For a long time, North Macedonia has been considered a relative success story in the region: no major conflicts, a fairly successful state-building process, and no territory issues. After years of showing dedication to the Ohrid Agreement – the 2001 peace deal between the North Macedonian government and ethnic Albanians – and implementing reforms, the country received EU candidate status in December 2005. The promises of European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership (by 2008 the criteria for entering NATO were fulfilled) are important tools in uniting Macedonians with Albanian minorities.
However, the long-standing name dispute with Greece had long been stagnating the EU integration process and NATO membership, as Greece had been vetoing the opening of the accession negotiations. In addition, the ruling conservative Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) party of Nikola Gruevski, in power between 2006 and 2016, misused the lack of progress on the European road to establish an authoritarian regime and to engage in a nationalist identity-building project. In the context of nationalism, ethnic conflicts are influencing the political landscape.
Each election, the VMRO-DPMNE and Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) end up in a close tie. The VMRO-DPMNE is mainly focused on ethnic Macedonians, while the SDSM is more accommodating towards the country’s ethnic minorities. Following the 2020 elections, the SDSM formed a coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which represents the Albanian minority. DUI demanded an ethnic Albanian Prime Minister. During the strenuous coalition talks, the parties agreed to appoint an ethnic Albanian Prime Minister for the last 100 days of the mandate. The government has been challenged by a struggling economy and Bulgaria’s continuing veto of starting EU accession negotiations.
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- 2,077,000 (World Bank 2019 est.)
- Governmental Type:
- Parliamentary democracy
- Ruling Coalition:
- SDSM, DUI, Besa
- Last Elections:
- 2020 (parliamentary elections)
- Next Elections:
- October 2021 (local elections)
- Sister Parties:
- Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)
North Macedonia is a parliamentary republic with the prime minister as the head of government. The political organisation of the country was determined in the 1991 Constitution.The Assembly, or the Sobrania, is the only chamber of parliament and comprises 123 members. The assembly members are elected by proportional representation for a four-year term in office. In general elections, North Macedonia is divided into six constituencies electing 120 MPs each. Three seats are elected by representatives of the Macedonian citizens living abroad: one from Europe, one from North America and one from Asia and Australia.
The combination of a lack of European perspective and nationalism has proved to be a serious threat to democracy and stability in North Macedonia: manipulation and fraud at the elections, control over the judiciary and weakening of the rule of law and media freedom, a non-functioning parliament and growing dissatisfaction among the Albanian minority. It is to hope that recent developments to overcome the postponement of EU accession talks will be successful. The prospect of EU membership could prove vital to make sure politics becomes less steered by ethnic conflicts.
The 2019 Zaev "Extortion Scandal"
The previous progressive government led by Zoran Zaev (Social Democratic Union, SDSM) made promising steps in the fight against corruption and restoring the rule of law. However, the alleged wrongdoing of the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime, Katica Janeva, has been a setback. It started when a well-known businessman, Bojan Jovanovski, was arrested on suspicion of extortion. Shortly after that, La Verita, an Italian right-wing newspaper released videos and audio recordings which allegedly showed that the Janeva was offering leniency to Jovanovski and another businessman in exchange for cash. She was arrested on August 21.
The situation escalated for Zaev’s government, when, in one of the audiotapes, Jovanovski mentioned he met Zaev and suggested that he wouldn't "make any problems". Zaev stressed he had nothing to do with the scandal, but it had already caused a lot of commotion. The VMRO-PPMNE pressed for Zaev's resignation, stating that the government has not done enough against corruption and one of the tops of that is involved in criminal activities. The EU was concerned too, not unsurprising, as it had asked North Macedonia to implement judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures.
Historic dispute leads to 2018 name change
There has been a dispute going on over the country’s use of the Republic of Macedonia as its official name. A region in Northern Greece shares the same name and is also closely connected to Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon. Greece holds the opinion that by using ‘Macedonia’, the country implies claims on Greek territories. As a result, it hads been using the label Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) since joining the United Nations in 1993. Originally planned as a temporary solution, it remains in use until recently. Because of the dispute, the accessions to the EU and NATO have been blocked by Greece.
