North Macedonia

Transitional or Hybrid Regime
47
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 47.02 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 3.82 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
47 100 Transitional or Hybrid Regime
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2022

  • No score changes

header2 Executive Summary

North Macedonia maintained the status quo in its liberal-democratic development in 2021, thereby falling short of its 2015 Democracy Score prior to the “Wiretapping Affair,”1 and subsequent difficulties in 2016–17 over the governmental change of power. For most of the year, the country was run by a government consisting of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM)–Besa coalition and the biggest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). The two main opposition parties are the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), a right-wing political party that ruled the country from 2006 to 2017, and the Alliance for Albanians (AA), which established itself as the second-largest ethnic Albanian party following the 2020 elections to the Sobranie, the republic’s 120-seat unicameral assembly. In 2021, national politics were highly divisive, and dialogue was often strained both within and between ethnic camps. However, political polarization incrementally decreased, most visible in the SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE compromise over the implementation of the national census.

Regular local elections held in October brought a convincing win to the opposition VMRO-DPMNE, which now controls more than half of all local government units. The election results prompted the resignation of prime minister and SDSM leader Zoran Zaev and a defection of the smaller ethnic Albanian party, Besa, from the government. Zaev had been PM since 2017, coming to power following the country’s sharp democratic decline in the preceding years. During his tenure, he managed to chart a pro-democratic course for North Macedonia yet ultimately lost popular support due to corruption scandals and general inability to reinstate the rule of law (as evidenced by the impunity enjoyed among segments of the political elite). In November, VMRO-DPMNE, AA, Alternativa (an ethnic Albanian party), Besa, and Levica (Left) surprisingly announced that they had established a slim parliamentary majority aimed at removing the government, an ultimately unsuccessful move as one Besa member withdrew at the last minute. Consequently, PM Zaev led the government until the end of the year and negotiated the inclusion of Alternativa instead of Besa in the cabinet prior to leaving his post. SDSM elected a new president in December—Zaev’s favorite and former finance deputy minister Dimitar Kovačevski—who received the mandate to form a government by the end of the year. The country thus entered 2022 anticipating a new government cabinet, led by Kovačevski, consisting of SDSM, DUI, and Alternativa. It is widely expected that Kovačevski’s government will continue Zaev’s policies.

In 2021, the country managed to implement the long-sought national census, which was last conducted almost two decades ago (2002), with one failed census started and interrupted in 2011 due to interethnic disagreements. The number of ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians is a major sociopolitical issue in the country, with various illiberal nationalistic groups and political parties constantly accusing the government of seeking to implement census fraud in reporting the size of ethnic groups. In-country fieldwork for the census was conducted in September, and preliminary results showed that the population had dropped by 9 percent, or around 190,000 citizens, over the last two decades.2 Later results indicated that, of the immediate resident population, 58.4 percent identified as Macedonian, while 24.3 percent identified as Albanian.3

One of the most important issues early in the year was the lack of COVID-19 vaccines, which caused a high number of citizens to visit neighboring Serbia where vaccinations were accessible to North Macedonia nationals. The government started to implement immunization in March, and, by the end of the year, some 39 percent of the population had received two shots of one of the vaccines available in the country.4

Local elections held on October 17 and 31 were assessed by international observers as competitive, albeit with numerous long-term shortcomings related to legal gaps and inconsistencies. Further, they were conducted under conditions that systematically advantaged the largest parties. The electoral campaign was characterized by hostile and negative rhetoric, as well as the dominance of national issues over local concerns. The elections were peaceful but featured instances of group voting, vote buying, and voter intimidation, which were officially investigated in some cases. The local elections were also characterized by an unusually high number of nonpartisan “independent” lists. This development suggests strong disillusionment among the population with the performance of traditional parties and, possibly, an open space for changes in the party spectrum.

Local civil society and the media continue to play positive roles in the country’s democratization efforts, but both sectors struggle with financial sustainability, and, in the case of the press, media workers face socioeconomic difficulties. Still, the environment for civic action and independent reporting has somewhat improved since the ouster of Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE from power in 2017.

