberration from a political-economic model. It constitutes a model in its own right, and not just in Macedonia, but also in other Eastern European countries which are either EU members or EU candidate countries.  

Obsessive legalization of decisions that are made in the authoritarian fashion and are of authoritarian nature is a method of governing typical of the “hybrid systems.” Regardless of how unjust, anti-democratic and overtly corruptive the principles of administration and governing might be, in this type of regimes, they become part of the law. By being legal, these corruptive and undemocratic practices assume a seeming legitimacy too. Through all the measures of controlling society presented thus far, the executive power establishes an absolute grip on the legislating power and the judiciary.

The macroeconomic stability the VMRO-DPMNE led government offers is a short termed one due to the fact that the unemployment is high and the salaries are low. Considering the judiciary and the parliament are under an absolute control of the executive power, there is absence of legal security for both domestic and foreign investments. Due to the general economic and democratic depression, protests are bound to keep mounting as they have been throughout the past year, organized mainly by grass root movements going under the label of “plenums” (student plenum, journalists’ plenums, etc.).

Quid pro quo: short term economic stability for long term authoritarianism

With the support given to the “slightly authoritarian” regimes, such as that of VMRO DPMNE led by Nikola Gruevski just because they offer macroeconomic stability, Europe is inadvertently supporting the model of rule pertaining to hybrid regimes. There is an uninterrupted axis of this type of regime at the heart of Europe constituted by both EU member states and EU accession states: Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey.  

The results of the Turkish elections which took place on June 8th 2015 signal a possible change as far as the solidity of the chain of states based on the hybrid regime model is concerned. The fact that Erdogan is unable to form a government precisely because of the excellent results of the new protest party of HDP indicates that authoritarianism is not sustainable on the long run and that the social movements can provide an adequate and successful response to it.

This also signals a possible similar change in Macedonia considering the grass root movements have been the main factor of political change in the past year, one which has seriously undermined the nine years long absolute power of VMRO DPMNE and its leader. Together with SDSM (The Social-Democratic Party), the biggest opposition party in Macedonia, the grass root movements have demanded a transitional government and early elections. 

Since 2 June 2015, the biggest four parties representing both the position and the opposition have negotiated under the auspices of the EU and with the mediation of Commissioner Johannes Hahn on possible early elections and a transitional government that would organize fair elections by way of undercutting the possibility of abuse of state power and resources. The negotiations have been declared unsuccessful and over on 10 June 2015, “due to lack of leadership and responsibility by some,” according to Commissioner Hahn’s tweet from later that night. It remains uncertain whether they would resume.

The EU institutions and European member states should be aware that if they continue supporting the current Macedonian government due to the fact that they provide temporary macroeconomic stability they are merely buying time. Namely, economic stability without employment and investments is a short lived one. Moreover, it imports and condones a political model (that of a hybrid regime) which represents everything that is contrary to its core values termed as the Copenhagen criteria.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that a transitional government is established as soon as possible and that its main goal is not organizing snap elections. Quite to the contrary, it should prepare the minimum grounds for fair elections: free and independent media, electoral rolls clean from “ghost voters” and establish grounds for dialogue and cooperation of the overly polarized position and opposition.  

However, in order to achieve some substantial and lasting democratization of the country, one should not merely solve the current crisis by changing one authoritarian office holder for another, but to break the hybrid model of governance that has plagued Macedonia for the past two decades.

In order for this to happen, the transitional government should last at least 18 months and be political – one of national unity. In this way the democratic capacities of both the position and the opposition would be put to constant test and challenge by the grass root movements and the civil society.

The general democratic awakening of Macedonia, mobilized beyond ideological and ethnic differences, might also produce a new and multiethnic party with strong links to the popular movement whose common denominator has been the commitment to democracy and revolt toward totalitarianism.

It is also for this reason that the transitional government should be a political one, last longer and that its main goal is basic democratization of the society rather than mere organization of elections that would be somewhat fairer than they usually are in this country.

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About the authors

Jordan Šišovski, Ph.D. is a Researcher and an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities-Skopje (ISSHS).He is involved in policy research and analysis, he also teaches philosophy and publishes in the areas of social sciences and humanities. He is a co-author of a ISSHS produced study on legal over-regulation in the media and the higher education and its effects on the freedom of expression to be published in December 2015. He is also involved in other ongoing research projects with the team of the ISSHS on education policy, active engagement in policy development and implementation through promoting, lobbying, advocating and constant engaging with policy makers in the country.

Katerina Kolozova, PhD. is the director and a professor at the Institute in Social Sciences and Humanities, Skopje. She is also a visiting professor at several universities in Former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. In 2009, Kolozova was a visiting scholar at the Department of Rhetoric (Program of Critical Theory) at the University of California-Berkeley. She is is the author of "The Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststucturalist Philosophy," NY: Columbia University Press: 2014. Her forthcoming publication is "Toward a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism: Marx and Laruelle" (Brooklyn NY: Summer 2015).

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