To solve the issue, North Macedonia agreed to change its flag by removing the Vergina Sun and proceeded to add a passage to its constitution, which is supposed to make clear that the country does not claim any Greek territories. Furthermore, the main airport and a highway to Greece were renamed beginning 2018 to disconnect it from Alexander the Great. The historical figure has been declared exclusively Greek concerning the country’s Hellenic heritage. The Greek side accepted the use of ‘FYROM’ as an official name and agreed on a possibility of continuing EU accession talks. In January 2018, the two Prime Ministers Zohav Zaev and Alexis Tsipras met and announced faster negotiations to resolve the years-long dispute.
After an almost three-decade-long dispute, North Macedonia and Greece finally settled on a historic name change agreement on June 17th, 2018. Prime Minister Zaev and his Greek counterpart Tsipras signed a landmark agreement at Lake Prespa. According to this agreement, Macedonia’s name was officially changed to “Republic of North Macedonia.” In exchange for this, North Macedonia expects accelerated NATO membership and EU-accession talks, and Athens promised not to block their initiatives anymore.The language of the country will still be “Macedonian,” and the citizens will be referred to as “Macedonians” or “Citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia.” This was an important part of the agreement for the Macedonians who wanted to protect their identity.
The agreement was answered with international and local praise, but also with protests from nationalist factions in both countries.After the Prespa Agreement was ratified by both parliaments – which was a major challenge – it had to be supported by a majority of Macedonia’s citizens. On September 30th 2018 a non-binding referendum was held, inquiring the public opinion on the name-change deal. The turn-out was below the 50% threshold, as only 36.8% of the Macedonians participated in the referendum. However, among those participants, 91% voted in favour of a name change, hopeful that it would remove a significant impediment to EU and NATO membership.
Despite the low turn-out, the government saw the outcome as a green light to implement the name change.On October 8th, the government adopted a motion to undertake the constitutional changes, and on January 11th the parliament agreed upon the change. On January 25th, the Greek parliament also approved by 153 votes to 146 on the name change, ending the diplomatic dispute between the countries. North Macedonia is the first country in modern times (except for Austria after World War I) that forcefully had to change its name.
2016 elections see important change in rule
Following the resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, new elections took place on 11 December 2016. Gruevski had been in power since 2006 up to 18 January 2016, in a coalition with the Albanian party; Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). The 2016 election saw Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE remain the largest party with 51 seats, but only by a slim margin. Zaev’s SDSM became the election’s biggest winner, increasing its number of seats from 34 to 49. After one year of political deadlock, Zaev was able to form a coalition with ethnic Albanian parties and has been the country’s prime minister since then.
Pressure on 2016 elections
In previous elections won by Gruevski , the opposition boycotted the parliament. They did this because the elections often lacked transparency and were rigged. Eventually, the opposition refused to participate in the parliamentary process. The incumbent government repeatedly dismissed these claims, adding that the opposition is simply afraid to go to the ballot box. Following this, the State Electoral Commission decided to investigate if registered voters were deceased, lacked citizenship or did not have the right age. Eventually, the opposition also received the support of the EU and the US for their critique of democracy in Macedonia.
On 21 February 2016, the EU and the US sent a joint letter pressuring the government to postpone the date of the elections. Initially, elections were set for 24 April 2016, but they were postponed to 5 June 2016. The letter further declared that not all conditions needed to organise credible elections had been met, such as the clean-up of the electoral roll, the creation of a level playing field for all political players, media reforms ensuring objective and unbiased election coverage and measures to separate state and party political activities. As such, the external interference arranged prerequisites for the elections. As the above mentioned main conditions were not met on time it was decided to postpone the elections again, this time to December 2016.