North Macedonia’s judiciary is widely perceived as politicized, as evidenced by the justice system’s inability to address widespread wrongdoing by top officials revealed in the “Wiretapping Affair.” In a positive development in 2021, a court case in the wiretapping scandal finally concluded with one of the operation’s masterminds, former secret service head Sašo Mijalkov (VMRO-DPMNE), receiving a 12-year prison sentence. Former prime minister and VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski (Mijalkov’s cousin) is still unavailable to authorities following his spectacular escape to Hungary in 2018. During the year, a case connected with the parliamentary riots of 2017 (which aimed to prevent the democratic alternation of power) was also concluded in a court of first instance with the former assembly speaker and two ministers (all former VMRO-DPMNE officials) receiving prison sentences.

Corruption is prevalent at all levels and state sectors, and the country’s anticorruption policy suffers from major shortcomings. Prominent corruption scandals appear frequently, and the key anticorruption institutions often adopt an ineffective approach. The main anticorruption institution, the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC), has limited competences, but its 2019-appointed composition manages to function far more proactively than previous incarnations. Still, the effects of SCPC’s work are quite limited, indicating the need for a retooled anticorruption policy in the coming years.

The year 2021 marks 20 years since the country’s armed conflict and subsequent negotiations between the ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political leaders that led to the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA). The OFA transformed the symbolic character of the state towards shared “ownership” between Macedonians and Albanians and introduced policies aiming to accommodate the latter in the state, such as use of the Albanian language in state institutions, qualified voting in the Sobranie, and more equitable institutional representation. The year was remarkably relaxed in terms of interethnic tensions, signaling a positive switch from previous negative practices.

North Macedonia is a NATO member since 2020 and a European Union (EU) candidate since 2005. The country came close to beginning EU accession negotiations in 2020 after it managed to resolve a long-standing dispute with neighboring Greece over the name of the country in 2018 (changing its name from The Republic of Macedonia to The Republic of North Macedonia). However, in a surprise move, neighboring Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia’s EU advancement in late 2020, attempting to pressure the latter to accept the Bulgarian interpretation of the historical and linguistic origins of ethnic Macedonians. With a resolution of the dispute nowhere in sight, and comparatively high support for EU integration among the population, relations between the two countries continued to worsen in 2021. With no clear path to EU membership on the horizon, the government decided to join the “Mini-Schengen” initiative together with Serbia and Albania, promising open borders between the three countries for citizens and businesses by 2023.5

