Freedom in the World
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Credible allegations of a massive, government-sponsored wiretapping and surveillance program that emerged in 2015 prompted a crisis that has paralyzed normal political activity and given way to regular antigovernment demonstrations. An internationally backed special prosecutor tasked with investigating the wiretapping scandal has made some progress, but faces interference.
- Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski resigned in January as part of an internationally brokered political deal that envisioned snap elections later in the year.
- Gruevski’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) narrowly won snap elections that were held in December after a series of delays. While an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission deemed the polls “competitive,” they were marked by an atmosphere of mistrust, and serious irregularities were reported.
- Though it faced obstruction by police, domestic prosecutors, and the president, a special prosecutor appointed by local and international authorities to investigate the revelations of the wiretapping program made some progress.
- In December, the Public Revenue Office said it would increase financial inspections of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in what was seen as an attempt to place pressure on groups critical of the VMRO-DPMNE.
Following the 2015 revelation of a massive wiretapping and surveillance program—allegedly directed by Gruevski’s administration and operated by the secret service— Macedonia saw months of protests against the VMRO-DPMNE–led government and the wholesale interruption of normal parliamentary activity. The intervention of U.S. and European mediators somewhat stabilized the situation, and eventually led to the resignation of Gruevski in a January 2016 deal that envisioned snap elections being held by mid-April. The elections were twice delayed after the opposition indicated it would not participate, citing excessive government influence on the media and problems with voter rolls. Following a June 2016 deal designed to address opposition concerns, the elections were finally held in December, and resulted in a narrow VMRO-DPMNE victory. However, domestic monitors raised serious issues with the voter rolls. An OSCE monitoring mission voiced similar concerns, noted instances of voter intimidation, and concluded that the polls were marked by “a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment.” No new government had been formed at year’s end.
Meanwhile, police and domestic prosecutors obstructed the work of a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the wiretapping scandal. In April 2016, the president pardoned dozens of people being investigated. The move prompted mass protests, and the pardons were later rescinded.
The country’s crisis of governance continued to spur civil society activity in 2016, with a wave of civil disobedience by opposition supporters being dubbed the “Colorful Revolution,” after the protestors’ propensity to pelt government buildings and riot police with paint-filled balloons.
Separately, there has been little headway in illuminating the events of April and May 2015, when clashes between government security forces and purported ethnic Albanian militants at a border crossing and the town of Kumanovo left at least 20 gunmen and police dead. Allegations that the VMRO-DMPNE somehow orchestrated the events in order to draw attention away from the wiretapping scandal continue to hang over the incidents, which served as a worrying reminder of cleavages that exist between the country’s ethnic Albanian minority and ethnic Macedonia majority. However, antigovernment demonstrations have been multiethnic, and notably, in December, two ethnic Albanians were elected to the legislature as members of a party traditionally dominated by ethnic Macedonians.
Members of the unicameral, 120-seat Assembly are elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. The Assembly elects the prime minister, who holds most executive power. The president is elected to a five-year term through a direct popular vote. Most postindependence elections have met international standards, although following the outbreak of the wiretapping scandal in 2015, Macedonia authorities struggled to organize the snap polls mandated by an internationally brokered political deal. They were finally held in December 2016, following another internationally backed political deal designed to address opposition concerns about voter rolls and media coverage of the campaign.
Days ahead of the polls, domestic election monitors noted that the names of so-called phantom voters remained on electoral rolls, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the entire exercise, and the subsequent results. While the elections took place on December 11, the opposition demanded a recount, and final results were not released until late in the month. The VMRO-DPMNE–led bloc won 51 seats in the assembly (down from 61 previously), while the opposition coalition led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) secured 49. The remaining 20 seats were split among four ethnic Albanian parties, with the VMRO-DPMNE–aligned Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) winning 10 seats, the upstart Besa Movement winning 5, the newly formed Alliance for Albanians (AS) winning 3, and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) winning 2. A new government had not yet formed by year’s end. An OSCE monitoring mission deemed the polls “competitive,” but said issues with the media and voter rolls had “yet to be addressed in a sustainable manner,” noted instances of voter intimidation, and concluded that the polls were marked by “a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment.”
Some of the wiretapped conversations released by the opposition in 2015 appeared to indicate that senior VMRO-DPMNE figures had engaged in election fraud during both the 2013 local and 2014 parliamentary elections, and these concerns likewise clouded the 2016 results. The parliament adopted a number of changes to the electoral code in November 2015 as part of an EU-backed political agreement, addressing key opposition concerns.
The constitution protects the right to establish and join political parties. The center-right VMRO-DPMNE has won every parliamentary election since 2006, ruling in coalition with a number of parties representing ethnic minorities. The left-leaning SDSM held power through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, and is currently the leading opposition party. It has boycotted the parliament on several occasions in recent years over claims of electoral fraud and issues related to the wiretap scandal.
