Last month, the International Crisis Group released a report on Macedonia marking the 10th anniversary of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which put an end to months of fighting between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in 2001.

The ICG’s reports are almost always more absorbing than your average policy paper because they often include quotes, in footnotes, that cut to the heart of an issue.

This time, a comment from an unnamed diplomat in Skopje caught my eye. “The government pretends they reform, and the EU pretends to believe them,” he or she said, adding that the EU cannot afford to give up on Macedonia, because “it had invested too much.”

Not that the report argued that any progress in Macedonia had been a sham. On the contrary, it noted that relations between Albanians and Macedonians are generally peaceable, though not without friction; the conduct of the latest elections was generally commendable; and the country has a good framework for ethnic integration, even it it’s not fully implemented.

But the report takes note of some troubling trends, most of which TOL has covered: the rise of nationalism, creeping autocracy, an increasingly hollowed-out media, and economic stagnation (it cites World Bank figures that put the country’s growth rate since 2005 behind that of every other country in the Balkans).

I have long wondered how these trends can be squared with the government’s professed eagerness to join the EU. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Quoting the ICG:

The government consistently says that European integration is its highest priority, points to its rigorous alignment of laws with the EU acquis communitaire, and proposes that the screening of its legislation, the next step in the accession process, start even if full negotiations cannot yet begin. But domestic and international observers are not fully persuaded. In the past two years, Macedonia has slipped back in the implementation of its EU reform agenda, especially with regards to the political criteria for candidacy: independence of the judiciary, reform of public
administration, freedom of expression in the media and inter-party political dialogue.

In the meantime, Skopje spends 250 million to 300 million euros on a project to remake the capital into a neoclassical and baroque theme park, which leaves the quarter of the country’s population that is Albanian feeling more disconnected. It also irritates Greece, which in itself is no reason not to do it, but does complicate Macedonia’s prospects for EU and NATO entry. Which in turn further frustrates some Albanians, who want to be part of the EU and have no dog in the fight over the name Macedonia.

As the ICG puts it:

If it were only a misguided urban renewal project with nationalist overtones, this would be excusable, but it is more than that. It represents for many a nationalist vision of the state that leaves little room for minorities, especially Albanians – and alienates those many Macedonians who do not share it either. The project has nothing to do with an EU future and, by gratuitously provoking Greece, is actively postponing it.

Which is not to say that the report “sides” with Greece on the name issue: it calls on Athens to “recognize the national identity and language of its northern neighbor as ‘Macedonian’ ” but also on Skopje to be, well, less in Greece’s face about it.

I’ve met plenty of smart and generous people on my visits to Macedonia. As a journalist, I tend to meet the type who are trying to make some broken system work better, maybe trying to get a business off the ground, or just trying to survive (sadly, some of them haven’t). They have little time for these sideshows and they all deserve better than this backsliding.

As others have said, sometimes the power of the EU is greatest when a country is not part of the bloc – when a potential candidate has to work hard to raise standards and clean house. So if Skopje doesn’t feel all that motivated now, when will it?

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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