header3 At a Glance

In North Macedonia, national governance is democratic yet with several crucial shortcomings—namely, the dominance of political parties and leaders over the democratically elected legislature, and the population’s strong polarization along political and ethnic lines. Elections are free and competitive, but there is abuse of state resources by the ruling parties, and electoral campaigns are marred with divisive and hostile rhetoric. Civil society organizations play an important role in public life, but many suffer from a lack of financial sustainability. The country’s media sphere is polarized along political and ethnic lines; outlets struggle to be independent, and media professionals work under difficult socioeconomic conditions. Local governance is democratic, but many self-government units struggle to fulfill their competences from a lack of resources and thus remain subordinate to central institutions. The justice system is heavily politicized, leading to impunity for top officials and a general inability to establish the principle of rule of law in judicial practices. Corruption is widely present at all levels of government administration and across economic and professional sectors.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 3.504 7.007
  • The year 2021 proved to be turbulent for the quality of national democratic governance in North Macedonia. The convincing win of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE in the October local elections prompted the resignation of prime minister and ruling SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, who was replaced by his personal favorite and former finance deputy minister Dimitar Kovačevski.1 Prior to Zaev’s formal resignation, and following a positive election result, the leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickovski, publicly demanded early parliamentary elections.2 In early November, VMRO-DPMNE, AA, Alternativa, Besa, and Levica announced they had agreed to form a new parliamentary majority and submitted an initiative in the Sobranie to remove the SDSM-DUI–led government.3 This “thin” majority was established with the defection from the government by Besa, which cited animosity with DUI as the main reason for its exit.4 However, the initiative was ultimately unsuccessful as one Besa member withdraw his support at the last minute.5 Zaev’s government thus prevailed through the end of the year, and the outgoing PM even managed to refresh the cabinet and the parliamentary majority by successfully negotiating the entrance of the ethnic Albanian party Alternativa into government.6 It is largely expected that the new government led by Kovačevski and consisting of the SDSM coalition, DUI, and Alternativa, will continue the policy course charted by Zaev in his four and a half years in power.
  • The country finally managed to implement a national census in 2021, thereby overcoming a highly divisive social and political issue over the number of ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in the country.7 The census began with an online headcount of the diaspora in March,8 and was concluded with in-country fieldwork undertaken in September.9 The fieldwork was delayed from April to September pursuant to an agreement between SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE made after the latter called for a boycott of the census due to concerns over its methodology and claims that it would lead to fraud.10 The two main political parties agreed to postpone the operation until after the mass COVID-19 immunization11 that commenced in March. Following the census, preliminary data showed that the country’s population had decreased by about 190,000 people between 2002 and 2021. Approximately 132,000 citizens were not reached during the fieldwork (partially due to a “silent” boycott by a part of the ethnic Macedonian population) but were later accounted for through the already available administrative data.12 Later results showed that, among the resident population, the segment identifying as Macedonian (about 58 percent) fell compared to 2002 (64 percent), while the segment identifying as Albanian (24 percent) was about the same as in 2002 (25 percent). However, counting nonresidents, the final 2021 census figures were 54.2 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively, marking a significant shift in the balance between these two groups.
  • Relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria remained an important political issue during the year. With no solution in sight to the dispute over the historical and linguistic origins of ethnic Macedonians, the Sobranie adopted, upon a VMRO-DPMNE initiative, a resolution on so-called red lines for the July talks with Bulgaria.13 The resolution obliged the government to defend the specificity of the Macedonian ethnic group and language in any future negotiations with Bulgarian counterparts.14 The document was adopted with broad interparty and interethnic consensus, despite initial concerns in the Albanian bloc that it may work against the country’s EU aspirations.15
  • With weak democratic dialogue among the country’s political forces, the work of the Sobranie continued to be sporadically hampered by procedural blockades in 2021.16 The national assembly also continues to suffer from general mistrust among the population. According to an IDSCS opinion poll in February, a majority of citizens (54 percent) are unsatisfied with the quality of adopted laws,17 and an even larger majority (60 percent) perceives that the government controls the Sobranie, rather than the other way around.18
