Nikola Gruevski, Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia
Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s fourth term Prime Minister, is overhauling Macedonia’s national identity — and trying to rewrite history in the process. But as further evidence emerges of the widespread wiretapping of citizens, governmental corruption and nepotism, as well as ethnically and politically charged human rights abuses, his illusion of unified national pride is quickly dissipating.
Over the past four years, this patriotic front — which serves to mask the country’s many internal conflicts — has taken the form of Skopje 2014, a government funded revamp of the capital city, featuring the construction of almost 20 new buildings, a triumphal arch, 15 equestrian statues, and a memorial to fallen heroes. This neo-Baroque makeover — a staunch departure from the city’s formerly predominant socialist architecture — is the materialization of a national identity crisis, and masks a far more sinister narrative.
Since its unveiling in 2010, Skopje 2014 has been the subject of controversy among Macedonians. While some argue that the more metropolitan atmosphere of the city will renew a missing sense of national pride, others say that the project is just an attempt to distract from the country’s more pressing problems of high unemployment, poverty, and slow progress towards NATO and EU membership. As stated by local commentator Saso Ordanoski, Skopje 2014 is an “ugly, money-wasting, architecturally failed and politically lunatic project.”
Originally estimated to cost 80 million euros, the project has been funded primarily through IMF loans and increased taxes on citizens. According to official documents, however, the cost now stands at 580 million euros. New projections estimate that the true cost of the project could even exceed one billion euros, which would come largely at the expense of Macedonian taxpayers. The cost and concept of the project, combined with the lack of transparency in the proceedings, has made it nearly impossible to support for many Macedonians.
Beyond monetary concerns, the symbolism inherent in the new architectural design and in the multitude of new statues has rekindled tensions between ethnic Macedonians and the country’s Albanian minority. The narrative that Mr. Gruevski has selected for Macedonia — the one being memorialized in Skopje — is one that ignores the predominantly Muslim Albanian minority. Despite their significant role in the country’s history, Albanians have been excluded from Skopje’s facelift. In their place, the government has erected a statue of Csar Dusan, a Christian orthodox ruler known for his subjugation of the Albanian people.
But it isn’t simply the erasing of Albanians from Macedonian history that’s reigniting tensions in the small Balkan country.
The 2014 election that secured Mr. Gruevski’s fourth term as prime minister, for example, was marred not only by a boycott of the election by Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians, but also by widespread irregularities in election procedures and violence against the Albanian community, which included the firebombing of private residences.
Macedonia’s political scene is dominated by two parties: the VMRO — or the Democratic Party for National Unity, the ethnic Macedonian party led by Prime Minister Gruevski — and the Democratic Union for Integration, the ethnic-Albanian junior partner in the ruling coalition. Despite the latter claiming to represent the interests of Albanian Macedonians, neither party has proven to be above corruption or the suppression of oppositional viewpoints.
Like most other Balkan countries, Macedonia is riddled with ethnic and religious fault lines. Although both sides preach tolerance and peace, hate crime is on the rise, especially around the time of national elections. This pattern makes sense, considering that the two dominant parties are divided along ethnic lines and rely almost exclusively on a populist, ethno-nationalist brand of politics.
Over the nine years during which it has been in power, Macedonia’s current administration has strengthened its despotic grip over the country. Mr. Gruevski has managed to exert near complete control over the media, perhaps most notably with respect to the death of oppositional journalist Nikola Mladenov, whose car inexplicably veered off the road and plunged down a ravine just after highway surveillance cameras were conveniently switched off. His hand in the judiciary is equally forceful; witnesses in key court hearings, for example, have admitted to giving forced or bribed testimony.
Caroline Jones is a first-year student at Brown University, studying Government, Anthropology, and Environmental Science.
Image Attribution: “Nikola Gruevski” by European People’s Party, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Yet it is the recent allegations of wiretapping by government officials that have further split Macedonian society. At the heart of the scandal is Mr. Gruevski, who allegedly ordered the wiretapping of 20,000 people, including police, judges, diplomats, journalists, religious leaders, and even Mr. Gruevski’s close associates. Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition Social Democrat Party, claims that the recordings of wiretapped phone conversations and government meetings reveal corruption at the highest levels of government, including vote buying, mismanagement of funds, and the fraudulent prosecution of political opponents. Mr. Zaev has since been charged with espionage.
If Mr. Gruevski’s systematic oppression of Macedonia’s significant Albanian minority continues, he runs the risk of a bloody civil war. His firm hold over the country’s media and news sources is weakening as oppositional groups gain power, and as further revelations about the extent of governmental corruption are revealed, public support or blind tolerance of Mr. Gruevski’s regime is quickly evaporating.
With its membership application to the EU further jeopardized by ongoing internal conflict, government officials must refocus in order to safeguard the country’s present and preserve it from further erosion in the future. The international community, particularly the EU, has a responsibility to call more attention to the situation in Macedonia — merely expecting corrupted institutions to function is impossible in the hands of such a regime.
As the opposition has claimed, Prime Minister Gruevski has been able to retain control only through the creation of artificial crises, but this one has spiraled far beyond his control.