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Macedonia faced criticism from the European Union in 2007 for its disappointing reform record, though the government received plaudits for economic reforms and efforts to combat corruption and organized crime. Meanwhile, relations among the main political parties deteriorated. The largest ethnic Albanian party boycotted the parliament for much of the year, and in September a brawl in the legislature spilled into the streets.
Macedonia, a republic in the Communist-era Yugoslav federation, gained international recognition as an independent state in 1992 as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Greece objected to the name “Macedonia,” arguing that it implied a claim to northern Greece, while Bulgaria assailed the status of the Macedonian language and Serbia contested the country’s northern border. However, the poor relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority came to be the most serious threat to the new country’s existence.
After the 1998 parliamentary elections, a center-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM), which had ruled since independence, yielded to a center-right grouping led by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). Since 1992, each government had included an ethnic Albanian party in the ruling coalition. However, in 2000–01, Albanians mounted an armed insurgency to demand greater use of the Albanian language in official institutions, an increase in the number of Albanians in the civil service, and a transfer of certain government powers to local municipalities. An August 2001 agreement reached in the town of Ohrid temporarily satisfied most of those demands, though violent incidents continue to erupt periodically.
Parliamentary elections in 2002 returned the SDSM to power, this time led by Branko Crvenkovski, who became prime minister. He allied his party with the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), headed by the leader of the ethnic Albanian uprising, Ali Ahmeti. Crvenkovski rose to the presidency in a special April 2004 election after the VMRO-DPMNE incumbent died in a plane crash.
Although most of the Ohrid reforms have been or are being implemented, ethnic Albanian politicians claim that the government continues to stall on the remaining changes.
The VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in July 2006, but preelection violence was followed by significant irregularities on election day. BDI supporters then mounted weeks of demonstrations to protest the VMRO-DPMNE’s decision to form a coalition with a rival Albanian group, the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). The BDI subsequently engaged in months of intermittent parliamentary boycotts, sometimes blocking key legislation related to the Ohrid Accords and European Union (EU) accession. The BDI’s latest return to parliament occurred in May 2007, but at that point a conflict between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM over corruption allegations led the SDSM to call for a vote of no confidence. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government survived the vote in June, but relations between the country’s two largest parties remained strained.
As partisan tensions continued, a September brawl in parliament between Albanian deputies spilled onto the streets. Four Albanians and five policemen were injured in the fighting, leading both the U.S. ambassador and EU representatives to appeal for calm.
In 2002, the EU had signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Skopje, and in December 2005 Macedonia was declared a candidate for joining the bloc. It remains unclear whether the government has the administrative capacity to implement reforms needed to meet a possible target accession date of 2014. In February 2007, the EU’s enlargement commissioner expressed his disappointment with Macedonia’s reform record so far, and similar criticisms were voiced in October. The country also faces a possible veto by Greece on both EU and NATO accession, due to the ongoing dispute over its official name. However, Macedonia was praised for fiscal reforms that allowed it to pay back some of its external public debts ahead of schedule in 2007.
Macedonia is an electoral democracy. Despite serious flaws in the electoral process, the 2006 elections for the 120-seat, unicameral Sobranie (Assembly) were deemed to be “largely in accordance with … international standards.” Legislators are elected to four-year terms. The president is elected to a five-year term through a direct popular vote.
The country’s major parties include President Branko Crvenkovski’s center-left SDSM; the right-leaning VMRO-DPMNE, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski; and the primarily ethnic Albanian BDI, led by former guerrilla commander Ali Ahmeti.
Corruption continues to hamper economic growth and political transparency in Macedonia. The VMRO-DPMNE government in 2007 accused the former SDSM president and prime minister of involvement in state procurement irregularities while in office, straining interparty relations. Several prominent corruption cases were brought to a successful conclusion over the summer, enhancing the government’s anticorruption credentials. In June, Gruevski appointed former Romanian justice minister Monica Macovei as his personal anticorruption adviser. She had been credited with helping Romania to combat corruption ahead of its EU accession in January. Macedonia was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press. However, political appointees are frequently named to senior positions in state-owned media, from which the majority of the population obtains its information. A 2006 law eliminated imprisonment as a penalty for libel, but it remains punishable by fines. Also in 2006, it was revealed that journalists at several leading outlets secretly worked for a public relations firm that shaped reports to favor the previous SDSM-led government. Media experts blame the poor quality of Macedonian journalism in part on the glut of outlets for such a small country: there are 48 television stations, 160 radio stations, and 9 daily and 8 weekly newspapers. Political parties either own or are closely linked to three of the five television stations licensed to broadcast nationwide. In June 2007, 17 journalists won a case against the Interior Ministry and Macedonian Telecommunications for the illegal tapping of their telephones in 2000. Each journalist was awarded roughly $7,000. In September, a reporter covering the fighting around the parliament building was allegedly beaten by police.
Macedonian Radio Television (MRTV) provides programming in several minority languages. However, the country’s outlets are strongly divided along ethnic lines. There were no reports of restrictions on access to the internet during 2007.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice. However, the leader of an Orthodox Church faction loyal to the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski, has been arrested for inciting “ethnic or religious intolerance” through actions such as performing a baptism and holding church services in his apartment. In August 2007, he was sentenced to a year in prison for embezzlement. Local Muslim officials claimed in March that extremists had taken control of two mosques in Skopje. Some Muslim clerics have reportedly become increasingly fundamentalist in recent years, and have allegedly received financial support from extremists in the Middle East. Academic freedom is not restricted.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected by the authorities. Over 4,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate without government interference. The constitution recognizes the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Workers have little leverage given the poor state of the economy, but strikes are common. More than 50 percent of the legal workforce (mostly in the public sector) is unionized, although some unions have reported obstacles in their efforts to register.
The judiciary is widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. The EU is demanding a number of reforms as part of Macedonia’s accession bid, including measures to strengthen the independence of judges and reduce the backlog of cases. In mid-2007, the BDI walked out of parliament to prevent a vote on measures that would have strengthened the government’s power to appoint and dismiss judges. It was widely believed that the party was acting to protect some well-connected individuals from prosecution. International watchdog groups have on various occasions charged the police with ill-treatment and torture of prisoners. Prison conditions generally conform to international standards, but a spate of prison suicides in 2005–06 revealed strains linked to overcrowding, staff corruption, and drug trafficking within the system.
To satisfy the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority, constitutional references to Macedonia as the “land of the Macedonian people” have been eliminated, and the Albanian language has received official status in municipalities where Albanians constitute at least 20 percent of the population. Other reforms attached to the 2001 Ohrid Accords granted more self-government to municipalities and amnesty to ethnic Albanian insurgents. The Ohrid Accords also stipulated that certain legislation has to pass with majority support from two-thirds of the deputies representing ethnic minorities. The Albanian presence in the police force increased from 2 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2006, in the Defense Ministry from 2 percent to 14 percent, and in the Economics Ministry from 5 percent to 24 percent. Nevertheless, Albanian rebel groups remain active in the country, engaging in a shootout with police in late August 2007. Some have been accused of ties to foreign Islamist groups.
Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although societal attitudes limit women’s participation in nontraditional roles. Women currently hold 3 out of 21 cabinet positions and 36 out of 120 parliament seats. The law requires that every third candidate on a party’s electoral list be female. Domestic violence and trafficking of women remain serious problems, although in 2006 it was reported that the number of trafficked women was on the decline. In Albanian Muslim areas, many women are subjected to proxy voting by male relatives and are frequently denied access to education.