  • President Stevo Pendarovski (SDSM) continued to play a constructive role in the country, clearly breaking with the servile approach of his VMRO-DPMNE–backed predecessor Gjorgje Ivanov (2009–19). Pendarovski went against his party in May in refusing to sign a highly controversial bill that would have legalized already constructed illegal buildings that have been tolerated by authorities for decades.19 In addition, he publicly announced that he would not promulgate amendments to electoral legislation that would have made nonpartisan lists for the 2021 local elections much more difficult for independent candidates (see “Electoral Process”). These bold moves contributed to the government giving up on two controversial policies.
  • Three devastating events took place during the year that illustrate the state’s inability to deal with public safety challenges. In August, the country faced a high number of forest fires,20 and authorities allowed the situation to escalate by reacting slowly and ineffectively. In September, a modular-built COVID-19 hospital burned to the ground in Tetovo with more than a dozen casualties, mainly patients and their visiting relatives.21 The event was declared a national tragedy and led to the resignation of health minister Venko Filipče (SDSM).22 An official investigation23 showed that the fire was started by a faulty cable, and PM Zaev subsequently rejected Filipče’s resignation, excusing the minister from any responsibility.24 Lastly, in November, a Macedonian tourist bus traveling in Bulgaria was engulfed in flames following an accident, killing 45 people and injuring 7 others (also declared a national tragedy).25 It was later disclosed that the same bus had been used for international trips over the past 18 months without the necessary permits.26
  • One of the divisive political issues in the first half of the year was the government’s inability to procure COVID-19 vaccines, which led thousands of citizens to visit neighboring Serbia during March–April to receive shots.27 Mass vaccination nevertheless commenced in late March,28 and, by the end of the year, some 39 percent of the population had been vaccinated with two doses of one of the vaccines available in the country.29 Attempting to boost immunization outreach, the government introduced a policy in August demanding mandatory vaccination certificates for all persons who wish to visit restaurants and other hospitality venues.30 The policy sharply divided the public and raised concerns over personal data protection.31
  • In April, the government advanced draft legislation that would simplify and ease requirements for changing gender identity on state registers and personal documents.32 The change in policy follows a 2019 European Court of Human Rights ruling that determined the basic rights of a transgender national had been infringed due to the country’s legal framework.33
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 4.505 7.007
  • The seventh successive local elections were held on October 17 and 31, under a proportional system for local councils and under a majoritarian system in two rounds for mayors (see “Local Democratic Governance”). A total of 299 mayoral candidates and 571 local council lists with 10,649 candidates entered the contest for representative bodies of the 80 municipalities and the capital Skopje.1 Despite a legally stipulated gender quota for council lists, a strong gender disbalance among candidates continued to prevail, with women making up only 8 percent of mayoral candidates2 and 45 percent of council candidates (in line with the quota). Turnout was much lower compared to the previous local elections in 2017: 49 percent of voters participated in the first round3 and 48.6 percent in the second,4 whereas 59.5 percent participated in the first round in 2017. The lower turnout was likely connected to the COVID-19 pandemic but also affected by voters’ disillusionment with the political supply.
  • The elections were assessed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE-ODIHR) as competitive and in line with fundamental freedoms, yet with serious shortcomings related to legislative inconsistencies, systemic advantage of the parliamentary parties, and strong negative rhetoric among candidates.5 Election day was assessed generally positively, albeit with instances of group voting, vote buying, and voter intimidation, some of which were officially investigated.6 The new biometric voter identification system (introduced in February 2020), used for the first time in these elections, suffered serious shortcomings on election day and prolonged the voting process at many polling stations,7 problems criticized by OSCE-ODIHR8 and the public.
  • Repeating a negative practice, the Sobranie adopted changes to the Electoral Code with broad consensus only one month prior to the elections and less than two weeks before the campaign.9 With these amendments, citizens were allowed to vote even in cases where personal identification documents had expired (provided the expiration took place after the scheduling of elections); deadlines for appeals and rules for controlling voting via fingerprints were further specified; and rules were introduced stipulating that new council lists should be registered even in cases where only one candidate had withdrawn.10 The last amendment was openly criticized by representatives of the nonpartisan “Green Humane City” list (competing in the Skopje elections),11 who argued that the change established an administrative hurdle for the high number of registered independent lists (see “Local Democratic Governance”). This move was considered far more disadvantageous for independents than for registered political parties, which possess more stable memberships and financial resources to resubmit their lists.