Lead up to Gruevski’s resignation: the wiretapping scandal
In 2015 opposition leader Zaev from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) accused Gruevski and the secret police of wiretapping over 20.000 people including ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, judges, foreign ambassadors and activists. The Special Prosecution Office (SJO) led the investigation into the wiretaps and pressed charges against high ranked government officials, including the prime minister and minister of interior. Nonetheless, President Ivanov pardoned all politicians facing criminal investigations in the wiretapping corruption scandal, leading to a peak in political instability in 2016.
The mass street protests that followed this, united Macedonians and Albanians in their call for better living standards, the fight against corruption and the end of the Gruevski rule. Pressured by the EU and US, Gruevski agreed to step down and call early elections. The EU mediated Przino Agreement between position and opposition determined that SDSM would take part in the transition government that would prepare free and fair elections. The main conditions were to establish an independent public broadcaster and to clean up the voting register. The wire-tapping scandal marked the end to an ongoing political crisis, in which the parliament was blocked by the main opposition party SDSM. It was not the first time the SDSM had boycotted parliament, which happened in 2013 too.
2013 political crisis
The political crisis started with a disagreement over the draft budget for 2013. On Christmas Eve 2012, during a session of the parliament, the budget was on the agenda, but the main opposition party SDSM stated that instead of following the principles and rules commonly used during such a session, several violations took place. Draft versions were kept away from opposition MPs including the SDSM, which were not able to get voting cards, while media representatives could not work freely in the room. After opposing the constitutional and legal breaches, scuffles broke out between members of the ruling centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party and the SDSM MPs in which opposition members were forcibly evicted from the plenary room.
Before this outburst of violence, all journalists had already been removed from the room, either on their own feet or dragged by policemen. Following this event, the SDSM decided to boycott the parliament sessions, which ultimately lasted for more than two months and threatened to derail local elections that were supposed to be held on 24 March 2013. The SDSM stated that it would renounce the boycott only when the local elections were held together with early parliamentary elections.
These events have triggered a succession of demonstrations in North Macedonia. On 19 February a former leader of the now-disbanded ethnic Albanian separatist armed group was chosen to become the new Minister of Defence. In a reaction to this appointment, clashes took place in Skopje against ethnic Albanians of Macedonians, which was followed days later by a violent demonstration of ethnic Albanians.
The political crisis was resolved at the beginning of March, after a mediation effort by EU Enlargement Commissioner at that time, Štefan Füle, and European Parliament Rapporteur for North Macedonia, Richard Howitt (S&D Group in the EP). The SDSM agreed on 1 March to return to parliament and to run in the local elections. These elections were held on 25 March and 7 April. The victory was declared by North Macedonia’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE, under the lead of Nikola Gruevski.
Ethnic rivalries and minority representation
The country, which had been relatively spared from inter-ethnic violence after the break-up of Yugoslavia, underwent great tensions from 2001 onwards when the Albanian minority started demanding more rights. The 1998-1999 war in Kosovo forced thousands of Albanians to flee to North Macedonia. Since then, the Ohrid Agreement, signed with the support of the European Union and NATO, had guaranteed a unitary Macedonian state, reinforced by its EU candidate status since 2005. Nonetheless, violence keeps on sparking regularly.
After the reforms necessitated by the Ohrid Agreement, minority representation has increased. From 2006 until the 2008 parliamentary elections, the DPA was the main vehicle for Albanian representation in government, despite being the smaller of the two ethnic Albanian parties. This led to resentment with the DUI and considerable tensions between supporters of the two parties. After the 2008 elections, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski announced that the ruling 'For a better Macedonia' coalition would from now on govern in a coalition with the biggest ethnic Albanian party, which is the DUI with 18 seats. Several minority lists of smaller minorities were also part of the 'For a better Macedonia' coalition, including lists of North Macedonian Serbs and Turks.
Despite their increasing representation, Albanians still claim unequal involvement in government ministries and public enterprises. This figues contradicts the Ohrid Agreement principle, which states that “the multi-ethnic character of Macedonia’s society must be preserved and reflected in public life”, notably in the public administration. The recent agreement between SDSM’s coalition with DUI, to install an ethnic Albanian as Prime Minister for the last 100 days of the mandate, is an important breakthrough. DUI also gained two important ministries, namely Foregin Affairs and Finance & Economy.
