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From pro-American to pro-Russian? Nikola Gruevski as a political chameleon

A former staunch ally of the US-led War on Terror, Macedonia PM Nikola Gruevski has gradually turned his country away from the west towards Russia - all the while keeping his neoconservative ideology intact.

Nikola Gruveski meets British PM David Cameron. Flickr/Number 10. Some rights reserved.Following the unrest in Kumanovo and the massive anti-government protests, FYR Macedonia has captivated the interest of the international press. The most recent mobilization has been the peak of a wave of discontent that commenced with the countrywide student protests some weeks ago. In the domestic front, opposition circles have issued a series of charges against the government led by the conservative VMRO-DPMNE such as: promotion of nepotism, unwillingness to combat corruption, illegitimate surveillance of political opponents and, on top of all, growing authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, political analysts have detected a certain rift in the relations between Skopje and the West which has resulted in the Macedonian government’s more decisive reorientation towards Moscow. Russia has pledged its political support to Nikola Gruevski’s and the two sides have extended their cooperation in energy issues and other areas of economic concern. Without neglecting the crucial impact of shifting geopolitics, this brief piece mostly concentrates on VMRO-DPMNE’s, predominantly, neoconservative agenda under the leadership of Nikola Gruevski. It also sets in a comparative context how this neoconservative platform has remained intact despite the gradual readjustment of the state’s foreign policy from Euro-Atlantic institutions towards Moscow’s orbit of influence.

From one neocon to another

In 2003, Nikola Gruevski succeeded Ljubčo Georgievski in the party’s leadership. An ambitious young politician back then, Gruevski’s main ambition was to centralize decision-making within VMRO-DPMNE and modernize the party’s structures.

The latter objective was achieved via the recruitment of a younger pool of cadres. Following a widespread trend all over Southeast Europe (e.g. Albania’s Edi Rama and Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić), the party’s central committee and later the Cabinet of Ministers consisted of young, aspiring and, often, Western-educated individuals (e.g. the Foreign Minister between 2006 and 2011, Antonio Milošoski). Moreover, Gruevski maintained the central aspects of Georgievski’s strategy of rapprochement vis-à-vis the ethnic Albanian community.

Despite this, Gruevski’s term in office has been marked by the emphatic endorsement of Neo-Macedonism to the detriment of the modernist narratives over the Macedonian ethno-genesis in the nineteenth century. The adoption of Neo-Macedonism became further institutionalized through the endorsement of grandiose architectural projects, largely inspired by classical antiquity, which commenced in 2010.

On the domestic front, the Socialists/SDSM and other opposition circles accused the government of investing a disproportional percentage of the state’s budget on these projects. In foreign policy, the emphasis on Neo-Macedonism further complicated relations with the southern neighbour, Greece.

Since the early days of Nikola Gruevski’s term in office, the ‘new’ VMRO-DPMNE drew inspiration from the rather influential trend of neoconservatism among policymaking circles in the US. As it was the case with various other statesmen in Central and Southeast Europe (e.g. Romania’s Traian Băsescu), Nikola Gruevski underlined his firm commitment to Euro-Atlantic institutions and opted for the rapid liberalization of the economy along post-Keynesian lines.

Meanwhile, Gruevski constantly stressed his deep faith in God and highlighted the significance of Eastern Orthodoxy and its system of moral values as a fundamental pillar of the state’s identity. In the field of foreign policy, Nikola Gruevski soon emerged as a staunch supporter of George W. Bush’s policy-doctrine on the Middle East. Throughout the 2000s, FYR Macedonia had dispatched military personnel to Afghanistan and Iraq under the auspices of the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’.  

The NATO summit in Bucharest (April 2-4, 2008) was a landmark. As a gesture of gratitude to its small Balkan ally, the US delegation elaborated possible ways to include FYR Macedonia in the NATO enlargement round irrespective of the state’s dispute with Greece. However, the Greek PM, Kostas Karamanlis, vetoed this proposal on the basis that any outstanding issues with the northern neighbour must be previously resolved in order for Greece to grant its assent.

The Greek veto was met with discontent in Washington and infuriated Skopje. Especially in the light of Karamanlis’ opening to Russia, Skopje-based policymakers and think-tanks did not simply charge Athens with ‘parochial and introverted nationalism’. They went a step further and accused Greece of acting as a ‘Trojan horse’ in Moscow’s service with the aim to destabilize NATO and sabotage its enlargement in Southeast Europe.

The pendulum shifts: Fluctuating geopolitics and disillusionment with the West

Barack Obama, who succeeded G.W. Bush to the US Presidency in 2009, watered down various aspects of his predecessor’s ‘hawkish’ foreign policy. Instead, the new administration in the White House opted for a doctrine of appeasement in regards to their regional competitors (e.g. Russia and Iran).