  • Other proposals for amendments to the electoral legislation were prominent during the year: an attempt by the four largest parties (SDSM, VMRO-DPMNE, DUI, and AA) to introduce higher thresholds for submitting candidate lists for local councils was scrapped in August following public controversy, a filibuster by smaller parties,12 and a public statement by President Pendarovski that he would block the changes.13 In March, a group of smaller parties, supported by SDSM, proposed to amend the number of electoral constituencies for parliamentary elections from six to one,14 but no consensus on this long-standing idea was reached by year’s end; most consider that such a change would favor smaller parties more than the country’s largest, more-established parties, as compared to the present model.15
  • The run-up to the local elections saw a surge in road repairs across the country, and journalists found that such projects, worth millions of euros, were conducted in at least 47 out of 80 municipalities close to the elections.16 Also, in July (three months prior to the elections), a much larger number of construction permits for residential buildings were issued than usual.17 These actions by authorities provoked renewed doubts over the use of state resources for electoral purposes, a practice that had seemed to be in decline following the removal of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE from power in 2017.
  • In August, the state Commission for Prevention and Protection Against Discrimination established that the State Electoral Commission (SEC) had discriminated against specific categories of citizens during the 2019 presidential elections. It was found that citizens who had turned 18 between the two election rounds,18 as well as those whose personal IDs had expired during that period,19 were not allowed to vote in the second round and thus discriminated against. Additionally, it was established that the SEC had discriminated against voters with disabilities who faced physical obstacles to exercising their voting rights due to the SEC’s inadequate infrastructure.20
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 4.755 7.007
  • North Macedonia’s civil society is vibrant and proactive, and functions in a significantly improved political environment since the ouster of VMRO-DPMNE in 2017. Still, many civil society organizations (CSOs) face problems with financial sustainability. Relations between government and the civic sector are positive, and many CSOs implement joint projects with state institutions. A report published in September by the nongovernmental organizations Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC) and Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) found that cooperation between the government and the sector had improved as of 2020 and the e-consultation system for government legislative proposals was functioning more efficiently.1 On the negative side, the same report found that government–civic sector consultations on the reform of state financing for CSOs had completely halted in 20202 and the national strategy for development of the sector (2018–20) was only 60-percent implemented.3
  • One of the key policies of the SDSM-DUI government was the introduction of the Council for Cooperation with and Development of the Civil Society Sector (2018), which consists of representatives from both civil society and state institutions. Activities of the council continued during 2021,4 and in September, members reelected the president and vice-president from the council’s first term.5 The MCIC/BCSDN report found that participation of state representatives at official council meetings was inconsistent and the council did not include external CSOs at the meetings.6 In a national survey done for the same report, only half of the CSOs interviewed stated they were informed of the council’s work (a drop of about 10 percent from the previous year), and only 41.6 percent reported they were consulted by the body regarding current issues (the same percentage reported they were not consulted).7
  • Women and sexual minorities are frequent targets of hate speech and abuse. Women’s rights groups protested in the capital Skopje in February after it came to light that a Telegram group had been used to share pornographic photographs and videos of women and girls, often posting the victims’ names and addresses.8 In April, the public prosecutor announced that the group had been shut down and criminal charges brought against its moderators.9 LGBT+ rights activists staged a protest in November to mark 10 years since the violent destruction of the LGBTI Center in the Skopje Old Bazaar, reminding authorities that too little had been done to sanction the violence.10 In a positive development, the country’s second-ever Pride Parade took place in June,11 featuring participation by top state officials.
  • A violent protest took place in February following the convictions of five ethnic Albanians in the high-profile case of the murder of a group of ethnic Macedonians in 2012 (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”).12 The protesters alleged that the case was politically motivated and demanded acquittals for the convicted. At least seven police officers were injured in street fighting.
  • VMRO-DPMNE organized protests and roadblocks in Skopje and other towns across the country in June, mobilizing citizens against the talks between North Macedonia and Bulgaria.13 VMRO-DPMNE officials continuously claim that the SDSM-led government is surrendering to Bulgarian demands.
  • Anti-Bulgarian sentiment in the society seemed to grow as the dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria continued, and public smears against citizens perceived as “pro-Bulgarian” were more pronounced. In March, North Macedonia’s Eurovision contestant Vasil Garvanliev, who holds dual Macedonian and Bulgarian citizenship, was a target of hate speech after it was publicly argued that his Eurovision video shows the colors of the Bulgarian flag.14 Following this development, Garvanliev and his team decided to remove the controversial part from the video. During the election campaign, Prime Minister Zaev and SDSM publicly demanded that the VMRO-DPMNE–backed candidate for mayor of Skopje, Danela Arsovska, withdraw from the race for allegedly holding dual Macedonian-Bulgarian citizenship.15