Women’s rights and female representation
The first real changes in women representation in parliament were reached after the 2002 elections. The percentage of female deputies rose from 7.5 per cent (1998) to 17.5 per cent. After the 2008 parliamentary elections, this share went further up to 32.5 per cent. The rise in women participation was facilitated by the successful lobbying campaign of different women rights NGOs to secure a constitutional amendment obligating parties to include at least 30 per cent women candidates in their election lists. After the 2020 elections, 39% of representatives in parliament were female.
Women’s rights organisations, such as Kvinna till Kvinna, have not stopped there. The country has implemented several laws on gender equality, but it does not allocate any funds to implement them. Gender based violence remains one of the most pressing issues. An OSCE survey in 2018 concluded that 45% of women in North Macedonia responded saying that they had experienced psychological, physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. As in many other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic and following lockdown measures have disproportionately negatively affected women. There were few measures to support working parents, often causing women to cut-back working. The country also saw an increase in domestic violence against women.
Homosexuality has been legal in North Macedonia since 1996, but same-sex couples still do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as opposite-sex couples. North Maceodnia decriminalized homosexuality in order to join the Council of Europe, as this was a precondition. In 2015, a constitutional law was adopted in parliament, which defined that marriage was defined solely as a union between a man and a woman. As such, no same-sex is not legally recognized. Sexual orientation was also scrapped from the list of the anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, in 2010. More recently, however, minor steps have been taken to improve the situation for LGBTI people.
In 2019 a new anti-discrimination law was adopted that did include sexual orientation and gender identity. Throughout 2020 parliament struck down on the anti-discrimination law though. Another positive sign was the first Pride that was organised in Skopje in 2019, with an estimated 1,000 participants. Some state officials also joined the march, but there were also some violent incidents. Most North Macedonian citizens, especially the rural parts, remain conservative in their opinion of homosexuality. North Macedonia’s EU candidacy will have had quite an impact on the country’s LGBTI legislation already. During 2020, however, the LGBTI community was disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 measures.
Parliamentary elections of 2020
Originally, parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held on 12 April 2020. However, less than a month prior to this date, the President, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, the Prime Minister and representatives of seven political parties agreed to reschedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of this decision, North Macedonia had relatively few COVID-19 cases. Nonetheless, in order to avoid a national health crisis and to be able to put more effort into handling the pandemic, rather than into being reelected, all parties agreed that postponement would be the best option. On 15 July 2020, the elections were held at last.
The 2020 parliamentary elections had a turnout rate of only 51% and was marked by many new smaller parties running against the established factions. However, despite this development, the outcome was to be expected. Just like the previous election results in 2016, the SDSM and the VMROO-DPMNE had an extremely close tie. The SDSM in coalition with the Besa Movement obtained 46 seats, while the runner-up won 44. The DUI won 11.8% of the votes this year, which gives them 16 seats. This is a good recovery for the party, since last elections they went from 19 to 10 seats. Alliance for Albanians in coalition with Alternative received 8.9% of the votes, equaling 12 seats. The Left got 4% (1 seat) of the votes, and Democratic Party of Albanians with 1.6% of the votes won 1 seat in the parliament. In order to have a majority, parties need 61 seats.
|Social Democratic Union Macedonia (SDSM) and Besa Movement - "We Can"||35.8 %||46|
|Internal macedonian Revolutionary Organization - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE)||34.5 %||44|
|Democratic Union for Integration (DUI)||11.8 %||16|
|Alliance for Albanians and Alternative||8.9 %||12|
|Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA)||1.6 %||1|
Aftermath of the election
Even though the “We can” coalition of the SDSM and the Besa Movement won the elections, they needed to form a coalition with DUI to have a majority in parliament. The coalition talks between these parties were difficult. “We can” stated during their campaign that they would not let an Albanian become Prime Minister if they secured the win. However, the DUI demanded during the talks that if they were to form a coalition with “We can”, an Albanian should fill this position. Eventually, the different factions agreed that Zoran Zaev, leader of the SDSM would become Prime Minister until the last 100 days before the next elections, when an Albanian will be appointed. In addition, it was agreed that Talat Xhaferi, member of the DUI, will remain speaker of the parliament. The coalition now has 62 of the 120 seats in parliament.
