Throughout the late 20th and 21st centuries, a worrying trend has emerged in global politics, referred to as democratic erosion. Even large liberal democracies like the United States have not been immune to these problems. Covid 19 has substantially exacerbated these issues. However, one small country in the Balkans has managed to reverse the effects of democratic erosion and even increase its standing on the international stage, North Macedonia. In 2015, North Macedonia was under the control of illiberal leader prime minister Nikola Gruevski. However, due to political actors and activists’ collaboration, North Macedonia has seen a significant increase in its democratic rating.
North Macedonia first gained its independence in 1991 from the former state of Yugoslavia. After its inception, it saw large gains in its democratic values. However, in the later parts of the 2000s, illiberalism became a dominant force in North Macedonian politics. The reason for this rise in illiberal politics is twofold. First, ethnic tension between the majority Macedonians and minority Albanians, the latter of which was often used as a scapegoat by the elites of North Macedonia. The second was a high level of political fatigue and mistrust of politicians. These factors led in 2006 to the election of right-wing populist leader prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who used a nationalist authoritarian platform to rise to power with his party, The Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity.  Under his regime, the country saw a major regression from liberal democracy exemplified by increased persecution of the Albanian people, high levels of intolerance toward the LGBTQ community, an increase of police activity, extrajudicial detainment of perceived threats, and the lowest level of freedom of the press in the area. However, due to the hard work of many activists, legal experts, and political actors, there has been significant change since 2014. 
The first step towards democratic restoration in North Macedonia began in 2014 with protests led primarily by students and later professors against oppressive new regulations on universities. While these protests were initially small and were primarily focused on a slight niche issue, the anti-regime protest soon began to grow. The reason for this growth was the pardoning of several powerful government officials who had been abusing their power and were known to be corrupt.  These protests escalated significantly when the opposition party, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, led by Zoran Zaev produced proof that Nikola Gruevski and his regime had been spying on notable public figures, such as politicians and journalists. However, the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity did not attempt to make the situation better. Nikola Gruevski refused to step down, and they brought legal action against Zoran Zaev, which amounted to treason charges.  Tensions continued to escalate throughout the next two years with Nikola Gruevski and his regime continuously increasing the civil unrest by pivoting away from the E.U. and western superpower and toward Russian and deepening existing racial tensions. 
These factors brought on more protests, led partly by Zoran Zaev, which soon became a daily occurrence in most major cities. The citizens started using paint bombs as a form of peaceful political protest, thus naming the movement “the color revolution”. As the movement against the regime continued to grow, it gave people a long-needed feeling of political agency.  Fortunately for this troubled country, hope was on the horizon. With the civil unrest in the region continuing to grow in June of 2015, the E.U. with the help of the U.S. was able to help reach a peace agreement between the two sides, which required the nation to hold a free and fair election in April of 2016. 
In the lead-up to the election, Zoran Zaev and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia party ran on a campaign of social justice for all citizens and unity, with their slogan being “Life for everyone.” In the aftermath of the election, The Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity was only able to retain 51 seats out of 120 seats requiring a coalition. However, due to the toxicity of the party, especially toward the Albanian minority group, they were unable to form a coalition with any of the other parties. This meant that the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia was able to take power in a coalition with two minority Albanian national parties. Simultaneously in 2015, prosecutors in the north of the country began to prepare cases against members of the Nikola Gruevski government for the illegal wiretapping which they brought to trial in 2017. The trial resulted in six members and the former intelligence chief, Goran Grujevski, being convicted. This helped to cement the restoration of democracy in the country. While there was some mild violence and an invasion of the capitol building after the election, pressures from the E.U and other western powers finally forced Nikola Gruevski to accept the result of the election. 
After the defeat of Nikola Gruevski, the country saw a significant increase in its democratic standing and its international reputation. In 2014, its freedom of the press was rated as 123rd country out of 180 by the World Press Freedom Index compared to 109th in 2018 one year after the new government took power.  In 2018, the government made a landmark deal with Greece  that paved the way for it to become the 30th nato member in March of 2020 . Furthermore, according to Freedom House, in 2021, North Macedonia’s democratic score increased from 3.75 to 3.82, and its electoral process increased by 4.25 to 4.50 during its parliamentary election in July. This happened despite the fact that most other democracies have seen significant democratic backsliding due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
So how has this small land-locked country succeeded where so many others have failed? The simple answer is that it was the social cohesion among political actors, legal experts, and activists. What started as a small student protest was able to absorb other movements and issues to fight for a single cause in the improvement of liberal democracy in North Macedonia. With the added help of Zoran Zaev and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, this movement achieved results not often seen in this region of the world.
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