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 3.504 7.007
  • North Macedonia’s media market is highly fragmented, with 5 public TV and 3 public radio channels, in addition to 45 private TV and 67 private radio channels (plus 4 nonprofit radio stations), as well as 150–200 online news media.1 Outlets are typically divided along ethnic lines, with most media producing programs either in the Macedonian or Albanian languages. Most outlets are financially weak, and journalists face economic challenges as well as a low and unstable social status.2
  • The media in general are perceived as susceptible to political influence and corrupted. The Balkan Barometer 2021 survey found that almost half of the population (48 percent) completely disagrees that the media are independent of political influence (with an additional 27 percent saying they tend to disagree).3 Moreover, 68 percent of respondents agreed that the media are affected by corruption.4
  • The public broadcaster, Macedonian Radio Television (MRT), continues to function under partisan influence, and the Sobranie (due to political quarrels) has been unable to replace members of the public-service Programming Council since 2019.5 During the year, the national assembly also failed to appoint new members to the council of the state’s Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AVMU), which performs media oversight.6
  • In contrast to previous election cycles, the OSCE-ODIHR international election observation mission identified improved election reporting by the media, noting predominantly neutral reporting during the 2021 campaign.7 Still, the state policy of financing political advertising introduced in 2019 is generally viewed as harmful to editorial independence and highly advantageous to the four largest political parties, which receive a disproportionate slice of state funds for advertising.8
  • The nongovernmental Association of Journalists (AJM) registered only two cases of verbal/physical attacks on journalists in January–April 2021, a significant drop from the seven cases registered in the same period of the previous year.9 In July, the Ministry of Justice announced preparation of draft legislation with tougher penalties for attacks against journalists.10
  • In August, employees of Alfa (a national TV outlet close to the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE) conducted a partial strike over unpaid salaries and social-service benefits.11 Previously, in February, it was found that Alfa was among the companies who had received state aid to counter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but had failed to direct the funds for that purpose.12 In November, it was disclosed that public prosecutors and the police had moved to investigate Alfa’s finances, which the television’s head described as a politically motivated case.13
  • The general public is susceptible to conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. A March survey by MCIC found that less than one-fifth of citizens (19.7 percent) align with the official World Health Organization (WHO) position on the origin of the virus, while a majority of citizens believe that the virus was “intentionally released from a lab” (48.9 percent) or done so “accidently” (23.1 percent).14 Another survey released in March by the London-based think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that more than half of citizens (55 percent) were unlikely to receive a vaccine if it was offered to them.15
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.004 7.007
  • The quality of local governance continues to stagnate in North Macedonia. Most local self-government units face difficulties in fulfilling their mandate, despite holding competences in key sectors like healthcare, education, and urban planning. No reform initiatives were noted during the year, and the local elections campaign saw the proliferation of major national topics instead of focusing on local issues.
  • The October local elections brought major changes at the top of local governance.1 Prior to the elections, SDSM mayors controlled some two-thirds of local government units; but following the elections, the situation was reversed in favor of VMRO-DPMNE, which now controls 41 of the 80 municipalities plus the capital Skopje. SDSM managed to obtain only 16 mayoral positions; 11 went to DUI; two went to Besa and the AA-Alternative coalition each; and one to GROM (a small party close to VMRO-DPMNE), DPA, and the LDP-DOM coalition each.2 Three mayoral positions were obtained by independent candidates. The success of VMRO-DPMNE was cemented with its win in Skopje and all municipalities within the capital, apart from Centar and Karposh, which will be administered by SDSM and GROM, respectively. The ruling DUI lost in two important Albanian-dominated urban centers: Tetovo, which will be administered by Besa following long-term domination by DUI, and Gostivar, which was won for the second time by AA. VMRO-DPMNE also won most of the local councilor posts across the country (469 in total), followed by SDSM (402), DUI (167), and the AA-Alternativa coalition (81).3
  • The mayoral upsets signaled policy changes in several municipalities. The VMRO-DPMNE–backed independent candidate Danela Arsovska publicly stated that she intends to stop the large public transport project pursued by her predecessor, Petre Shilegov (SDSM), in the capital, eliciting concern from urbanists.4 The newly elected local councils in the municipalities of Aerodrom in Skopje and Štip adopted their constitutive acts while using the former country name, “Republic of Macedonia,” instead of the current official “Republic of North Macedonia.”5 And the newly elected mayor of Tetovo, Bilal Kasami (Besa), used the first days of his mandate to personally oversee the removal of a bicycle lane illegally constructed by his predecessor, Teuta Arifi (DUI).6