The new government will mainly tackle the country’s corruption and crime, improve its justice system and make sure that North Macedonia is ready for EU integration. The latter is an important matter since the EU accession talks are expected to start at the end of 2020. Furthermore, creating more job opportunities, increasing salaries, helping low-income families and environmental improvement are part of the agenda.After the elections, the Left Party filed around two thousand complaints regarding issues during the electoral process. The faction did not completely trust the results because the State Election Commission had been hacked, which they stated caused for inconsistencies between the casted votes and the data that was entered into the software. However, none of these complaints were actually taken care of.
Presidential elections of 2019
On April 21st, the voting polls for the first round of presidential elections opened in North Macedonia. Stevo Pendarovski, supported by the ruling Social Democratic coalition (SDSM), won this round with a small margin of a few thousand votes ahead of his rival Gordana Siljanovska, who is backed by the right-wing opposition party VMRO-DPMNE. It was a close call: as Pendarovski seized 42.8% of the votes and Siljanovska 42.2%. The third presidential candidate, Blerim Reka, obtained 10.6% of the votes. He’s supported by two ethnic Albanian parties.The voting turn-out was the lowest since the country’s independence. Only 41% of the people cast their vote, just slightly above the required 40% threshold for a legitimate result.
Although it was feared that the turn-out would be below 40% in the second round on May 5th, in the end, 46% of the eligible voters cast their vote. Pendarovski won the presidency with 51.7% of the votes, surpassing Siljanovska who received 44.7%. The remaining 3.61% were void. The victory of Steveo Pendarovski is expected to fortify the Social Democrats’ agenda and raises hopes to enter EU accession talks end 2019, and to become the 30th NATO member state by 2020.
The elections were dominated by a deep division over the name-change agreement with Greece and reflected a split between the pro-Western and the nationalist camp. Pro-European voters supported Pendarovski and the adoption of “Republic of North Macedonia” as the new name of the state. Pendarovski is in favour of the name-change deal with Greece, as it removes the biggest impediment to EU and NATO integration. Nationalists, on the other side, oppose the agreement and support Siljansovska, who promised to never use the new name. Despite being pro-European, she is opposed to the name-change, arguing that North Macedonia makes too many concessions and that the country will lose parts of its identity. In the run-off elections, both candidates aimed to appeal to the Albanian ethnic minority that voted for Reka in the first round, hoping that it would give them the decisive advantage.
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NGO – Research Organisations
- British Helsinki Human Rights Group
- Freedom House
- Foundation Robert Schuman
- Hans Boeckler Stiftung
- Heinrich Boell Stiftung
- International Crisis Group (IGC)
- International IDEA
- New York University Law School: East European Constitutional Review
- Transparency International
- Economist Intelligence Unit
- CNN.com International
- Euractiv.com (Inc. article from the Centre for European Policy Studies)
- Institute for War Peace Reporting
- MIA news agency
- Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
- Transitions Online
- CIA World Factbook
- Republic of Macedonia Agency of Information
- Macedonian State Election Commission
- UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Country Profiles
- European Commission: The EU’s relations with South East Europe
- Election Reports
- Crook, Nick and Michael Dauderstädt, André Gerrits: “Social Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” (Amsterdam:2002)
- Development Strategies, Italy, and Institutional Development Consultancy, France
- “Evaluation of the EC’s Country Strategy in FYR Macedonia for the years 1996-2001”
- Lampe, John, R., Yugoslavia as History: Twice there was a Country, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000
- Institute for Sociological, Political and Juridical Research “Political Parties Development in the Republic of Macedonia” –, Skopje (issue 6, September 2002)