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Macedonia’s dispute with Greece over its official name continued to hamper the country’s efforts to join NATO and the European Union in 2010, and the government’s handling of the problem remained a major subject of domestic political debate. The independence of the judiciary and the media came under pressure during the year, as the head of the Constitutional Court faced possible removal for alleged collaboration with communist-era security services, and an important opposition-oriented media owner was arrested for alleged financial crimes.
Macedonia, a republic in the communist-era Yugoslav federation, gained independence in 1992 as the federation broke up. The country’s legitimacy has since 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. Bulgaria contends that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. The Serbian Orthodox Church does not recognize the separation of the self-proclaimed Macedonian Orthodox Church. And internally, poor relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority have raised doubts about the country’s long-term viability.
Since independence, power has alternated between center-left and center-right governments, although an important constant has been the inclusion of an ethnic Albanian party in each ruling coalition. In 2000–01, Albanians mounted an armed insurgency, demanding greater use of the Albanian language in official institutions, an increase in the number of Albanians in the civil service, and a transfer of various governmental 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, known as the Ohrid Accords, prevented the conflict from turning into a full-scale civil war, but violent incidents continued to erupt periodically.
Parliamentary elections in 2002 returned the Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM) to power after a period of rule by the center-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), and SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski became prime minister. The Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), headed by the leader of the ethnic Albanian uprising, Ali Ahmeti, joined the SDSM government as a coalition partner. Crvenkovski rose to the presidency in a special 2004 election after the incumbent died in a plane crash.
VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in July 2006, but the polls were marred by preelection violence and significant irregularities on eleciton day. DUI supporters then mounted weeks of demonstrations to protest the VMRO-DPMNE’s decision to form a coalition with a rival 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 Accords and Macedonia’s European Union (EU) candidacy.
Early parliamentary elections held in 2008 were widely seen as the worst since independence. Irregularities—mainly in Albanian areas—included attacks on party offices, failure to guarantee equal access to the media, and ballot-box stuffing. The final results gave the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its smaller allies 63 out of 120 seats. 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 and entered the new government, while the rival DPA garnered 11 and went into opposition.
University professor Georgi Ivanov, running for the VMRO-DPMNE, won the 2009 presidential election. He led by a wide margin in the March first round, then took 63 percent of the vote in the April runoff against the SDSM’s Ljubomir Frckoski. After the Albanian candidates were eliminated in the first round, turnout for the runoff was negligible among Albanian voters, but the election was generally praised by international observers as an improvement over the 2008 polls. The VMRO-DPMNE also performed well in the concurrent municipal elections, capturing 55 out of the country’s 84 municipalities outright.
The dispute with Greece over Macedonia’s official name remained unresolved in 2010, obstructing the country’s efforts to join NATO and the EU, and straining its internal political relations. Other obstacles to EU membership included its ethnic tensions and weak administrative capacity. Greece had blocked an invitation for Macedonia to join NATO in 2008, but Macedonia citizens secured visa-free travel within the EU’s Schengen zone in 2009.
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 parliamentary 2008 polls 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, but the prime minister holds most executive power. According to reforms put in place by the Ohrid Accords, certain types of legislation need to be passed by a “double majority,” meaning a majority of legislators from both of the main ethnic groups.
Corruption remains a serious problem. Transparency with regard to public expenditures is still weak, and the law on public access to information does not require that the details of public contracts be revealed. No sanctions have been imposed on political parties that do not comply with financing regulations. Macedonia was ranked 62 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, but political tensions have increased pressure on the media. In November 2010, police raided the headquarters of the opposition-oriented A1 TV in Skopje to investigate alleged financial irregularities at companies controlled by the station’s owner, Velija Ramkovski. In late December, Ramkovski and more than a dozen associates were arrested and charged with crimes including money laundering and tax evasion. The opposition denounced the case as a politically motivated attack on independent media. Also during the year, government-aligned media outlets carried harsh criticism and threats aimed at rival outlets and journalists. Libel is punishable by fines, and libel suits against journalists are common in practice. The public broadcast service, Macedonian Radio and Television (MRTV), lacks reliable, independent funding, exposing it to political influence. Macedonia’s media outlets, like society at large, are strongly divided along ethnic lines. There were no reports of restrictions on access to the internet during 2010, though a new law gave the Interior Ministry the authority to monitor internet and telephone communications without a court order. The security services have a history of improperly wiretapping journalists.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Some 26 religious organizations are now officially registered in Macedonia. A long-standing dispute between the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church and the canonically recognized Serbian Orthodox Church remained unresolved in 2010. The leader of a faction loyal to the Serbian Church, Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski, has been repeatedly jailed for his religious activities. In February 2010, the Islamic Community in Macedonia complained of unequal treatment by the state regarding the reconstruction of the central square in Skopje, and a proposal to build a church there but not a mosque. Hard-lineIslamists have reportedly taken control of several mosques with financial help from Middle Eastern countries.
Academic freedom is generally not restricted, but the country’s ethnic divisions sometimes affect education. In 2010, schools in Albanian areas boycotted a move to extend the teaching of Macedonian as a second language to first-year elementary school students; such instruction had previously been mandated to begin in the fourth grade.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. In 2010, the courts acquitted all 18 people charged in connection with a 2009 protest against the church construction plans in Skopje’s central square. Reports suggest that the role of nongovernmental organizations in drafting legislation and policy formulation has been improving in recent years. The constitution recognizes the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, though the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2010 report for Macedonia stated that strikes are difficult to organize, union activities can be easily terminated, and antiunion dismissals are common. More than 50 percent of the legal workforce (mostly in the public sector) is unionized, but some unions have reported obstacles in their efforts to register.
The EU’s 2010 progress report on Macedonia noted no advances in the implementation of reforms intended to improve judicial independence, and political influence over the courts—including apparently politicized appointments—remained a problem. In late 2010, a commission operating under a 2008 lustration law found that the head of the Constitutional Court had collaborated with communist-era security services, potentially forcing him to resign. The finding was under appeal at year’s end. The judge, Trendafil Ivanovski, had recently faced sharp criticism for a series of judgments that went against the ruling coalition. Also during the year, a new automated case-management system published roughly 34,000 decisions, promoting transparency in the judicial system, and some progress was made in reducing the courts’ case backlog. Prison conditions are generally unsatisfactory, with overcrowding and poor health care among the main concerns.
A law passed in April 2010 prohibited discrimination on a variety of grounds, but it did not include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, drawing criticism from the opposition and human rights groups.Homosexuals, Roma, and other vulnerable groups remain subject to societal discrimination.
While women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal attitudes limit women’s participation in nontraditional roles. In Albanian Muslim areas, many women are subjected to proxy voting by male relatives and are frequently denied access to education. Domestic violence and trafficking of women for forced labor and prostitution remain serious problems.