  • The 2021 local elections will likely be remembered for the high number of nonpartisan, so-called independent mayoral candidates and council candidate lists. A total of 25 mayoral candidates managed to gather the necessary number of signatures in addition to 57 lists running across the country.7 Many of these independent candidates competed under a “green” political agenda. Following the elections, independents managed to obtain a total of 67 councilor posts in several important local government units,8 including Skopje and the municipalities of Centar, Bitola, Kumanovo, and Gevgelija.9
  • Local government units, which have authority over urban planning, seem to be susceptible to improper business influence since weak construction planning and illegal construction have been two of the country’s biggest problems for decades. A controversial plan to build three multistory buildings in the center of Skopje caused public discontent in April, as CSOs and architects demanded a halt to the projects in an open letter to the authorities.10 The State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC) also acted on this case (see “Corruption”). Despite these controversies, construction on the Skopje buildings commenced in November,11 demonstrating the weaknesses of local democratic governance.
  • The UNESCO Heritage Site status of North Macedonia’s top touristic attraction, the City of Ohrid, is also now in question due to problematic urban planning. In July, UNESCO extended the deadline for authorities to act on rampant urbanization, with the possibility to reclassify Ohrid as a World Heritage Site in Danger still looming.12
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 3.253 7.007
  • North Macedonia’s judiciary is widely perceived as operating under political influence: according to the Balkan Barometer 2021 survey, a significant majority of citizens (75 percent) have stated that they disagree that the judicial system is independent of political influence,1 the highest share of respondents among all Western Balkan countries, and an increase of 25 percent compared to 2020.2 In practice, courts are slow and often arbitrary in dealing with high-profile cases, and many controversial former officials have managed to circumvent punishment. PM Zaev’s SDSM pledged to reinstate the rule of law when it came to power in 2017, but the results of this effort have remained limited.
  • Several important cases were concluded during the year, but it remains to be seen whether the convicted will serve any sentences following their appeals. Former chief of secret police Sašo Mijalkov (VMRO-DPMNE) was sentenced in February in a court of first instance to 12 years in prison for participating in the infamous “Wiretapping Affair” exposed in 2015,3 and he received an additional 8-year sentence in April for the illicit purchase of telecommunication surveillance equipment.4 Former assembly speaker Trajko Velajnovski, former transport minister Mile Janakieski, and former labor minister Spiro Ristovski (all VMRO-DPMNE) were convicted at first instance in July for their participation in organizing the national assembly riots of 2017.5 Also in July, the case against former special public prosecutor Katica Janeva and TV personality Bojan Jovanovski for the “Racketeering Affair” (2019)6 was concluded in the second instance, with the two defendants receiving prison sentences of seven and nine years, respectively.7
  • However, other convicts in the “Wiretapping Affair” are not available to the authorities. Former PM Nikola Gruevski (VMRO-DPMNE) fled to Hungary in 2018, and during 2021, it was disclosed that he has launched several private companies while on the run.8 Two other key figures in the wiretapping scandal, former interior ministry and secret service employees Goran Grujevski and Nikola Boshkovski, fled to Greece in 2017 and were sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in 2021.9
  • There were also controversies related to the possible escape of suspects. In February, Sašo Mijalkov was declared missing just days before the verdict in the wiretapping case10 but appeared by himself following a two-day manhunt.11 He was nevertheless released on a bail of €11 million in December by the appeals court in a move that decreased public trust in the judiciary.12 Businessman Orce Kamchev, a suspect in the Gruevski-era “Empire” money-laundering case, was also placed under detention in March when police learned that he was planning to leave the country.13 14
  • Another controversy exploded in September when a key player in the “Racketeering Affair,” Zoran Mileski, was found to have caused a car accident (leading to one death and several injured) while supposedly serving a prison sentence.15 Following the event, it was revealed that Mileski had received a 30-day release from jail for alleged mental health issues. In November, Mileski was convicted and sentenced to only six months’ jail time for the car accident,16 a controversial ruling that further diminished public trust in the judiciary.
  • The case connected to the killing of five ethnic Macedonians in 2012 was also concluded in February in the first instance as five ethnic-Albanian defendants were retried and found guilty, receiving prison sentences of 15 years to life.17 Two of the defendants were convicted in absentia.
  • A report published in September by state prosecutors found that special investigative measures (including wiretapping) were used less frequently and more effectively in 2020 than in 2019.18 This is a positive development given the country’s history of illegal wiretaps organized by state officials and institutions.
