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Analysis 05 Jan 12

Macedonia: Putting the World Court to Use

Macedonia will make maximum use of the recent ICJ ruling in 2012, while local elections set for early 2013 will be the main domestic political distraction.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

Macedonian government building | Photo by: Balkan Insight

Macedonia will spend next year in a continued diplomatic battle to convince NATO and EU to open their doors to Macedonia’s membership despite the Greek blockade related to the unresolved “name” dispute.

While most experts say victory on these fronts is unlikely, the government draws confidence from its recent moral and diplomatic victory over Greece at the Hague-based International Court of Justice, ICJ.

At home, local elections slated for early 2013 will be enlivening the political atmosphere.

Despite government optimism about the economy, next year may be more difficult than this one as the euro-zone crisis continues to bite, adding to economic turbulence in the Balkans.

“We face a tough year ahead that will not be very different from this one as the same government [led by Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO DPMNE party] will most likely lead the country and continue with the same policies,” says Nenad Markovic, political science lecturer at the Skopje Faculty of Law.

Name dispute goes on:

International Court of Justice in The Hague | Photo by: ICJ


Encouraged by the recent victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice, ICJ, expectations are that the battle between the two countries will intensify next year as Macedonia tries to promote, and Greece to downplay, the ruling’s impact.

Foreign Ministry insiders say the country will use the judgment to try to shift the terms of the argument in its favour, hoping this will open the way for NATO and EU accession.

On December 5, 2011, the Hague court voted by 15 to one to uphold Macedonia’s argument that Greece had breached a 1995 UN deal when it blocked Macedonia’s attempt to join NATO in 2008.

The court did not agree to order Greece to stop blocking Macedonia’s membership of the EU and NATO in future. It said there was no need to suppose that Greece would repeat actions that the court already found wrongful. The judgment is final, without appeal and is binding on all parties, although the Court has no tools to enforce its decisions.

The government will see a chance to test the ruling’s potential impact at the next NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012, and it will use the World Court argument again when the EU next discusses Macedonia in mid-next year.

“Gruevski will play on a sentimental card, insisting that we have been unjustly blocked, which will bring him some popularity with his party base back home,” says Stevo Pendarovski, former advisor to Macedonian presidents Boris Trakovski and Branko Crvenkovski.

“But it will be very hard to persuade NATO and EU member states [to change their stance on membership],” he adds.

“A solution will have to be reached at a negotiation table with Greece” Markovic says.

Gearing up for local elections:

VMRO-DPMNE rally in Skopje | Photo by: Balkan Insight

Although local elections are scheduled for 2013, political parties will be gearing up during the entire year, analysts say.

This means that Macedonians will have had almost no rest from elections following early general election that took place this June.Back home, politicians are already gearing up for upcoming local elections slated for spring.

Observers say that mayoral fights are becoming more intense since municipalities this year gained the right to sell off building sites on their territories and so boost their coffers.

“The fight between the parties will be fierce, as more money in local authority budgets means more power,” Markovic says.

Last year’s early general election confirmed the dominance of the centre-right VMRO DPMNE party of Gruevski over the main opposition Social Democrats led by Branko Crvenkovski.
 
But the Social Democrats significantly improved their position in the 120-member parliament from 27 to 42 seats and Gruevski no longer has an automatic majority.

Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of the population and in the Albanian bloc, Gruevski’s coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, also emerged a convincing winner in the general election against the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, and the newly formed National Democratic Union, NDU.

“The upcoming [local] elections will be a big test for the opposition as they will show whether it has maintained an upward trend in its popularity,” Markovic says.

Man in Skopje sells PM Nikola Gruevski's book | photo by: Balkan Insight

Macedonia has 84 municipalities and the vast majority are controlled by the ruling parties, including almost all municipalities in the capital, Skopje, and the post of Skopje mayor.

However, experts say the contest in the western, ethnically mixed town of Kicevo will put ethnic relations between the Macedonian majority and Albanian minority to the test.

The situation there is complex as the DUI is demanding the attachment of Kicevo’s surrounding rural areas to the town, which would alter the demographics and make Kicevo a predominantly Albanian municipality.

Macedonians from Kicevo oppose this idea for obvious reasons. “We will see how the government manages this problem”, Markovic notes.

