ANALYSIS 31 Aug 12

Macedonia Coalition Must Make Up or Break Up

Whether or not the current crisis between the country’s two ruling parties is real or artificial, the denouement cannot be delayed for much longer.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Gruevski's government | Photo by

Growing friction between Macedonia’s main ruling party, VMRO DPMNE, led by Nikola Gruevski, and the ethnic Albanian junior ruling Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, have fuelled public speculation that the coalition is close to breaking up.

Experts do not discard the possibility of early general elections, either this autumn or in early 2013.

However, some opposition supporters believe the crisis may have been artificially blown out of proportion and that a settlement is still on the cards.

“The government is functioning fully”, government spokesperson Aleksandar Georgiev said recently, adding that both parties have expressed willingness to overcome their differences.

The latest rouble started two weeks ago, when the Defence Minister, Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian DUI member, caused controversy by paying respects in public to a monument erected to former Albanian guerilla fighters in the 2001 conflict in the village of Slupcane.

VMRO-DPMNE leaders, President Gjorge Ivanov, the army general staff as well as Besimi’s own deputy defence minister Emil Dimitriev, an ethnic Macedonian, all censured his actions.

Tensions then increased after VMRO DPMNE then laid before parliament a new draft law increasing the rights and privileges of members of the Macedonian military.

The sticking point for the DUI was that the bill does not include the former Albanian guerilla fighters whose former leaders now dominate the DUI.

This drew a strong reaction from the DUI, which has threatened to quit the government if the law, scheduled to be debated in parliament on September 10, is adopted in its present form.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Gruevski himself spoke of a government crisis, saying that his party was ready for early elections if his Albanian partners demanded them.

Gruevski said that in the first three years the coalition with DUI had functioned well but in the last year, since the June 2011 elections, the DUI had not kept its word.

PM Nikola Gruevski and Ali Ahmeti of DUI

By tradition, Macedonian governments include one major political party representing the Albanian community, which makes up about 25 per cent of the population of 2.1 million.

Real crisis or fake:

While the policy differences are real enough, some opposition parties suspect that the crisis has been exaggerated by both sides in order to whip up support in their own ethnic heartlands before the March 2013 local elections, or before a possible early general election.

According to this theory, VMRO DPMNE needs a crisis to consolidate its declining popularity ratings - hit by the recent economic downturn - by playing the nationalist card.

The DUI, meanwhile, also stands to gain in terms of shoring up its support among Albanians by refusing to submit to the bigger party.

The DUI’s opponents have frequently accused the party of allowing itself to be marginalized by Gruevski.

Igor Ivanovski, coordinator of the parliamentary group of the main opposition Social Democrats, says that while the SDP is open to early general elections, the party is suspicious of the “scenarios between VMRO DPMNE and the DUI that we have already seen so many times... done for daily political reasons”.

Andrej Zernovski, head of the small opposition Liberal Democrats, LDP, is more direct.

He says the recent crisis is “a deliberate scenario of the DUI and VMRO DPMNE to cover the collapse of their policies” - especially the country’s poor economic performance and its inability to solve the protracted name dispute with Greece.

Owing to that dispute, Macedonia’s hopes of joining NATO and EU remain on hold.

New elections not advised:

Petar Atanasov, from Skopje’s Institute for Sociological Political and Legal Studies, believes the crisis inside the coalition is genuine.

But, if it prompts early elections, these will do no favours for either ruling party, he warns.

“Neither VMRO DPMNE nor the DUI will benefit from early general elections, as each will win fewer votes than it did in last June’s snap polls,” he says.

“Gruevski is in no hurry. According to all opinion polls his lead over the opposition has shrunk to only few percent,” he adds.

Last June PM Gruevski won a convincing victory

According to this observer, the opposition SDP could even win the election if it comes up with a better platform.

“The same goes for the DUI”, he adds, as its own electoral advantage over its Albanian rival, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, has also shrunk.

Last June, Gruevski won a convincing victory over the Branko Crvenkovski’s SDP, gaining 56 seats in the 123-seat parliament, though the SDP did increase its seats in parliament from 18 to 43.

If the DUI does leave the government, Gruevski will only be able to count on his own 56 deputies, less than the majority of 62 needed for stable government.

Observers say that at least in theory this opens the door for shift of power towards the opposition, provided all the other main political factors unite with them against Gruevski.

But, although this would be the best outcome for the Social Democrats, “this is very unlikely to happen”, Atanasov says, “because it would be very hard to convince the DUI to enter any coalition including the DPA”.

The two parties have long traded harsh words over their claimed roles as exclusive protectors of the Albanian cause in Macedonia and it is hard to imagine them in the same cabinet.

However, such realignments are not always predictable in Macedonia.

In June, the Social Democrats joined forces with their one-time political foe Ljubco Georgievski, former head of VMRO DPMNE and now head of the small opposition VMRO-People’s Party.

In July, the DPA also joined the Social Democrat-led opposition bloc against Gruevski.

But Georgievski’s party does not have a single seat in parliament and the Social Democrat-DPA combination is not big enough to form a new majority in parliament.

Peak expected soon:

Analysts say that the outcome of the proposed law on the Macedonian military may be decisive for the crisis and could result in DUI leader Ali Ahmeti quitting the government - even if this goes against his party’s immediate interests.

The parliamentary session on the issue is slated for September 10.

“If VMRO DPMNE passes the law as it is, it would be devastating for the DUI’s reputation among its voters,” political analyst Ibrahim Mehmeti, head of the local NGO, Search for Common Ground, says.

Macedonian parliament

“In such a situation, the DUI would have to leave the government, even if it does not want to, opening the way for early elections,” he adds.

However, Mehmeti thinks that both parties are still likely to patch matters up over the Slupcane event and the new draft law before letting things escalate.

“We have seen similar friction between the DUI and the VMRO DPMNE before, and they always found a settlement,” Mehmeti said, recalling a series of ethnically motivated violent incidents between Albanians and Macedonians at the start of the year that shook the coalition.

The coalition also survived the shock of the gruesome murder in April of five men near Skopje, which was attributed to ethnic Albanians and which for a while further ratcheted up ethnic tensions.

But, despite calls for reconciliation within the coalition this week from President Ivanov, recent actions seem to only to be widening the gap between the two ruling parties.

On Wednesday, the DUI said it would erect name plaques commemorating famous Albanians in front of four schools in Skopje’s ethnically mixed municipality of Cair, whivh the DUI controls, which are currently named after ethnic Macedonians.

They said they would do this whether or not the Ministry of Education gave its consent.

The move was seen as yet another provocative incident, directed at Macedonian partners.

The absence of any DUI ministers from the government-led economic road show, headed by Gruevski, that started this week in Canada and the US, was another sign of hampered relations.

The DUI spokesperson, Bujar Osmani, said that the party did not order its ministers not to accompany the Prime Minister. As for the controversial school plaques, he said that the eruption of the issue now was a “coincidence”, owing to the start of the school year next week.

DPA head Menduh Thaci and Social Democrat's leader Branko Crvenkovski joined forces against PM Gruevski

VMRO DPMNE meanwhile in a statement said it still wants discussions on all open issues with the DUI.

Brussles is watching with interest. The office of the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, said the crisis and the possibility for early elections in the country will be discussed at his meeting next week with President Ivanov.

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