Let Them Eat Chocolate: A Very Macedonian Game of Thrones

Macedonia is a small European country located on the Balkan peninsula with a population of two million and a territory slightly larger than Vermont. Until 1991, Macedonia was part of communist Yugoslavia, and since independence, it has undergone a rough transition to an open market economy and democratic political system. In the past nine years, the right-wing party VMRO-DPMNE has been in office, and their politics have been described as conservative, nationalist and populist. Though the country is a candidate for membership in the European Union, Macedonia has been consistently criticized for its failure to protect freedom of expression and to uphold the separation between the judiciary system and executive power, among other indicators of poor accountability in governance. While the shortcomings of the government have been widely documented by the EU, recent information “bombs” by the opposition party paint a situation in Macedonia much worse than the EU reports could capture.

Over the past decade, VMRO-DPMNE has meticulously built a clientele of party loyalists and political opportunists. The quid-pro-quo situation that the government offers is political support and votes in return for things like employment in the public sector, subsidies, political protection or, as it turns out, just to be spared from the government’s vengeful wrath. With a very organized party mechanism, VMRO-DPMNE has managed to win every election since 2006 despite their overtly corrupt and shady tactics.

Since the last parliamentary elections in April 2014, the opposition coalition led by the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) has refused to enter the Parliament, claiming that the government has committed serious election fraud. SDSM demands reform and democratization of the “kidnapped institutions” by the government before fair and democratic elections can be held. Unsurprisingly, VMRO-DPMNE has completely ignored this request, claiming they have been legitimately elected. In the fall of 2014 the opposition leader Zoran Zaev warned that SDSM would release a political “bomb” whose detonation would reveal all of the government’s dirty laundry.

However, in February of this year, Zaev and three other people were indicted for espionage and treason, the main accusation being that they have collaborated with “foreign secret services” to undermine the stability of the state. The pro-government media and their propaganda machine have aggressively tried to sell this story of the opposition leader being a traitor to the nation for wanting to topple a legitimately chosen government in an undemocratic way. While the government has on many occasions used the term “foreign secret services,” they have never provided any evidence nor mentioned what country Mr. Zaev has collaborated with or how Macedonia will change its relationship with that country. Many analysts have pointed out how the tone of this propaganda, deriding foreign “enemies” and internal “traitors,” is in accord with the language of historical political projects.

The government has been relatively mum about these leaks. They held a few press conferences during which they used the vague terms “created” or “selective” to refer to the audio tapes, but never denied their authenticity.

Soon after the indictment of Zaev, SDSM started the project “Truth for Macedonia,” releasing audio-taped materials of conversations. During the first “bomb,” SDSM claimed that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his cousin, the director of the state intelligence DBK Sasho Mijalkov, have illegally followed and listened to the conversations of over 20,000 citizens, not only their political opponents, but also journalists, their own ministers and members of the parliament, foreign ambassadors and many other people that they considered a possible “threat.” The opposition claimed that all of the conversations they have acquired were given to somebody from within the Macedonian secret services. SDSM has dropped a “bomb” every few days ever since, with each one being more scandalous than the previous one.

The exposed conversations revealed a wide range of scandals. One was dedicated to showing how the government controls the judiciary system and the media, revealing how government ministers would call the public prosecutor to decide in their favor, and others would call the most-watched news network to order a story. The next “bombs” revealed a vengeful government, wherein ministers frame political opponents of crimes and destroy the lives of people who disagree with their politics by firing them from their public administration jobs, threatening to “throw people’s entire families in a ditch” or setting their restaurants on fire. One of the “bombs” focused exclusively on the economic state of Macedonia. It showed conversations between the minister of finance and the minister of internal affairs criticizing the prime minister for forcing them to get more loans to cover the budget’s deficit even though the country cannot afford it. The minister of finance says that “America would’ve bankrupted us by now” and “We are insane! We don’t have [money] for bread, but we are spending on chocolate.” The latest set of bombs is related to election fraud: stealing ballots, falsifying IDs, voting on behalf of deceased people, pressuring people to not only vote but also bring a certain number of votes to the party, cutting electricity so seniors cannot use elevators to vote against them and violating many other principles of fair and democratic elections.

The government has been relatively mum about these leaks. They held a few press conferences during which they used the vague terms “created” or “selective” to refer to the audio tapes, but never denied their authenticity. The government has furthermore appealed to their loyalists to be patient and called for a resolution in the state courts, a process that would be questionable unless monitored by the international community. Meanwhile, the propagandist fear mongering about a state coup is still very prevalent in the government agencies.

On the other hand, the opposition is relatively calm and confident. They’ve demanded a technical government that would be made up of all parties in Macedonia and a period of transition time for the institutions to be brought back to normalcy before elections can be held again. Although they fear that the democratization and normalization of Macedonia would be a rough process, they are optimistic for the future. The government, however, is still holding onto power, claiming that they are legitimately elected with the people’s will.

The outcome is still very unclear. Macedonia is divided, now more than ever. The supporters of VMRO-DPMNE still hope that the party won’t lose its grip on power, while the critics and independent voters are increasingly outraged. BDI, the Albanian coalition partner of VMRO-DPMNE, has remained mainly absent from this scandal. However, they could call the shots and back out from the government, effectively making it illegitimate. The international community is also growing more alarmed with the political situation in Macedonia every day, and it seems very likely that it would want to oversee the judicial process and the court rulings. In that case, the probability of having a technical government is high. Meanwhile, there are more “bombs” to come, and the Macedonian public is anxiously awaiting the next scandal.