In June 2020, a court in North Macedonia handed down sentences for two high-profile defendants: nine years in jail for flamboyant TV personality Bojan Jovanovski, commonly known as Boki 13, and seven years for former special prosecutor Katica Janeva. The case, known as the “Racket Affair,” centered around accusations of corruption and extortion. And despite its eccentric details, the Racket Affair stands as a stark reminder of the flaws in North Macedonia’s young democracy.
The Republic of Macedonia, a small Balkan country of 1.8 million people, emerged as an independent nation in 1991 following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. “North” was added to the name in 2019 to resolve a decades-long dispute with neighboring Greece. Governed by a parliamentary system, North Macedonia is classified as a “transitional or hybrid regime” by Freedom House. That classification indicates a democracy that is functional but flawed.
Elections in North Macedonia, particularly in recent years, are viewed by Freedom House as free, fair, and competitive. Although some shortcomings exist, government on the national level functions in a mostly democratic fashion. Much of North Macedonia’s “hybrid regime” status is driven not by ballot stuffing or authoritarian-minded leaders, but by a pervasive culture of government corruption.
This corruption burst into the national spotlight in 2015, when then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was accused by opposition leaders of orchestrating an illegal wiretapping campaign that targeted 20,000 North Macedonians. The scandal brought down Gruevski’s government. As part of a deal struck with the European Union, the subsequent administration agreed to create a Special Prosecutor’s Office tasked with investigating wrongdoing related to the “Wiretap Affair.”
Katica Janeva, the now-jailed prosecutor, was tapped to lead the SPO, and her office brought more than ninety charges related to the Wiretap Affair. Although there were accusations of partisan discrimination levied against Janeva, the SPO appeared to be leading a satisfactory investigation – that is, until Boki 13, a TV celebrity who became famous as a cross-dresser on the Serbian version of the show “Big Brother,” was apprehended at the Greek border with a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with €1.5 million cash, equivalent to about $1.68 million.
The scandal that followed, dubbed the Racket Affair, revealed just how deep corruption runs in the North Macedonian government. Janeva, in her role as Special Prosecutor, had levied charges of money laundering and fraud against Jordan Orce Kamchev, the wealthiest man in North Macedonia. Boki 13, through his relationships with both Janeva and Kamchev, offered a deal: Janeva would significantly reduce the charges against Kamchev if Kamchev agreed to pay Boki 13 €1.5 million.
Once the existence of this extortion racket was revealed, Janeva and Boki 13 were quickly brought to trial and convicted, but the damage from this and other scandals was done. Fully 70% of North Macedonians distrust their government, courts, and public prosecutors. Only 3% of North Macedonians “fully trust” the courts. That number is 4% for the state anti-corruption agency, 6% for parliament, and 12% for the president, making him the most trusted figure in North Macedonian politics. Deep distrust in even the president is striking – as a parliamentary democracy, the president has little more than a ceremonial role in North Macedonian government.
Endemic corruption on this scale has serious implications for the future of North Macedonian democracy. Most obviously, when decisions by public officials are made on the basis of personal gain, not public interest, the basic structure of democracy begins to break down. Representative democracies are predicated on the notion that elected representatives serve the interests of their constituents while in office, and corruption fundamentally degrades this relationship.
Less apparent, but equally disturbing, are the effects that this corruption-driven erosion of trust may have on the overall political environment of North Macedonia. Low public trust in government and institutions creates fertile ground for populist sentiments and politicians to grow. Positioning themselves as anti-establishment “champions of the people,” populists thrive when they can easily cast their opponents as members of a corrupt and ineffective elite.
This story has played out all over the democratic world. In the U.S., Donald Trump capitalized on anti-establishment sentiments to propel him to his shocking victory in 2016. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro rose to power after public trust in the government was eroded by that nation’s Car Wash scandal. In Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, Poland, the pattern is the same – low faith in government gives room for populists to maneuver. Given North Macedonians’ rock-bottom trust in their government and institutions, the emergence of a strong populist party would be unsurprising.
Populists, once in power, often turn their authority into an instrument of democratic decline. Populist parties around the globe have a track record of disregarding democratic norms and values, altering or abolishing checks on their authority, stacking government institutions with party loyalists, and “othering” their opposition – casting political opponents as enemies of the people instead of legitimate democratic alternatives. Consider Donald Trump’s explicit use of the phrase “enemies of the people” to describe hostile media outlets, or Poland’s Law and Justice Party fundamentally restructuring that nation’s court system to neuter opposition judges.
The Racket Affair served as a stark reminder of the corruption that runs rampant through the North Macedonian government. On its own, that corruption is a threat to democracy, encouraging lawmakers and government officials to act in their own interests rather than the public’s. Potentially more alarming, however, is the damage this corruption has dealt to the public’s trust in their government. The political environment in North Macedonia is ripe for a dangerous populist party – only time will tell if one emerges.