Murder cover-ups. Bribes. Corruption. Governmental dissolution. These are the issues that Macedonia faced in 2015, following the country’s greatest political upheaval and democratic degradation since 2001. However, the turmoil may blaze a path to democracy.
Since 2001, when the Albanian National Liberation Army attacked Macedonian security forces in an attempt to gain greater political representation, Macedonia has been experiencing a slow democratic backslide. A particular drop in the quality of democracy occurred in 2015 when the government all but ceased to function.
In 2015, the political progress Macedonia had made since 2001, crumbled. The leftist opposition to the VMRO-DPMNE conservative party in power released “bombs,” or snippets, of 670,000 incriminating conversations from more than 20,000 telephone numbers. The conversations were recorded secretly by the government and then released to the public by alleged “patriotic civil servants.”
The recordings showcased pervasive levels of corruption throughout the government. Journalists, judges, foreign ambassadors, activists, and high-level officials all make appearances discussing corruption, election fraud, government manipulation of the media and the judiciary, and a murder cover-up. The revelation resulted in the resignations of many important governmental officials, including the nationalist prime minister: Nikola Gruevski.
How could so much corruption have gone unchecked for so long? The answer is democratic erosion in governmental agencies, the executive body, and the judiciary.
In 2015, it became clear that the institutions in place to prevent corruption were not functioning correctly. The agencies had become weak due to years of democratic erosion in which the executive body sought to remove power from major governmental checks.
The State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPS), Macedonia’s primary means for uncovering corruption before 2015, demonstrated a long-standing inability to execute an effective response to low levels of pervasive corruption. Why? Structural shortcomings, political interference, and an absence of investigative powers. For example, the SCPC is not able to conduct its own research; it must rely on other agencies to look into issues on its behalf.
Governmental agencies with an inability to conduct an independent investigation without influence from other government bodies are ineffective bulwarks against corruption.
Unchecked executive power:
What truly sent Macedonia into political crisis was how the executive body chose to address the corruption.
In 2016, President Gjorge Ivanov abruptly ended the government’s investigation into the corruption unveiled in the recordings. The president disregarded an agreement made between Macedonia and European mediators issued after the scandal in an attempt to restore peace. The agreement asked the four major political parties to allow a special prosecutor to investigate the fraud and possibly issue criminal charges. The leaders agreed, but President Ivanov promptly issued a blanket pardon to anyone involved in the wiretapping scandal and halted the investigation. 56 individuals, mainly politicians in the ruling party and their collaborators, were cleared of all charges.
The unchecked executive body clearly demonstrated the government’s inability to limit the power of the president.
Lack of an independent judiciary:
President Ivanov was only able to issue a blanket pardon with help from the judiciary.
Before the individuals were pardoned, the Constitutional Court declared certain articles of the Law on Pardons unconstitutional. These abolished laws were intended to restrict the president’s ability to call for sweeping pardons. The president was then given the immense power to pardon whomever he pleased.
The court’s decision was aided by the basic courts as well as the already existing Public Prosecutor’s Office (ЈО). The erosion in Macedonia had become so great that the main judiciary agencies were unable to protect against corruption.
This scandal is unique compared to other unveilings of corruption. Like many cases of pervasive governmental corruption, democratic erosion was the main cause. However, after severely degrading the independence of the government for two years, the scandal has actually put Macedonia on a path towards democracy.
The wiretapping allowed the government’s deceit and lies to bubble to the surface. Once the corruption was out in the open, Macedonia was held accountable through displays of successful public protest, the removal of two powerful nationalist leaders, and the creation of Macedonia’s Special Public Prosecutor’s Office (SJO).
Successful public protests:
The presidential pardons incited largely peaceful and ongoing protests to occur throughout Macedonia, later dubbed the “Colorful Revolution.”
The public pressure forced the president to overturn his pardons. The criminal investigations were then able to proceed. The “Colorful Revolution” demonstrated the public’s increasing role in resolving political issues.
Removal of leaders:
The wiretapping scandal marked the first change in power in 11 years.
After the mass protests, the president of Macedonia was forced to resign and give up the position he had been using for personal gain.
Under Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s rule, Macedonia morphed from a fragile democracy into an authoritarian state. Gruevski’s reign remained unchallenged until 2014. But, after the wiretapping scandal, accusations of corruption, criminal charges, and protests broke his ironclad grip on power. Although Gruevski refused to resign for over a year, he recently removed himself from office. Gruevski currently awaits trial on corruption charges.
Two major unchallenged leaders, intent on degrading Macedonia’s democracy, were removed as a result of the scandal. Thus, the way was paved for new, possibly truly democratic, leaders to hold the high-level positions.
The outcome that appears most beneficial to democracy is the creation of Macedonia’s Special Public Prosecutor’s Office (SJO).
The SJO was created during the aforementioned European-mediated agreement, for the purpose of investigating the wiretapping scandal and pressing criminal charges.
Unfortunately, the SJO has been impeded by a multitude of road blocks. In 2016, the SJO was hindered by the failures of other judicial organs to cooperate with the agency. Furthermore, other agencies meant to handle corruption issues, such as the JO (Public Prosecutor’s Office) and Council of Public Prosecutors, did not cooperate on certain cases. The SJO faced continuous verbal attacks and public smears from the ruling party and pro-government media sources.
The SJO has faced obstruction and hostility at every turn. Yet, in the early stages of its investigations, it has still managed to produce tangible results and hold many government officials accountable.
The SJO has charged more than 90 people, including members of the political elite, with corruption. Former Prime Minister Gruevski is included on the list.
After only a year and a half in existence, the SJO became the most trusted of all the judicial agencies, surpassing the JO and the court system.
The SJO appears to be an independent agency, bringing justice to the democratically degraded political climate in Macedonia. It may be a sign of hope for the country. However, the results of the criminal charges will show Macedonia, and the international community, whether or not the SJO can produce accountability under the law.
After the 2015 wiretapping scandal, Macedonia’s government fell into complete turmoil. However, the turmoil may have been exactly what the country needed to create a space where corruption could come to the surface and be addressed.
“Photo by BBC, “The Macedonian Government has Faced Protests in Recent Weeks” (EPA), Creative Commons Zero license.”