Can Europe Make It?

From feudal socialism to feudal democracy - the trials and tribulations of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

In a country where political opponents are labelled as ‘traitors’, where individuals are perceived first and foremost as ethnizens rather than citizens, where media freedom is under threat and political parties do not respect the independence of state institutions, the escalation of violence is but a symptom.

Ljubica Spaskovska
23 July 2014

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been riddled with ethnic strife. Demotix/Igor Banskiliev. All rights reserved.

Those who were in Skopje in the summer of 2001, including myself, have frequently recalled how the conflict between the Macedonian security forces and the Albanian rebels came to its conclusion with the Ohrid Framework Agreement in August without any significant violence or rioting occurring in the city. I lived in my parents’ apartment in the middle of the old town where the majority of the population is of ethnic Albanian origin and we never witnessed or experienced the slightest incident.

Thirteen years later, however, the same neighbourhood looked and felt like a battlefield. Riot police used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades against the several thousand, mostly young, Albanian protesters heading towards the main court building. They were protesting the court’s decision to sentence six Albanians to life in prison. They had been found guilty for the murder of five ethnic Macedonians on Orthodox Easter in 2012. The prosecution framed the killings as an act of Islamic terrorism.

Although the riots were perhaps the most violent so far, they are only one segment in a chain of similar events and social phenomena which have been unfolding over the past five years. Equally, the contestation of the judicial process and the court system is not new. Both the 2013 EU progress report and the State Department Macedonia Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2013 noted serious flaws in the justice system. The former underlined ‘concerns about how the courts currently operate in practice’, ‘the independence of the courts’ and ‘the general quality of justice overall’, while the latter even quoted detained journalist Tomislav Kežarovski in the section on ‘Political Prisoners and Detainees’. These and many other civic protests, contestations of non-transparent decision-making and abuse of office over the years have fallen on deaf ears.

Not only that, but the Albanian partner in the coalition government - the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) – has failed to take a firm stand on several grave violations of democratic procedures, such as the forced removal of opposition MPs and journalists from the Parliament in December 2012 during a dispute over the budget. They have remained in government with the Macedonian centre-right, conservative VMRO-DPMNE, all the while espousing salient nationalist rhetoric. However, the ‘competing idioms of nationhood’ in Macedonia and the reality of two ethnically defined political parties governing together in a rather stable coalition, without a shared platform or a common pre-election program have engendered a context-specific type of authoritarian consociationalism.

Indeed, for a quarter of a century now the Macedonian political elites have perpetuated the worst practices from the socialist period (authoritarianism, lack of media freedom, merger of the party and state institutions), while all of the positive legacies (social justice, workers’ rights, emancipatory policies, social mobility, etc.) have been abandoned. At the time, the late socialist political landscape of a weakened federal centre, empowered regional and communal elites vested with considerable decision-making powers, was described by scholars as ‘consociational authoritarianism’[1] or ‘’feudal socialism’.[2]

Almost three decades later, weak institutions, ‘consolidation of special interest groups’, and party politics rooted in identity politics have facilitated the consolidation of semi-authoritarian elites.[3] Despite the fact that Macedonia’s partocracy is underpinned by seemingly mutually exclusive ethnic/identitarian politics, there are nevertheless two crucial aspects of post-socialist transformation around which the Macedonian and the Albanian ruling parties have managed to forge a consensus: anti-communism and (flirting with) religious conservatism.

Not only has the socialist legacy has been progressively erased from the public space and existing historical narratives forged around the common antifascist struggle been played down and redefined, but Macedonia was one of the few former Yugoslav republics to enact a highly controversial Lustration Law which sought to bar from public office those exposed as ‘collaborators’ with the secret services during the socialist period. The amicus curiae opinion provided by the Council of Europe Venice Commission has been evoked by intellectuals, journalists and opposition leaders who have challenged the Law, in particular for its scope which also covers the post-socialist period until 2006 (coinciding with the electoral victory of VMRO-DPMNE).[4]

Prepared at the request of the Macedonian Constitutional Court, the opinion stated that

‘Introducing lustration measures a very long time after the beginning of the democratization process in a country risks raising doubts as to their actual goals. Revenge should not prevail over protection of democracy [...] Political, ideological and party reasons should not be used as grounds for lustration measures, as stigmatization and discrimination of political opponents do not represent acceptable means of political struggle in a state governed by the rule of law.’

Hence, in a country where political opponents are labelled as ‘traitors’, where individuals act, realise their political rights and are perceived first and foremost as ethnizens rather than citizens, are more easily mobilized over ethnic issues, where media freedom[5] is under threat and political parties do not respect the independence of state institutions, the escalation of violence is but a symptom. As I have argued elsewhere, since the 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, the Macedonian citizenship framework was reformed, democratised and expanded, but re-ethnicised at the same time on multiple levels, resulting today in its ‘fractured’ nature.[6] The fractured citizenship framework implies a state of relative instability, since, depending on internal and external developments and forces, the fractures could either heal in the future, or further deepen and lead to fragmentation.

Unfortunately, with political elites who do not work to calm simmering tensions but encourage them for their own political gain, coupled with general economic discontent and falling living standards, Macedonia is set to face some major challenges should it not find the means to overcome the negative legacies of the past and to revive what was positive in light of some more pertinent contemporary concerns beyond ethno-populist skirmishing for short-term political gain.

[1] William Zimmerman, Open borders, nonalignment, and the political evolution of Yugoslavia, p. 51.

[2] Harold Lydall, Yugoslavia in Crisis (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1989), p.81.

[3] For a transnational analysis of state weakness and institutional incapacity, see: Denisa Kostovicova and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic (eds.), Persistent State Weakness in the Global Age (Ashgate, 2009).

[4] Катерина Блажевска, Лустрација или кулминација на одмаздата?, Deutsche Welle, 28.05.2013,

[5] The 2013 EU progress report stated that ‘Despite legislative progress in the area of freedom of expression, the country’s reputation in relation to media freedom has continued to deteriorate, both domestically and internationally […] The media environment remains highly polarised.’

[6] Ljubica Spaskovska (2012) “The Fractured ‘We’ and the Ethno-National ‘I’: the Macedonian Citizenship Framework”, Citizenship Studies 16/3-4: pp. 383-396.

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