  • Another report published during the year by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) noted that conditions in North Macedonian prisons continued to be poor, and that prisoners are often subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.19 The committee concluded that authorities need to establish “a professional prison service capable of managing a modern prison.”20
  • The COVID-19 pandemic affected the normal functioning of the judiciary, but some courts continued to operate through online means. In June, the Ministry of Justice announced a plan to digitalize a total of 200 courtrooms and 34 courts with foreign aid.21
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 3.253 7.007
  • North Macedonia has accelerated its anticorruption efforts in recent years, yet corruption remains prevalent at all levels of government and administration. A report published by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime in March highlighted that the state has increased transparency into government finances and ownership of companies, and has provided additional resources to support the work of the key anticorruption institution, the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC).1 The same report, however, also noted that the country still lacks an independent anticorruption body and modernized legislation on asset recovery, and that it has failed to implement several recommendations from the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO).
  • The 2019-appointed SCPC is much more active than its predecessors. However, the institution is often criticized for the lack of impact from its work. A report by the Platform of Civil Society Organizations in the Fight Against Corruption concluded that the work of the SCPC is mostly focused on cases in which corrupt misdeeds are probed but not established.2 The report underlines the need to optimize the SCPC’s work by focusing on “priority” cases and strengthening higher administrative and other capacities of the institution.3 In October, the SCPC president publicly complained about the prosecutors’ follow-up on different SCPC initiatives, revealing that the institution rarely receives a response to initiated cases.4
  • Several prominent corruption scandals were disclosed during the year. The government’s General Secretary, Dragi Rashkovski (SDSM), resigned in April after it was found that he had used his position to purchase software for the Ministry of Interior from his own private company.5 Criminal charges were brought in October,6 but this was overshadowed by PM Zaev’s statement given several days later that he believes Rashkovski is “innocent.”7
  • Minister of Health Venko Filipče (SDSM) was probed by the SCPC in March when journalists alleged corruption in relation to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines from China.8 In April, SCPC submitted an initiative for criminal charges against officials from Centar municipality and the Ministry of Transport and Connections, who in 2012 participated in the Detailed Urbanistic Plan, which was adopted in conflict with the General Urbanistic Plan and which allowed for the construction of controversial multistory buildings in the center of Skopje (see “Local Democratic Governance”).9 Finally, in November, the SCPC also initiated charges against the former culture minister Husni Ismaili (Alternativa) after it was revealed that he had abused his official position when distributing project grants in 2020.10
  • Local civil society watchdogs criticized the government in April when it was disclosed that authorities had initiated a direct procurement with the US-Turkish consortium Bechtel-ENKA for the construction of two highways.11 The direct-deals approach was heavily criticized back in 2015 by PM Zaev and SDSM in relation to former PM Gruevski (VMRO-DPMNE) and his highway construction projects.12 In July, the State Audit Office (DZS) published a report criticizing the direct-deals approach implemented during the 2020 COVID-19 state of emergency relating to procurements to combat the pandemic.13
  • VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickovski publicly disclosed a major affair in April that involved forgery of identity documents by a group of police officers.14 Following the announcement, members of the group were arrested in a high-stakes police operation.15
  • After the tragic fire in the Tetovo modular hospital (see “National Democratic Governance”), a relative of a victim publicly disclosed that they had been pressured to provide a bribe to hospital staff in order to obtain proper health services.16 The affair confirmed the presence of corrupt pressure even at the lowest levels of state services.
  • In September, former deputy prime minister for the fight against corruption Ljupcho Nikolovski (SDSM) announced preparation of new draft legislation targeting asset confiscation.17 The legislation would stipulate scrutiny of all assets over 30,000 euros and confiscation if the owner cannot prove the origin of the funds used to obtain the asset. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be adopted, yet the political turmoil at year’s end cast doubt on its future.

Author:

Jovan Bliznakovski is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the Institute for Sociological, Political and Juridical Research, Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje (ISPJR-UKIM). He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan and an MSc in Political Science from University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. In 2014–16, he served as program director of the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” in Skopje (IDSCS).

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  • Global Freedom Score

    67 100 partly free