In 2001 Macedonia suffered a short-lived armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces. The conflict ended the same year with the signing of a deal in Ohrid that granted greater right to Albanians.

One of the provisions of the Ohrid accord was decentralization, ceding more authority from the centre to local governments.
 
But the formation of new municipal boundaries in 2004 caused ethnic tensions and still remains a sensitive issue.

Macedonians enclaves in the mainly Albanian west opposed being incorporated into larger, mainly Albanian units of local government. One especial focus of tension was the town of Struga, which became part of a larger Albanian municipality for the first time.

Legacy of failed census:

Skopje | Photo by: Balkan Insight

To further prevent ethnic sparks, observers say next year will not see a repetition of the failed national census that ended in fiasco this autumn.

“While Gruevski and his Albanian partners are in power they will try to postpone or forget the census because they will not stick a nail into their feet,” Pendarovski says.

Eleven days into the census, on October 11, Macedonia scrapped the census that was supposed to last 15 days. The cancelation came after ethnic Macedonian and Albanian census takers failed to agree on the methodology of the head count, resulting in chaos on the ground.

While some Macedonians accused the Albanians of attempting forgery to increase their numbers, some Albanians insisted that the Macedonians wanted to artificially lower the number of Albanians in the country.

Markovic believes that in 2012 both VMRO DPMNE and the DUI “will prefer to put the census on hold rather than risk another fiasco that would disturb their mutually beneficial parliamentary alliance”.

For years Albanians and Macedonians have been arguing about the number of Albanians in the country.
 
VMRO DPMNE insists that the number of Albanians number is lower than the last census claimed in 2002 while the DIU says that there are more Albanians than official statistics then showed.

Media freedom:

Photo by: Miguel Ferrado

Roberto Belicanec, a media expert and head of the Skopje-based NGO, the Centre for Media Development, warns that next year could see further decline in media freedom.

In what some called a “black summer for journalism”, three pro-opposition newspapers Shpic, Vreme, and Koha e Re, and a TV station, A1, all owned by media tycoon Velija Ramkovski, closed in July. Officially, they closed as a result of the owners’ failure to repay back taxes demanded by the authorities but many blamed the closures on government pressure.

The shutdown of most the remaining critically inclined media drew criticism concerning the state of media freedom in the country. “I see no bright light ahead for the Macedonian media in the near future,” Belicanec says.

“This year many journalist are back on the street and the media that have survived are mainly under the government’s control,” he adds.

Markovic says that the difficulty lies in the political dominance over media outlets.
“This is a persistent problem” he adds.

Mixed predictions for the economy:

The government remains optimistic about the economy, predicting healthy economic growth of 4.5 per cent next year.
 
Most local experts, the IMF, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, by contrast, have downgraded their forecasts and warn of a tough year ahead.

Experts expect slower growth next year

“We should expect slower growth next year that won’t exceed 2 per cent, mainly due to a likely fall in investments,” Miroljub Shukarov, economics professor at the University of South Eastern Europe, says.

This year the EBRD predicted 3 per cent economic growth for Macedonia.  In an upbeat assessment of the country this year the bank wrote that “the economy has weathered the crisis reasonably well. Growth has resumed, inflation and the government deficit are low and debt levels remain manageable”.

But the bank predicted that growth in 2012 won’t meet  government expectations. The banks forecasts growth of 2.5 per cent.

Macedonia achieved its highest growth in recent years in 2008 when it reached 5 per cent but 2009 was devastating, with a decline to -1 per cent, as the country felt the full force of the global downturn. The country started to recover in 2010 with growth of 1.8 per cent.
 
Experts predict that the banks will remain stable because they are generally conservative and take few risks.
 
The danger for Macedonian exporters will be if foreign partners start canceling their orders, economic experts say. Most of Macedonia’s exports go to European markets.

Abdulmenaf Bexheti, another economics professor at the South Eastern Europe University, says people can expect “a further decrease in living standards and purchasing power next year” as wages remain static and the cost of living increases.

Skopje | Photo by: Balkan Insight

Macedonia already suffers high unemployment of over 30 per cent and has a similar percentage of people living below the common international poverty line which means they have less than $1.25 of income per day.

To counter pessimistic predications, the government’s 2012 budget applies the same strategy as last year. It foresees an increase in public spending on capital investments that it hopes will keep domestic industry preoccupied amid lower demand on the world market.

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