Ethnic Albanians make up about 25 percent of the population. A political party representing Albanians has sat in each ruling coalition, and certain types of legislation must pass with a majority of legislators from both major ethnic groups in the Assembly. Notably, two incoming lawmakers with the traditionally Macedonian-dominated SDSM are Albanian, a new development in a party system that has been dominated by ethnic-based or nationalist options. Macedonians living abroad can elect up to three Assembly members.
Politically fraught violence between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians erupts occasionally, though there were no such incidents reported in 2016. Recent antigovernment protests have generally been multiethnic in character.
The continuing political crisis has given rise to severe gridlock in democratic processes and the operations of elected officials. While mediation efforts by the United States and EU have eased tensions in the country, Macedonia is still fundamentally in crisis.
Corruption is a serious problem. While anticorruption legislation is in place, and measures to clarify party funding and prevent conflicts of interest have been strengthened, implementation is weak. Graft and misconduct are widespread in public procurement. The Public Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and Corruption suffers from low administrative capacity.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press. However, Macedonian media are subject to political pressure and harassment, resulting in self-censorship. The arrest in April 2016 and continued detention of Zoran Božinovski, a reporter critical of the government, has drawn condemnation from local and international observers. Wiretap recordings released by the opposition in 2015 appeared to reveal conversations between high-level government functionaries and the staff of several major television stations—including the public broadcaster and Sitel, a private, pro-government television station with national reach—indicating that the government was directly influencing editorial policies. Internet access is unrestricted.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. A long-standing dispute between the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church and the canonically recognized Serbian Orthodox Church remains unresolved. Islamophobia is present in the rhetoric of politicians and in public discourse.
Although academic freedom is generally unrestricted, the education system is weak by European standards. Textbooks barely cover the postindependence period, primarily because ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians interpret the 2001 civil conflict differently. Increasingly, schools are becoming ethnically segregated.
Space for free private discussion contracted in the wake of the opposition’s credible allegations of widespread government wiretapping and monitoring of private citizens, journalists, politicians, and religious leaders.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Mass antigovernment protests, led by student and opposition figures, continued throughout 2016. The protests have sometimes given way to property damage, and are typically monitored by riot police.
NGOs have generally operated freely but the VMRO-DPMNE has increasingly characterized groups that challenge it as enemies of the state. In December 2016, Macedonia’s public revenue office announced that it would increase financial inspections of NGOs, in what was widely seen as an attempt to place pressure on critical groups.
Workers may organize and bargain collectively, though trade unions lack stable financing and skilled managers, and journalists have reportedly been fired for their union activities. The informal and grey economy is large, leaving many workers vulnerable to abuses by employers.
While Macedonia has carried out comprehensive reforms of the judiciary over the past decade, fundamental problems remain, including concerns over the weak independence of the Constitutional Court. While the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the wiretap allegations has begun formally charging public officials with wrongdoing, movement remains slow and uneven, in part due to efforts to obstruct the office’s operations. In April 2016, President Gjorge Ivanov ordered that the office cease operations and pardoned dozens of people it was investigating—most of whom were affiliated with the VMRO-DPMNE—prompting widespread protests. The pardons were later revoked. However, the Special Prosecutor’s Office continued to face obstruction, including difficulties collecting evidence from police and in taking over cases from the Macedonian prosecutor’s office.
While trials for the suspected militants behind the 2015 violence in Kumanovo have begun, many residents and civil society observers of the proceedings continued to express doubts as to the veracity of government claims, and the fairness of the trials themselves. No such violence was repeated in 2016.
Roma, ethnic Albanians, and other vulnerable groups face discrimination. Minority groups have criticized the ongoing Skopje 2014 urban development plan, arguing that its themes ignore their heritage and present a monoethnic image of the country. Rights groups and others have condemned Macedonian police for numerous instances of violence against refugees passing through Macedonia on their way to locations to the country’s north.
A 2010 antidiscrimination law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) sentiment is widespread.
Travel and movement are generally unrestricted. Membership in a party within the ruling coalition is often an informal precondition for employment in the public sector. While the government has streamlined procedures to launch a business, licensing fees can be prohibitively expensive. Unemployment has been estimated at about 27 percent, but the actual figure may be smaller given Macedonia’s sizeable shadow economy.
In 2014, the VMRO-DPMNE proposed a constitutional amendment that would narrow the definition of marriage, making it applicable only to a relationship between a man and a woman. The parliament voted to approve the amendment in January 2015, and took further steps to complicate the possibility of future civil-union legislation being enacted. LGBT issues and people, however, have gained increased visibility during the course of the ongoing antigovernment demonstrations.
While women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, societal attitudes limit their participation in non-traditional roles, and women rarely participate in local politics. In Albanian Muslim areas, many women are subject to proxy voting by male relatives. In the December 2016 election, 38 women were elected to the legislature. Despite the ongoing implementation of a strategy against domestic violence, it remains a serious problem, as does the trafficking of women for forced labor and sex work.