Macedonia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Macedonia received a downward trend arrow due to increased harassment of and violence against political party members during the country’s June parliamentary elections, which domestic and international observers deemed the worst since independence.


Macedonia’s June 2008 parliamentary elections were accompanied by violence and fraud, drawing criticism from poll monitors. Also during the year, ethnic Albanian and opposition parties mounted intermittent boycotts of the parliament. In April, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s proposed NATO membership due to a long-standing dispute over the country’s name. That issue, together with the ongoing internal political conflicts, continued to stymie Macedonia’s European Union accession prospects.

Macedonia, a republic in the Communist-era Yugoslav federation, gained independence in 1992, and was known internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Since then, however, the country’s existence and legitimacy has been threatened on several levels. Greece objects to the name “Macedonia,” arguing that it implies a territorial and cultural claim to the Greek region of the same name, while Bulgaria contends that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. Internally, poor relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority have raised doubts about the country’s long-term viability.

From 1992 to 1998, a center-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM) governed the country. Parliamentary elections in 1998 resulted in a transfer of power to the center-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). Each government since independence included an ethnic Albanian party in the ruling coalition, but in 2000–01 Albanians mounted an armed insurgency. The official demands of the uprising were 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 municipalities. Unofficially, however, the insurgency was motivated in part by a desire to control lucrative smuggling routes in northwestern Macedonia. An August 2001 agreement reached in the town of Ohrid temporarily satisfied most of the rebels’ stated demands, though violent incidents continued to erupt periodically.

Parliamentary elections in 2002 returned the SDSM to power, and party leader Branko Crvenkovski became prime minister. He formed a coalition with the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), headed by the leader of the ethnic Albanian uprising, Ali Ahmeti. Crvenkovski rose to the presidency in a special April 2004 election after the incumbent died in a plane crash.

The VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in July 2006, but preelection violence was followed by significant irregularities on election day. DUI 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 DUI subsequently engaged in months of intermittent parliamentary boycotts, sometimes blocking key legislation related to the Ohrid Agreement and European Union (EU) accession. The country had been declared a candidate for EU membership in 2005.

Following Macedonia’s failed bid to join the NATO alliance in April 2008, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski called early elections for June 2008, arguing that the opposition was blocking reforms and damaging the country’s chances of joining NATO and the EU. The elections were widely seen as the worst since independence. International watchdog groups cited a range of irregularities—mainly in Albanian areas—including attacks on party campaign offices, failure to guarantee equal access to the media, ballot-box stuffing, and an atmosphere of violence both during the campaign and on election day. In many cases, police officers were allegedly involved in these irregularities, and 28 were suspended pending investigation. Results at 197 polling sites, or about 10 percent of all votes cast, had to be annulled. After reruns were held in the affected municipalities, the final results gave the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its smaller allies 63 out of 120 seats in the parliament. The opposition SDSM and its junior partners took only 27 seats. The DUI, which won 18 seats, confirmed its position as the leading Albanian party, while the rival DPA garnered 11. Gruevski brought the DUI into his new government, leaving the DPA in opposition.

The early elections were prompted in part by Greece’s decision, at a NATO summit in April, to block an invitation for Macedonia to join the alliance. Macedonia’s broader European integration efforts have been hampered by its strained interethnic relations and weak administrative capacity, in addition to the ongoing name dispute. However, the country has made some progress in improving the local business climate by streamlining procedures for property registration, starting up a business, and obtaining credit.

Under pressure from ethnic Albanian politicians, Macedonia recognized the independence of neighboring Kosovo in October 2008, although opinion polls showed that a majority of Macedonian Slavs opposed the move.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Macedonia is an electoral democracy. Most elections held since independence have been deemed satisfactory according to international standards, though the June 2008 elections were marred by a number of irregularities. Members of the unicameral, 120-seat Sobranie (Assembly) are elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. The president is elected to a five-year term through a direct popular vote. In recent years, relations between the president’s office and the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski have been strained. According to one of the reforms put in place by the Ohrid Agreement, certain types of legislation needs to be passed by a “double majority,” meaning a majority of legislators from both of the main ethnic groups.

The ruling, right-leaning VMRO-DPMNE and the center-left, opposition SDSM are the main Macedonian Slav parties, and the DUI and DPA compete for the ethnic Albanian vote. There is also a host of smaller factions representing other ethnic minorities and political platforms, and many form electoral blocs with the major parties.

Corruption continues to hamper economic growth and political transparency in Macedonia, although the country has made progress in confronting it in recent years. In July 2008, President Crvenkovski pardoned the mayor of Strumica municipality of corruption charges as part of a deal to get the SDSM to end its boycott of parliament; the SDSM claimed that the charges against the mayor had been politically motivated. Macedonia was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press. Libel is punishable by fines, but not by imprisonment. Political appointees are frequently named to senior positions in state-owned media, the main source of information for most of the population, and political parties either own or are closely linked to three of the five television stations licensed to broadcast nationwide. In the run-up to the June 2008 elections, thieves stole equipment from the main Albanian-language television broadcaster, Alsat-M, which left much of the Albanian population of without a television signal during the electoral campaign. In the past, Alsat-M’s staff had accused the DPA of harassment stemming from critical coverage.

State-ownedMacedonian 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 2008.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but a new law that took effect in May 2008 favors established religious organizations over newer ones. A long-standing dispute between the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church and the canonically recognized Serbian Orthodox Church continues; the leader of a faction loyal to the Serbian Church has been repeatedly arrested and harassed for his religious activities. Hard-core Islamists, reportedly receiving funds from supporters in the Middle East, have been taking control of certain local mosques. Academic freedom is not restricted.

Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. NGOs typically 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. Teachers staged a large-scale, 10-day strike in November 2008, and the government agreed to many of their demands. 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.

According to a November 2008 EU progress report, the judiciary has made some progress in strengthening its independence and efficiency over the past year. Nevertheless, serious problems with corruption remain. Amnesty International in 2008 accused Macedonian officials of complicity in the extralegal detention, torture, and extradition to Afghanistan of a Lebanese-born German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. International watchdog groups have on a number of occasions charged Macedonian police with ill-treatment and torture of prisoners. The Council of Europe has expressed deep concern about prison facilities in the country, while noting that some improvements have been made in recent years.

Most of the reforms called for in the Ohrid Agreement have been or are being implemented. For example, a law that took effect in January 2008 gave local governments more say on economic development issues. However, disputes between ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav politicians continue over matters like the use of the Albanian language throughout Macedonia, display of the flag of neighboring Albania, and increasing the number of ethnic Albanians in government. In many respects, Macedonia remains an ethnically segregated society, with the two main ethnic groups largely living in different areas and attending different schools.

Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although societal attitudes limit women’s participation in nontraditional roles. Women currently hold 2 out of 22 cabinet positions and 38 out of 120 parliament seats, more than at any time since independence. Every third candidate on a party’s electoral list must be female. In the June 2008 parliamentary elections, this minimum was slightly surpassed. Domestic violence and trafficking of women remain serious problems, although in recent years the number of trafficked women has reportedly been on the decline. In Albanian Muslim areas, many women are subjected to proxy voting by male relatives and are frequently denied access to education.