Meanwhile, the simultaneous advent of the economic crisis made European policymakers more introverted and reluctant to the prospects of the EU’s wider enlargement. With specific regard to FYR Macedonia, European policymakers and political analysts soon stroke a critical stance towards Nikola Gruevski and his apparatus. The main areas of concern were symptoms of nepotism and authoritarianism as well as accusations over the relentless propagation of ‘ethno-kitsch’.

This shifting landscape in global and regional politics had direct ramifications on the government circles in Skopje. Several commentators have argued that delaying the state’s accession to Euro-Atlantic institutions runs detrimental to FYR Macedonia’s stateness and it is largely to account for Skopje’s disillusionment with the West. From a more ‘ideological’ angle, though, the change of guard in the White House and the subsequent adoption of a new US foreign policy doctrine are not to be overlooked either.

In other words, Nikola Gruevski’s government has lost much of the patronage that it enjoyed during George W. Bush’s tenure in office. Moreover, we are currently experiencing the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. The last few years have witnessed the consolidation of semi-authoritarian models of governance among emerging regional actors (e.g. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia). The latter development has encouraged the, if only subtle, admiration of certain statesmen throughout Central and Southeast Europe towards the abovementioned models.

For instance, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán recently coined the concept of illiberal democracy. According to the Hungarian PM, ‘it is not an imperative that contemporary democracy must be structured along the ideological frame of Liberalism…there can be numerous other models of democracy in Europe, nowadays’. Moreover, Viktor Orbán has also positioned Hungary’s foreign policy more solidly within Russia’s orbit of influence.

In particular, both FIDESZ and VMRO-DPMNE converge along a common axis. Both are post-Communist parties that commenced their engagement in politics as, anti-establishment, umbrella-initiatives that hosted a wide range of conservative as well as liberal standpoints. However, in the long run, local adaptations of neoconservatism evolved into the dominant intra-party trend.

Nikola Gruevski and/or Viktor Orbán are not merely unhappy with the outlook(s) of Euro-Atlantic institutions on their respective states or the way(s) that their rule has been portrayed in the Western press. They have also isolated specific elements in Vladimir Putin’s leadership which they deem rather akin to their brand(s) of neoconservatism. These are, namely, Russia’s leader-centred and strong government, the promotion of national and Christian values, and the safeguarding of ‘naturally ascribed’ gender-roles.

Especially in the light of a multipolar international system, one might contend that the neoconservative, ideological, core in parties such as VMRO-DPMNE and/or FIDESZ has remained intact despite the, apparent, foreign policy readjustment towards Moscow. 

What next? Skopje amidst political polarization and fears of ethnic radicalization

In addition to the decline of popular confidence, the government in Skopje may also have to face the challenge of resurgent ethnic radicalization. During the last couple of weeks, a militant group, allegedly consisting of ethnic Albanians, became active in the northern town of Kumanovo. The apparent resurgence of militant Albanian ethno-nationalism triggered a series of conspiracy theories.

Pro-government circles have hinted at the involvement of ‘foreign decision-making centres’ who are not particularly content with the bilateral cooperation between Russia and FYR Macedonia. In the other end of the spectrum, opposition circles have suspected the government of engineering the Kumanovo troubles in an attempt to play the card of ‘national unity’ as a last resort. A third assumption that has not been examined to an adequate extent is the possibility of a peculiar, yet amorphous, blend between Albanian ethno-nationalism and elements of Islamic fundamentalism along the lines of the ‘Chechen precedent’.

Russia, on its part, has been quick to point the finger for both the Kumanovo incidents and the anti-government mobilization at the West. The US and the EU have been accused of orchestrating one more ‘Maidan-style’ coup with the aim to destabilize the government and obstruct cooperation with Russia in energy issues.

Russia Today and other pro-Kremlin media outlets dedicated considerable time to the coverage of pro-government demonstrations where Russian flags also featured among the crowd. Quite a few Western political analysts have expressed the wishful thinking that Nikola Gruevski may be forced to resign under popular pressure and be replaced by a coalition government with a Euro-Atlantic orientation.

Setting regional geopolitics aside, Nikola Gruevski’s opening to Russia reveals an additional pathology of Post-communist politics. Even back at the time when parties such as VMRO-DPMNE and FIDESZ had adjusted their foreign policy more firmly towards the West, their political activity and decision-making had been shaped by local adaptations of the neoconservative narrative. Within the context of their political development, such parties replaced their admiration for certain aspects of American neoconservatism with the endorsement of selected elements found in Vladimir Putin’s semi-authoritarianism while their (neoconservative) ideological core remained intact.

Apart from nominally right-wing parties, centre-left statesmen in the region have also detected, albeit more subtly, some ‘positive’ aspects in Vladimir Putin’s pattern of governance (e.g. the Bulgarian Socialist Party/BSP and Slovakia’s SMER). Therefore, in order to grasp such chameleonic mutations more adequately, one should also pay close attention to political culture among post-Communist parties in Central and Southeast Europe and its evolution. 

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About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.

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